Four years ago, a star-studded Capitals team grossly underachieved and was broken up, piece by piece. Caps general manager George McPhee offered to send Kolzig to another NHL club, somewhere where he might have a chance to win a Stanley Cup title. Kolzig declined. He told McPhee he wanted to stay.
Not long after the start of the 2005-06 season, Kolzig gave further affirmation to his desire to remain and rebuild with Washington when he signed a contract extension that runs through the end of the current season. Now that some of the Capitals’ promising young talents have been augmented with the addition of a few veteran free agents, Kolzig believes his decision to stay and try to win the Cup in the District is a good one.
“To add these other quality players, it’s a great feeling,” he says. “It kind of justifies why I stayed, because I honestly did believe that eventually we were going to be a competitive team again and I wanted to be part of the turnaround and I want to be part of hopefully a Stanley Cup winner here in Washington. To play your whole career and to win that championship is obviously my ultimate goal, and to do it with one team, that is the ultimate story.
“We’ve gone through some growing pains the last couple of years and I think we’re all anxious to see what we’re all about this year.”
That ultimate story still has a few chapters to run, and Kolzig believes he can remain at the top of his game for a while longer.
“I’m a vintage car; I can keep going,” he quips. “I feel good. I worked out hard this summer. The older you get the harder it is to maintain the level you that had when you were 25 years old. You almost have to work out twice as hard. But now that the summer is done and we’re getting back to playing hockey, my enthusiasm and my energy level is at an all-time high. I feel great. My body feels fine and the mind this year feels good, too. With the potential talent that we have going on the ice this year, it gives you a little bit of peace of mind. It’s not that, ‘Tonight’s going to be a long night, but get through it, there are better days ahead.’
“These are the better days. Now there’s that optimism and enthusiasm that maybe I haven’t had the last couple of years.”
Not only has Kolzig been with the Caps for more than half of the franchise’s lifespan, he’s been a member of the organization for nearly half of his own life. During that time he has seen a lot of players come and go, and he has witnessed a lot of change on and off the ice.
One of those changes is a recent one that he believes might help keep his game sharp for a while longer. Last season, the Capitals moved into their brand new state-of-the-art training facility, the Kettler Capitals Iceplex.
“That’s the other thing,” he says happily. “Finally we’ve got a training facility that, being 37, you cherish those hot tubs in the morning to get the body loosened up and getting on the bike and stretching on carpet and all the stuff that you kind of take for granted.
“Last year, we were kind of vagabonds as far as practice facilities go. We just went to whatever was available. We didn’t have the cushy comforts that we have here. That says a lot about the team we had last year. We didn’t really complain too much. We just went on the ice and did our job. Not to say that this is going to spoil us, but it’s going to put us in better physical condition to go on the ice and compete. We’ve got a first-rate workout facility where guys can maintain their strength throughout the season. We didn’t have that last year, and it also might have been a reason why we kind of faded at the end. We just didn’t have the physical strength that we did at the beginning of the season. But we’ve got no excuses this year.”
The new digs suit Kolzig fine, and they came along at a time in his career when he needs them a lot more than he once did.
“Before, I’d just come to the rink with a coffee, sit in the middle of the room, stretch, put my gear on and go,” he recalls. “Now, I’ve got to come in, I’ve got to sit in the hot tub, I’ve got to get a massage, I’ve got to ride the bike, I’ve got to stretch, I’ve got to stretch again. So the process is a lot longer. But like I said, the workouts in the summer really are the grind for me because I’ve got kids now. I’m not 25 when I was single and all I worried about was golf. I’ve got kids now so I’ve got other interests that I’m pursuing. You’re getting pulled in all these different directions yet you still have to work out twice as hard as you did when you were younger. The summer does become a grind, especially for us since we were done at the beginning of April. It becomes a long summer. Hopefully we can eliminate that this year and get playing up until June and have less of a summer to work out. It becomes less of a grind.”
The regular season can also reasonably be expected to be less of a grind for Kolzig this season. With his age increasing by one each season, you might expect the workhorse netminder’s games played totals to dwindle a bit, as they’ve done every year since he manned the pipes for a career high 73 games during that Vezina campaign of 1999-00. But Kolzig doesn’t necessarily buy that.
“I don’t think so,” he says. “I don’t think it’s going to be any different. A lot of that is going to depend on [backup goaltender Brent Johnson’s] play. If he continues to play the way he has, I might play 50 and he might play 30. It all depends.
“Obviously when your partner is playing good, the coach has the luxury of giving the No. 1 guy more nights off. And it bodes well for the team when you’ve got two guys that can go out there on any given night and give the guys the opportunity to win. The worst-case scenario is when you’ve got a starter and you’re leery to put the backup in because you don’t know what you’re going to get. You saw what happened with New Jersey last year. Marty Brodeur had a terrific season but he ran out of gas in the playoffs. The older you get, obviously that becomes [more of] a concern.
“Personally, I really enjoy playing. I feel that the more I play, the better I get and the more of a rhythm I stay in. I worked hard this summer and I feel my conditioning is as good as it has ever been. This year I am going to spend more time on in-season conditioning, which I haven’t really done in the past. Hopefully that will help me play as many games as I need to and to be effective in all the games I have to play.”
The early returns have been good. Kolzig pitched a shutout in his first start of the season, was named one of the game’s three stars in each of his first three starts and posted a 2.27 goals against average to go along with a .922 save pct. in his first four starts. It’s still very early in the campaign, but those numbers are vintage Kolzig. If he can maintain even a somewhat similar pace through the season, the Caps have a good chance of getting back to the playoffs for the first time in five years and Kolzig stands a good chance of recording his 300th career win later in 2007-08 (he’s at 278 at the moment).
The only former goaltender among the 30 NHL head coaches, Caps coach Glen Hanlon has a special bond with his veteran goaltender. Hanlon’s own playing career ended when he was still a few years younger than Kolzig is now, but the Washington netminder’s longevity is no surprise.
“Nothing surprises me with Olie,” declares Hanlon. “There is a real fire in his belly. You’ve seen a growth in him since he has been here at a very young age. I think the thing Olie looks at is that he is committed to this program, he has gone through a couple of hard years, he has been here when this organization was in the finals and I know how much he wants to get back there. He is a huge part of our success and we’re looking forward to riding him.”
The Caps rode Kolzig into the playoffs and all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals exactly 10 years ago. He was 12-9 with four shutouts and a league-leading 1.95 GAA and .941 save pct.
“I don’t have my name on that Cup yet,” says Kolzig, “so for me there is still that drive to get my name on there.”
Over the last few seasons, Kolzig has stated a desire to play until he is 40. If he is to achieve that goal, it would mean two more seasons beyond the current one. That would require a contract extension, something Kolzig believes will take care of itself.
“I’m not even really worried about that,” he says. “I think the way you play basically takes care of everything. If you play well, they’ll approach you with a contract. My focus right now is just to continue to play well and try to give the guys a chance to win every time I go on the ice. And then we’ll see where that takes us. My goal personally is to play until I’m 40; I don’t know what the organization’s goal is or things like that. I’m not too overly concerned about it.”
His willingness to stay and endure some difficult seasons was not lost on his Caps teammates, who would love nothing more than to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Caps’ lone trip to the finals with their first playoff berth since 2003.
“He’s put in that effort to our team,” says Caps captain Chris Clark. “He signed the contract to be here with us throughout this plan of rebuilding. That was a huge step getting him a part of this process. You see that now. He is really excited. And that includes everybody else. We want to get into this season and show everybody what we can do.”
When the Caps chose Kolzig with the 19th choice in the 1989 NHL Entry Draft, his goals were modest. Nearly two decades later, he trails only Colorado’s Joe Sakic and Dallas’ Mike Modano in terms of continuous service with one NHL organization.
“It’s unbelievable,” he admits, when asked about the feeling of being a Capital for half his life. “Back when I got drafted, I was just looking to get into one NHL game and I would have thought I accomplished something, let alone [be here] 18 years later. My approach has always been, ‘Don’t ever take anything for granted.’ I always have that feeling even now.
“Even though I have almost 700 games now in the league, I still feel like there is somebody out there trying to take my job and not to take anything for granted. Go out there and work hard and give it your all in games and in practice.”<< Part 1
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