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Kolzig is in for the Long Haul

by Staff Writer / Washington Capitals
On Oct. 11, 1989 the Washington Capitals traveled north to take on the Hartford Whalers at the Civic Center in Hartford. It was an unremarkable game in many ways, a 4-1 loss for Washington in its third game of the season, played in front of 10,812 spectators. What makes this game memorable is that the only teenager ever to play goal for the Caps made his NHL debut for Washington that night. His name: Olie Kolzig.

Of the 40 players who suited up for the two teams that night, Kolzig is the lone remaining player still active in the NHL. Hartford center Dean Evason, who assisted on the game’s first goal that night – the first of 1,548 allowed by Kolzig in the NHL – is now a Capitals’ assistant coach. Kolzig’s opponent in the Hartford net was Mike Liut, now a player agent.

alt Nearly 17 years after that first NHL appearance, Kolzig is expected to start the Capitals’ 2006-07 season opener in New York on Thursday. At 36, he is now the oldest player on a predominantly youthful Caps team.

“It’s amazing how fast it has gone, “ he marvels. “It just feels like yesterday that I went with the guys right after I got drafted to Russia for training camp. I spent the first few years in the minors and it doesn’t seem like so long ago that we went to the [Stanley Cup] finals in 1998. I was talking to [head equipment manager Doug Shearer] today on the bench, and it is coming up on 10 years that we’ve been in this building. I still enjoy the game, I feel I am still very competitive and good at what I do and I will keep doing it until my body says I can’t or until I get my name on the Cup.”

Kolzig made only one other appearance for the Caps as a teenager, an 8-4 loss to Toronto on Oct. 21, Hockey Night in Canada. The 19-year-old netminder was returned to his junior team, Tri-Cities of the Western Hockey League, shortly thereafter.

It would be more than five years later before Kolzig would record his first NHL win. And it would be eight years later before Kolzig would take over as Washington’s No. 1 netminder. Kolzig was the first goaltender taken in the 1989 NHL Entry Draft, held in Bloomington, Minn. on June 17. There were only 21 NHL teams at the time, and George Bush the elder was just a couple months into his lone term as President of the United States. It was less than two weeks after the massacre at Tiananmen Square.

Washington’s young netminder had no idea he’d wind up staying with the Capitals’ organization for nearly half his life, and more than half the life of the Washington NHL franchise.

“At that time I didn’t put any expectations on myself as far as longevity,” he says. “I just wanted to make the NHL and at least play one game. There are a lot of guys who have been drafted who never got a chance to play.  I just wanted to have the opportunity to play one game and just see what happens.

“The first few years were pretty rough. I was up and down from the minors. I had one tremendous year in Rochester and the next year I moved to Portland. Those experiences down there really made me believe in myself. I knew that if the opportunity ever arose that I could play in this league for a while.”

After winning a Calder Cup championship with the AHL’s Portland Pirates in 1993-94, Kolzig finally logged his first NHL win on Jan. 27, 1995. He notched his first NHL shutout on Jan. 3, 1997. And he took over as the Capitals’ No. 1 netminder on opening night of the 1997-98 season. Starter Bill Ranford was felled by a shot to the grouin, and Kolzig played the last 40 minutes of the opener in Toronto that season. By the time Ranford returned to health a month or so later, Kolzig was firmly entrenched as the starter.

“I think when they brought [goaltending coach] Dave Prior on board [in 1996-97] it really turned things around for me,” says Kolzig. “Not so much technically, although he did refine my game a little bit. It was more the mental side of the game. I was a bit of a hothead, and I still am to an extent, but I channel my energies a little bit differently now. Back then I would let things affect me and not stay focused on the game. Now if something bad happens in the game I take it out on the puck or the player in front of me and battle even harder.”

He helped lead the Caps to their first Stanley Cup finals appearance that season, and won the Vezina Trophy two years later. Kolzig is now heading into his ninth season as the Caps’ undisputed No. 1 goaltender; he won his 250th NHL game last season. Last June, Kolzig was named the 2006 recipient of the King Clancy Memorial Trophy for leadership on and off the ice.

The peaks and valleys of Kolzig’s pro career took another turn when the Caps opted to rebuild midway through the 2003-04 season. The personable goaltender could have left Washington for greener pastures and chance to achieve his one burning desire, a Stanley Cup championship. Instead, he chose to remain in Washington in hopes of winning the Cup where he started and hopes to finish his NHL career.

“I went into the [2005-06] season with an open mind and I wanted to give it some time just to see where we would be,” says Kolzig. “I knew within the first week that we had a great room. We had a good bunch of guys who were willing to work their tails off. Not too many athletes nowadays start and finish their careers with the same team.

“I got to thinking. It’s not always guaranteed when you ask for a trade to go to a contender that things are going to work out. There is a little bit of a comfort level when you get traded, too. I know that Dwayne Roloson felt that when he first went to Edmonton for a few weeks. It’s a huge adjustment. Not too many athletes nowadays start and finish their careers with the same team. We’ve got the start of something good.”

Although he has been with the organization for nearly two decades,  this is the first full-fledged rebuilding effort that Kolzig has seen in his days as a Capital.

“They were always kind of in the middle,” he assesses. “They never got a high draft pick. They were always good enough to make the playoffs and then bow out in the first round, or get stuck playing Pittsburgh and lose in the first round. This time around it is more serious. They were willing to deal with growing pains and a lot more losses than I think the organization is accustomed to in order to get more talented and have a core of young guys that would play together for a number of years. In the past we would always lose two or three guys every year and they’d always replace those guys with [players who were] the same age or a couple of years younger. And it would just be cyclical. That was how they stayed competitive but never made the jump. Here, we took some big steps backwards to hopefully make one huge leap forward.”

In his 17 years with the Capitals organization, Kolzig has seen a lot of players – and friends – come and go. He has remained and is now one of cornerstones of this franchise.

“When Dale Hunter got traded to Colorado, that was hard,”Kolzig remembers. “Those were the guys I learned from, Craig Berube and Mark Tinordi. Not too long ago Mike Grier got traded, another unbelievable guy. Obviously when [Steve Konowalchuk] got traded, that hurt. [Brendan Witt] going last year and [Jeff Halpern] signing in Dallas, those were some tough moves. I really became close to those guys. But you also understand that it’s the nature of the business and they’re only a phone call away. I’m going to see Witter four times this year, and I’ll see Halpy and Griersie once. You come to learn that that is sport and that’s what happens. You’re down, but then usually a group of new guys comes in that you become close to. One thing about this sport is that you definitely make a lot of friends.”

With the offseason retirement of Detroit’s Steve Yzerman, Kolzig is now second only to Dallas’ Mike Modano in terms of continuous time with a single NHL organization. Modano was drafted one year before Kolzig; Detroit’s Nicklas Lidstrom was drafted two rounds after Kolzig.

Health and family permitting, Kolzig can see himself playing four more years, including the upcoming season.

“I realistically think I can play until I’m 40, “which means after this year another three years. That’s the nature of the game now. Everybody treats it as a year-round sport. It’s not like it used to be, when the season would end and guys would pack it in until NHL training camp, get fat, play golf, drink beer and smoke cigarettes. There is so much money to be made now and the level [of play] is so high that you need to stay on top of your conditioning.

“The older you get, the harder it is. You have to watch your diet more than you did when you were younger. The joints ache a little more when you get up in the morning. From a physical standpoint, I feel great. I came into camp about seven pounds lighter this year, and I feel that little extra energy on the ice during games. I know what I did this summer and hopefully apply it to next summer and the summer after that, and as long as I am still healthy and everything is good with the family, yeah, I can see myself playing until I am 40.”

After the Capitals’ strong finish last season, Kolzig and his mates were chomping at the bit to get started in 2006-07.

“We were anxious to get back onto the ice after the way we finished last year,” he says. “We’re going to try to keep improving and put ourselves into a position – whether it’s this year or in two years – to try and win a Cup.”

He has won a Vezina Trophy. He has played in an NHL All-Star Game. He has represented his country (Germany) in the Olympics and in international play. Kolzig’s motivation to keep playing comes from his young teammates and their desire to win the Stanley Cup.

“You’ve got a guy like Alex Ovechkin who is going to do tremendous things for this organization,” says Kolzig. “I just felt that I wanted to finish my career here and ultimately win a Cup here. That would be the ultimate scenario: get drafted by a team, play 19 years, 20 years or whatever it’s going to be and win a Stanley Cup with them. I’m glad I made the decision. I have no regrets. From what I’ve seen in camp so far, we’re heading in the right direction.”

1989 Central Scouting Burean scouting report on Olie Kolzig
Uses his size effectively in blocking shots … has excellent athletic ability … Shows good quickness and balance … Plays a competitive style of game … Is tough to beat … as good forward and backward mobility … Uses blocker very well … Uses stick skillfully in making saves … Controls rebounds well … Never experiences problem with traffic in front of him … Positions himself aggressively … Leaves very little net visible … Stands his ground … Is very much a presence in the game.


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