If this story were to have a Hollywood ending, it would conclude with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman handing the Stanley Cup to Capitals captain Chris Clark a little more than one or two years from now, and for Clark to then hand the chalice directly to veteran goaltender Olie Kolzig, who would be the first member of the Washington organization to actually hoist the chalice up over his shoulders and take a twirl around the ice with it.
Flashbulbs would be popping everywhere, capturing Kolzig’s brilliant smile glinting through the full foliage of a two-month playoff beard while tears of joy streamed down into the facial growth. That Cup championship would culminate a two-decade career in the NHL, all of it spent with the same team.
Alas, real life often falls far short of Hollywood and storybooks. So it is with Olie Kolzig’s longtime run as a Washington Capital. Although he does not officially gain unrestricted free agent status until July 1, Kolzig put to rest any thoughts that he would return for a 16th season in a Capitals uniform earlier this week when he announced he’d played his final game for the Caps.
The day after the Caps’ fun and exciting run to the playoffs ended with a Game 7 loss to the Flyers, the Caps held their end-of-the-season meetings with players and us media types descended upon Kettler Capitals Iceplex to chat up the boys one last time before September, and in some cases one last time, period.
We all suspected that Kolzig might fall into the latter category. As I drove in to Kettler that morning, I learned that Kolzig had decided it would be best to take some time to think things through a bit rather than face the phalanx of media types assembled to grill him.
Good idea, I thought. Given the tenor and depth of some of the questions that can find their way into such situations, I thought Kolzig’s temporary vow of silence was a good idea.
On Thursday, Kolzig talked with Tarik El Bashir of the Washington Post for a piece that appeared in the Friday edition of that newspaper. Reading that piece was the first I’d heard about Kolzig cutting ties with the Caps, but as I mentioned earlier, it wasn’t a surprise. I wrote a short piece for the team’s Web site and a short blog entry and then drove out to my own appointment to speak with Kolzig.
Kolzig and I met for lunch at a local restaurant. For about 25 minutes, we were two guys who have worked together for more than a decade and who share the same employer talking shop. Sharing stories about people, places and events. For the next 40 minutes, we spoke with the recorder on. Then there was another period of 20 or 25 minutes when we talked casually before we shook hands and parted.
Caught in traffic on the way home, I tried to get my head around how I could best present that conversation with Kolzig. I talked to a few more people on the way home about my dilemma. One idea was to write it like a blog entry. Another was to write it straight, like a feature story. There was also the idea of presenting it as a simple Q&A.
It’s likely going to end up containing elements of all of the above. When a player has spent half his life with an organization, and when his time with that organization spans a period that is greater than half of that organization’s entire lifespan, there are no simple answers.
Since the NHL resumed play after the lockout, Kolzig has been very forthright with the media about his plans to play until he was 40 years of age. That would mean two more seasons after this one. Until last season, most of us figured that those two seasons would be in Washington.
When Cristobal Huet was obtained from Montreal at the Feb. 26 trade deadline, he was brought in to share the netminding duties with Kolzig. For the better part of a month, the two of them did exactly that.
The pattern changed after Kolzig played behind an uncharacteristically lifeless Caps team in a 5-0 loss at Chicago on Mar. 19. It was arguably the worst performance the team gave as a group all season. I wondered whether he thought things would be different if the outcome of that one game was different.
“I don’t look back to that game in Chicago,” says Kolzig. “Those things happen. It was unfortunate. I wonder more what might have happened if Cris had lost his next game. If things had worked out in that game and we had continued to split [time in goal], and we had some sort of communication and discussion about next year, I would think definitely that I wouldn’t be here talking to you today about my decision that I made.”
Two nights after the loss in Chicago, the Caps were in Atlanta. Huet was in goal and the Caps were trailing 3-1 after two periods. But for the first time in 50 games when trailing after two periods, the Caps came back and won that game against the Thrashers. Huet started another game, and another. He got hot.
How hot? Hotter than any Caps goaltender in the last two decades.
Huet won 10 straight, and while the Caps put together a thrilling sprint down the stretch to claim their first playoff berth in five years, Kolzig became a spectator. For the final seven games of the regular season and seven playoff contests, Kolzig sat, watched and kept quiet for more than a month. In his pro career that spans nearly two decades, it was the longest healthy period during which he did not see any game action.
Although Kolzig seems to be outwardly at peace with his decision to try to continue his NHL playing career elsewhere next season, it is also evident from talking to him that he did not come by this choice easily. It’s a choice that still causes him some twinges of pain, and as he freely admits, he doesn’t know where it will lead him next. He wants to continue playing, but it has to be the right situation. continued on next page