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Remarkable Run

by Mike Vogel / Washington Capitals
“I was actually very fortunate that the organization in the early days kept me around,” he admits. “Being 25 with two wins, there are probably not a lot of guys who would continue to play. They would basically be relegated to the minors. But for me, my biggest hurdle was myself.

“I was always a very emotional, volcanic type of a player. I always wore it on the sleeve and early on I didn’t know how to channel it. If some sort of adversity would happen during the course of a game or a practice, I would blow up and I wouldn’t know how to get re-focused or I wouldn’t know how to channel that anger in the right way. But I continued to work on it, and I continued to be patient.

“I think the addition of [goaltender coach] Dave Prior definitely helped me. Dave is such a unique individual and – as you know first-hand, one of the smartest people the organization has – he had a way of really calming me and getting me to just focus on the game. He was the first guy to say, ‘Listen, I love it when you release and you act out like that. It shows people that you care. The only problem is there is a fine line between caring and looking like you’re being a baby.’ He got me to where I would blow up and right away get re-focused. And we worked on my game a little bit.

“Then it was just a matter of being patient. Waiting, waiting, waiting. And then Billy Ranford got hurt in Toronto in the first game of ’97-98. I had had so many opportunities where I could step in and take over the job and I finally said to myself, ‘This is the time, don’t let it go.’ The rest is history.

I wondered what memories Kolzig would keep the longest; which ones would he share with his kids and grandkids years from now?

“The day I got drafted,” he began, taking me on a five-minute virtual tour of his nearly two decades in the organization. “Because back in junior, I was a raw prospect. I wasn’t as heralded as Carey Price coming out of junior. I was a raw prospect. There was a lot of potential, but I was never a guy who people thought was going to be in the NHL since peewee hockey.

“I had already made my mind up to go to college and maybe get into sports medicine or something along those lines. We moved down to Tri-Cities, I had a fairly good year, had a couple interviews with some teams and finally realized, ‘Hey, I might have a chance.’ When they called my name 19th overall, I was like, ‘Wow, this is unbelievable.’

“That year we went to Russia for training camp; that will always stand out in my mind. My first game against Hartford [in 1989]. My first All-Star game in Vancouver [in 1998]. Joe Juneau scoring against Hasek in Game 6 [of the 1998 Eastern Conference finals]. The reception we got at Piney Orchard when we flew in that night. It was unbelievable. Unbelievable.

“The Vezina Trophy [in 2000] was obviously great, but it came on the heels of an awful series against Pittsburgh, probably the worst playoff series I ever had. I won’t say it stained that award, because I had a really good year and I felt really good about the way I was playing. But that series against Pittsburgh left an awful taste in my mouth after that season.

“The run we had that season from Christmas on. I remember we had the red-eye back from Vancouver, and we were awful. I can’t remember the record [12-15-5-1], but we were awful. And we went something ridiculous after that [27-6-6-0 in their next 39 games].

“Some negatives. I remember the fire sale in ’03-04. It was awful. And there was a point where I thought I was gone, too. Colorado and Ottawa were showing a lot of interest. So that was kind of stressful.”

“And then the waste of a year with the lockout was an absolute joke. Coming back and just playing hockey again was fun. Regardless of what kind of team we were going to have, it was fun just to play again. We had a great group of guys. It could have been a lot worse; it could have been really bad. Having a guy like Ovie come in was fantastic.

“And then there was the culmination of the last two weeks of the season. The last two weeks and the playoffs at Verizon Center was the most fun I’ve ever had in that building. Just the atmosphere, the fans were back, they were excited and we had a great hockey team.

“For me the game that was the game to remember for us was the one in Atlanta. Down 3-1 in the third period, if we had lost that game we wouldn’t have made the playoffs. The performance we put on in that third period just pushed us forward. The last two weeks were unbelievable. We just couldn’t lose. It was fun to watch. It would have been greater to be a part of it, but it was actually really fun to watch.

“We had a lot of optimism going into the playoffs. I personally knew it was going to be very tough series against Philly. With [Mike] Knuble and [Scott] Hartnell and how tough they are in front of the net, I knew it was going to be tough. But I was real proud of the way we battled back. Being down three games to one, and winning a big game at home and an even bigger game in their building and then taking them to overtime [in Game 7]. It couldn’t have been written any better, except we could have won that game. Who knows? We could have been getting ready for Game 1 [of the conference finals] tonight.”

Kolzig’s career overlapped those of so many great players, and so many fan favorites. I wondered if he’d be willing to do a word association drill on some of those guys before we paid the check and left.
“One word? I’m not a one word guy,” he said. True enough. Okay, one sentence.

Dale Hunter: “All hockey all of the time.”
Brendan Witt: “As tough as they come.”
Jim Schoenfeld: “Hard but fair.”
Ron Wilson: “Smartest coach I’ve ever had.”
Joe Reekie: “Tugboat.”
Craig Billington: “If not the best, then tied with [Brent Johnson] as the best partner I’ve ever had.
Steve Konowalchuk: “Dale Hunter, Jr.”
Sergei Gonchar: “Nicest player I’ve ever played with.”
Sylvain Cote: “Told it like it is.”
Craig Berube: “Made the most with the least amount of talent.”
Alex Ovechkin: “Best player I’ve ever played with.”
Peter Bondra: “Poor man’s Ovie.”
Mike Liut: “Probably the smartest guy I ever played with.”
Don Beaupre: “The man who took me under his wing.”
Calle Johansson: “The classiest player I ever played with.”
Ken Klee: “Chief, Jr. in terms of what I said about Chief.”
Mark Tinordi: “Heart and soul.”
Kelly Miller: “Most committed player I have ever played with.”
Adam Oates: “When it came to hockey, there wasn’t anybody smarter.”
Andrei Nikolishin: “Free-spirited, fun-loving guy.”
Jaromir Jagr: “Could have cared more.”
Sergei Fedorov: “World class guy.”

Jerry Seinfeld does a comic bit about how rooting for pro sports teams is merely rooting for laundry. If you’re fan of a team for a long enough period of time, he contends, all the players who were with the team when you became a fan will be gone. You’re essentially rooting for the uniform, the laundry.

There is certainly some truth in that. It can also be said with relative certainty that Kolzig’s very own laundry – that big No. 37 goaltender’s sweater – will one day be hoisted up to the rafters of the Verizon Center.

Right up there where all those countless chants of “Olie! Olie! Olie” have reverberated for the last decade.

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