After 103 days of labor unrest, the 1994-95 NHL lockout came to a close on Jan. 11, 1995. Owners and players found a middle ground on 12 key labor issues, with the owners’ acceptance of no salary cap the most prominent concession by either side.
The NHL quickly readied itself for play, instituting a 48-game schedule for all teams. Though the lockout barred NHL teams from holding formal practices, the Capitals had rented the ice at Piney Orchard Ice Arena three times a week to allow players to scrimmage against each other during the three-month labor stoppage.
Caps players weren’t allowed access to the team locker room, and players dressed in public locker rooms used by recreation league hockey teams.
“It’s nice to be back on the other side of the building,” goaltender Rick Tabaracci said on Jan. 12, when the Caps returned to their locker room. “It’s nice to feel like you are part of professional hockey again, as opposed to just picking the bags up and showing up at the arena.”
The Capitals held their first formal practice on Jan. 13, eight days before their first game at Hartford on Jan. 21.
However, before the season began, Capitals general manager Dave Poile made two major trades, sending 10-year veteran Kevin Hatcher to Dallas for Mark Tinordi and Rick Mrozik, and trading 33-year-old goaltender Don Beaupre to Ottawa for a fifth-round draft pick.
The trade of Beaupre signaled a youth movement for the Capitals in net, clearing the way for Tabaracci, Olie Kolzig or rookie Jim Carey to battle for the starting spot in net.
On Jan. 21 in Hartford, it was the 24-year-old Kolzig who got the start in goal when the Capitals opened the season against the Whalers.
Kolzig had spent six years in the organization after being picked in the first round of the 1989 Entry Draft by the Caps, with a non-descript resume to show for his efforts: a record of 0-6-0 in 10 appearances while toiling behind Beaupre and Mike Liut. On Oct. 11, 1989, Kolzig made his pro debut at the Hartford Civic Center, surrendering four goals on 23 shots in a 4-1 loss.
“My first pro game was here, in October ’89, a 4-1 loss,” Kolzig said of his debut. “I had cement feet in the first period and it was 3-0. Then we went to Toronto and lost 8-4. I had a nice plane ride back to juniors.”
This time against the Whalers, Kolzig was outstanding, keeping the Capitals in the game when Hartford had more jump in the opening 10 minutes of the first period. When the Caps picked up their game in the second period, Hartford’s Sean Burke was equally impressive, stopping Washington’s Michal Pivonka on a penalty shot and Steve Konowalchuk on a breakaway in 16th minute.
Kolzig would yield a power-play goal to Geoff Sanderson at 0:46 of the third period, but the Capitals tied it at 1-1 on their only power play of the game when Dmitri Khristich deflected a Calle Johansson point shot past Burke at 6:22.
While the Capitals outshot the Whalers 15-6 in the third period, and 2-0 in overtime, they could not get a game-winner past Burke, earning a point in their season debut.
Kolzig recorded 21 saves on 22 shots in the first of many great nights in net for the Capitals.
“It’s not a win yet, but it’s not a loss, and it’s my first point in the NHL,” Kolzig said after the game.
Though Carey would emerge as a young phenom for the Caps, winning the Vezina Trophy in 1996, it was Kolzig who endured, leading the Caps to their first Stanley Cup final in 1998.