He’d just met with the media following the most frustrating of a season-full of frustrating losses Thursday and yet, with the mere mention of the name, Mike Smith’s entire demeanor changed.
An angry scowl was replaced by a slight smile and words to the media that just a moment ago rang with venom, turned softer and reflective. Consider it another small example of the impact Olaf Kolzig has had on yet another National Hockey League player.
“He’s a warrior in this league,” Smith said following an emotionally crushing 2-1 shootout loss to visiting Colorado. “It ages him a bit, but he’s a guy I grew up watching. He’s had a great career.”
A former first-round draft selection, Vezina Trophy winner as the league’s top goaltender and once the face of a Washington Capitals’ franchise that he led to the 1998 Stanley Cup Finals, ‘Olie’ signed as a free agent with the Lightning on July 1. It was a move that marked not only a change of address, but a re-addressing of his career.
With Smith firmly entrenched as the starting goaltender and future of Tampa Bay’s franchise, Kolzig knew his move signaled more than just a chance to compete. It was an opportunity to teach.
“I knew even when I signed my contract what talent Mike had,” Kolzig said. “He’s 1A and I’m 1B. I’m 38 years old and I know my role here is to help Smitty be as good as he’s capable and he’s capable of playing at a very high level.”
Smith and the Lightning may never have needed a steady, veteran shoulder to lean on more than this season. Frustrated by the team’s performance, one couldn’t blame Lightning players for getting down on themselves - especially a third-year goaltender like Smith.
That’s where Kolzig’s presence has been felt most. In a career filled with success, it may be right now when the veteran is doing the most to keep a team and a goaltender together.
“Mike’s like I was when I was younger,” Kolzig said. “He wears his emotions on his sleeve. So, when things aren’t going well, I tell him, ‘There’s only so much you can do as a goalie. All you can do is give your guys a chance to win.’ ”
The pupil has taken full stock of the teacher’s wisdom.
“I really think that’s where he’s helped me the most,” Smith said. “We talk a lot and he knows I don’t like to get scored on. Things have been bad a lot, but he’s been there for me every step of the way.”
For all the guidance he’s imparted on Smith, Kolzig isn’t just a coach. Kolzig has been called upon eight times this season to spell Smith in goal and has posted a 2-4-1 record with a 3.66 goals against average. They’re certainly not the numbers he’s grown accustomed to throughout his career, but ones he knows could easily have an asterisk placed next to them.
As much as any, it’s the transition from starter to backup that’s the most difficult for any goaltender. Kolzig is no different. Now, in his 16th season, the veteran must prepare himself differently both physically and mentally in order to play.
“It’s so difficult mentally when you’re a backup, because when you play a bad game, it sits with you for two weeks,” Kolzig said. “When you think you may be ready mentally, you realize it’s physically tough, too. I need a day or two of good practice before I can play where it wasn’t like that when I was starting all the time.
“When you don’t play every night, the game seems to get a little faster than you remember.”
Sooner or later, the inevitable question will arise for both Kolzig and the Lightning. In the business that is the NHL, every dollar is counted and both the team and goaltender know a choice will have to be made whether Kolzig’s immense knowledge and teachings are more important than bringing up another young goaltender to take his place. It’s a question Kolzig has asked and will continue to ask himself.
“At my age, do I hang up my skates and call it a career or do I keep working hard?” Kolzig said. “Either way, there’s a lot worse places for my family and me to be than Tampa Bay.”