Friday, March 07, 2008

How well do you know ...
Olaf Kolzig?

"I've talked to my wife about retirement. Things just haven't gone as well for me as I've thought the past two years. I'll wait and see how things play out."
Two months ago, at 37 years old and near the league basement in save percentage, Olaf Kolzig wasn't exactly riding high. This was supposed to be the year his team, the Capitals, took its big leap forward, but with a playoff berth looking more and more unlikely, all fingers were pointed at the man in the crease.

The NHL's longest-tenured netminder, Kolzig is the only active goalie who started a game in the 1980s. He's also the fourth-oldest puck stopper in the league, behind Dominik Hasek, Curtis Joseph and Dwayne Roloson — which makes a quartet of guys who have seen better days.

And when the Capitals dealt for another goaltender, Cristobal Huet, at the trade deadline, it appeared the Kolzig era might finally be over in D.C.

Kolzig's considered an all-time franchise great among Caps fans, but outside of Washington, he remains a bit of an unknown despite spending 19 years in the league. Most hockey fans know he was born in South Africa and plays for Germany internationally, but where, exactly, is Olaf Kolzig from?

And right there I've stumped you.

It's a trick question, really, because Kolzig's not actually from anywhere. Born in Johannesburg, he lived in Denmark, moved to Canada as a tot, and spent the next few years going from Edmonton to the Northwest Territories to Toronto to Halifax. When his parents, whose work in the hotel business necessitated the vagabond life, picked up again to finally settle and retire in Union Bay on Vancouver Island, Kolzig stayed in Nova Scotia to finish his midget hockey season.

At 17, Kolzig joined his family in B.C., playing for Abbotsford and New Westminster in the BCJHL and WHL before finding a home with the Tri-City Americans the next season. Enormous, even as a teen, Kolzig caught the eye of the Capitals, and despite playing as a backup on a mediocre team, they picked him 19th overall in the first round of the 1989 draft.

A few months later, he was starting in the Capitals' crease, as the 19-year-old 'tender was shelled in two games (4-1 and 8-4 losses to Hartford and Toronto) and sent back to junior hockey.

Kolzig was far from an overnight sensation in Washington, and almost never flourished there at all. He picked up only eight more NHL starts in the next four years, and was given the backup role in 1994-95 behind the team's Next Great Hope, a cocky 20-year-old all-American star named Jim Carey.

The next season, Carey would win the Vezina Trophy as the league's top netminder, becoming the first-ever goalie to be nominated for the award in his first two seasons. Kolzig, now 25, split the season between the Capitals and the AHL's Portland Pirates.

Fortunately for Kolzig, and unfortunately for Carey, a flip of the coin the next season changed everything. Washington, looking to hit a home run, made a big-time deal with rebuilding Boston for Adam Oates, Rick Tocchet and Bill Ranford, and Bruins GM Harry Sinden was given his pick of which Capitals netminder he wanted in return.

Carey or Kolzig?

Sinden went with the recent Vezina winner and Massachusetts native, but Caps GM David Poile wasn't disappointed. He knew something Sinden didn't.

Three years later, Kolzig won the Vezina. Carey had retired.

It was really only an injury to Ranford in 1997-98 that allowed Kolzig to take over the starter's duties, and he hasn't relinquished them since. At that point, the 27-year-old from nowhere in particular was making just more than $500,000, six times less than Ranford, but he posted a career-best .920 save percentage and Washington made an unlikely run to the Stanley Cup finals.

"Olie the goalie" had an incredible .941 save percentage that postseason.

It's been 10 years, now, since the Caps were swept in four games by the Red Wings, and Kolzig's played just 17 playoff games since. He's backstopped high-flying, high-priced talent and NHL bottom feeders and has remained the one constant on a franchise that hasn't had a lot to cheer about in an awful long time.

And while he might have been the kid who wasn't from anywhere 19 years ago, now he's definitely a native of Washington, D.C. (That's not to say his ties to the west are gone. Kolzig's father, Axel, died of a heart attack two years ago, but his mother, Renate, remains in Union Bay, while Kolzig owns the Americans team just down the road, where he played all those years ago.)

I'm as guilty as anyone of throwing some dirt on Kolzig's career this season, as his numbers slipped even as his team improved, but it's been good to see an old warrior in the crease pick up the reins here lately and shine. Kolzig's gone 14-6-3 since Christmas and was one of the league's best in February. With a minor injury to Huet, he's getting another chance.

Washington has 14 games left to sneak into the postseason and it's going to fall, at least in part, to Kolzig to get them there. His next win will be the 300th of his career, which is fifth among active goaltenders.

He's a class act — and just one more good story as we head down the stretch.

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At 12:28 p.m., March 07, 2008, Blogger FAUX RUMORS said...

1) Kolzig's play has improved the past 2 months, mainly or at least partly because he has played, LESS.
2) It seems the old bones need more rest than they once did so Boudreau (Before the Huet trade) had been giving Olie a game off every 3 instead of playing every game for long stretches as in years past
3) Despite this its still been noticeable for those of us who have watched him these many years, that he has lost the ability to move laterally as quickly as he once did. He still is an excellent positional goalie, but if the play moves side to side quickly he's vulnerable
4) The ladder reason is why we believe GMGM went ahead and traded for Huet. Kolzig days as a #1 who can start 60+ games are over. The Caps have no one who can do that in their system for another 2-3 years, so Chris is probably going to be signed to be that 'bridge'. Olie will be given a shot to stay as backup, but at significantly reduced salary.

At 2:38 p.m., March 07, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

On a personal note Kolzig has been a big supporter of Autism charities (see back of his mask)since one of his children has it.

At 3:28 p.m., March 07, 2008, Blogger Nick said...

Great Post, James.

No doubt Kolzig's getting up there in age, but if he wants to he could still fill a backup role mentoring a young guy. it will be interesting to see what he does in the near future.

At 3:36 p.m., March 07, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great post James! There's been a lot of talk about the Caps lately, mainly with my friends and I discussing the Flyers/Caps rivalry. Now it seems that we are united in our despising the Penguins. A friend asked me, "Is it wrong of me to cheer for the Caps to make the playoffs?" Absolutely not! Plus, the Flyers/Caps rivalry hasn't been active for years now.

Good to see this post about Kolzig, who is at the end of his career. If the Caps can sign him for cheap (not the huge amount he's making this season) I say they keep him around. The Caps got instantly better the second they added Huet and they have a lot of young talent not named Ovechkin (Backstrom's Thornton-esque assists)

At 3:42 p.m., March 07, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for the article.. good little bio of the 'zilla

At 4:37 p.m., March 07, 2008, Blogger Steve said...

Great post. Before this, a solid 50% of my impression of him was based on that Capitals commercial he did where he treated the wine bottle like a water bottle (rinsing, spitting, pouring it over his head, etc.).

At 4:53 p.m., March 07, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

So what is his citizenship? I don't know but could someone help me on this because it could make a great trivia question for work.

P.S. Where I work I'm responsable for "the dailey trivia question"

At 8:08 p.m., March 07, 2008, Blogger sager said...

That one about starting a game in the '80s doesn't do it for the daily trivia?

At 9:07 p.m., March 07, 2008, Anonymous dmg said...

Kolzig is definitely a German citizen and is not a Canadian citizen; I believe he is also a South African citizen as well having been born there.

At 11:21 p.m., March 07, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wait. Are you saying Chris Osgood is younger than Kolzig? I find that one hard to believe.

...So what did Poile know that Sinden didn't? That the Net Detective was a headcase? Or something else?

At 4:05 a.m., March 08, 2008, Blogger Joe said...

Great Post.

I'm quite sad that Kolzig never got the chance to be the number one guy on a great team. I was crossing my fingers for the Caps to trade him in 06 so he could get a shot at a cup.

At 10:00 a.m., March 08, 2008, Anonymous Aaron said...

Even if Olie retires, I would love to see him remain on with the Caps as a scout of new talent (who can spot it better than a veteran goalie) or even as a goalie coach.

At 11:04 a.m., March 13, 2008, Blogger Harold said...

Awesome that Kolzig finally reached 300. What a great ambassador for the game and for Washington. I will miss him when he is gone. How do you guys think 300 wins in the NHL stacks up against 300 wins in the MLB? Did you know that both have 23 members?

At 2:03 p.m., March 13, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for the extremely wonderful and positive article on Kolzig.

I cried at the game when Kolzig got 300. As I wrote in my blog, I will be KOLZIG FAN FOR LIFE. The lyrics "No One" by Alicia Keys help me articulate how much I admire Kolzig on and off the ice. Through the good times and the bad times [his and mine], I will always support Olaf Kölzig.


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