How well do you know ...
"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.