Today is a sad and rainy day in town, which is fitting because a staple of sports in the District is saying good bye. Washington Capitals goalie Olaf Kolzig has let it be known that he will enter free agency and will not return to play for the only team he has ever known in his NHL career.
Since he was drafted with the 19th pick in the 1989 NHL draft, Kolzig has been the face of the franchise. He earned a steady roster spot backing up a one-hit wonder named Jim Carey in net in the mid-90’s, and has been a mainstay ever since. While league rules prevent goalies from wearing the captain’s “C” on their sweater, there was never any doubt who was the vocal leader of the Caps. If the team needed a kick in the pants to get them going, Kolzig had no problem breaking a stick over the net or having a word with a sluggish teammate.
He was in the crease for the good times, like the 97-98′ Stanley Cup Finals run and in 2000, when he earned the Vezina Trophy as the league’s top goaltender. He’s also been around for the not-so-glorious years, even after veteran names like Bondra, Konowalchuk, Nylander, Witt and Jagr were shown the door so management could blow up the roster and start from scratch. While he might have been teamed with minor-league caliber comrades on the ice, Kolzig was still nothing but class off of it.
After the tragedy of Sept. 11, 2001, Kolzig wanted to do his part to help the families of the victims.
“I’m a big guy who plays with a lot of emotion. I wanted the mask to show that. I sent three to the artist, and we came up with the concept together. After 9/11, I had him put the Pentagon on the left side to pay tribute to those people. Once the season is over, I’m going to auction off the mask and donate all the money to victims of 9/11,” Kolzig said in an ESPN the Magazine article from January 2002.
If my memory serves me correctly, that goalie mask, which Kolzig autographed, raised more than $30,000. Just another day at the office, for a guy who is also involved in programs such as Athletes Against Autism, Olie’s All Stars and the Carson Kolzig Foundation.
In January 2007, I was fortunately enough to sit down for a one-on-one interview with Kolzig, who might very well be the most down to Earth athlete I’ve ever had the pleasure of interviewing. One of the questions I asked him that day was, “How important is it for you to play your entire career here in Washington?”
“There have been some question marks about that these last couple years because of the rebuilding that’s going on here,” Kolzig told me. “But I committed myself last year and was really optimistic about where this organization is going and the kind of players we have here. I thought that getting traded might give me a better shot to win the Stanley Cup in the short term, but at the same time you lose that stature that you’ve established with one team.
“You go to a new team and even though you’re a veteran you have to get to know all new guys and you’re lower on the totem pole,” he said. “With my comfort level here I didn’t really want to go through that. I thought there wouldn’t be a better story than starting and finishing my career with one team and winning the Stanley Cup. So I’m trying to give myself an opportunity here with my team the next three or four years to win the Cup. Ultimately that would be the best scenario.”
Echoing the same sentiment in an interview with the Washington Post, Kolzig said this week that his only regret was never winning the Stanley Cup with the Caps.
“It’s unfortunate, because they have a good team here now. It’s a fantastic team, fantastic group of guys. Not to be a part of that is going to be tough, especially after 17 years and three years of what we went through post-lockout,” Kolzig told the Washington Post.
It was tough for diehard fans to see Peter Bondra in a Ottawa Senators jersey, and it’ll be equally as tough to see Kolzig wearing anything other than the red, white and blue of our nation’s Capitals. But he’s earned the right to end his prolific career any way he sees fit, even if that means closing it out in Vencouver, Ottawa or elsewhere. And if the right offer doesn’t come along, then Kolzig admits he has no problem moving on to the next chapter of his life.
“I’ll just sit by the pool with a six-pack,” he said.
So the next time you crack open a cold one, think of the man they call Godzilla. After nearly 20 years of giving his heart and soul to the town, he deserves the proper send off.
(Random fact: While with the Western Hockey League’s Tri-City Americans, Kolzig scored a goal on November 29, 1989.)