Wednesday, January 16, 2008

An end in sight...or a bad day at work?

You’ve probably read by now an article in this morning’s Washington Post that was penned by Mike Wise on the subject of Olaf Kolzig, goaltender and hockey icon in these parts.

It was interesting, to say the least…and a bit unsettling on a number of levels.

First, there is probably going to be a reaction to the “R” word being even mentioned (by Kolzig himself) – “retirement.” Kolzig notes that:

"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."

“Retirement?” Kolzig? He’s been a fixture in this organization since he was drafted 19th overall in the 1989 entry draft. More than 300 regular season and playoff wins, 41 shutouts, the greatest playoff run in the history of the franchise in the 1998 Stanley Cup tournament, a Vezina Trophy, and holder of every meaningful record for goaltenders in the history of the franchise. An entire generation of Caps fans has grown up knowing only Kolzig as the team’s netminder.

But it’s easy to read too much into one quote, too. We’ll bet there isn’t a person reading these words this morning who hasn’t had a string of bad days at the office; who, if not quite on the wrong side of the boss, wasn’t quite on the same page, either. Kolzig has had what, for him no doubt, has been a frustrating year – his lowest save percentage in more than a decade (since before he became the full-time number one), a sub-.500 record (despite climbing back, as he points out from eight games under .500 to one game down), a change in coaches from one who played the position to one who didn’t.

And it is this last bit that is disturbing about the article. There are essentially two themes here, one every professional athlete has to face, the other of the sort that can be manufactured (or exaggerated) for effect.

The first is the athlete who, if he is not quite at the end of the road, can see it. Kolzig will be 38-years old in April. He’s played almost 750 games in the NHL (regular season and playoffs), faced more than 20,000 shots, played 43,000 minutes. He’s also won more than 300 games (regular season and playoffs), and one doesn’t reach that milestone without being a supremely proud and competitive individual, not to mention skilled. To expect such an individual to go quietly to the end of that road just isn’t going to happen, and it is that kind of stubborn resistance to the march of time and its relentless, inevitable effect on skills that makes a player such as Kolzig the elite goaltender he’s been for the past ten years, despite toiling for a club whose talents around him often did not come close to matching his.

In that, there is nothing surprising about the frustration that permeates his comments about his play and the potential for his retirement. For those of us who might be as close to that day as Kolzig, we might have said out loud, “maybe it’s time.” But a lot of the time that is as much frustration over things not going well at work as it is casting a serious eye toward a life change. The day is going to come when Kolzig will move to the next part of his life, but for fans, perhaps one should not read too much into these comments…not yet.

The other theme is conflict, and reading this article I wondered if it was real or manufactured. Kolzig and Glen Hanlon enjoyed the common experience of playing the position of goaltender. If they shared nothing else, it would be in the knowledge of what it takes to play that unique position and what it means to deal with those singular pressures night in and night out. But what Hanlon didn’t share as keenly, if one is only looking at the records of the club before and after the change behind the bench, is an appreciation for the nature of the other positions on the ice, especially those of the skilled positions. The wraps were tight around the skaters over the first 21 games, during which the Caps won only six times, only three times in last 18 games under Hanlon. It was a club that couldn’t, or perhaps more accurately – “didn’t” – score goals (this has not been a problem under Bruce Boudreau) and was watching the kids – Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green most notably – getting off to slower starts than fans might have imagined.

It wasn’t a case that Hanlon was a bad coach, per se, but rather that he might have been a poor match for this club at the state of development it was in. While he might have – and certainly indicated – that he was the right man for the job during the early days of the rebuild, when kids needed protective cover to develop, he might not have been as willing to throw off the wraps when it was necessary to do so, to allow the skills the players have (especially the younger ones) express themselves.

Enter Bruce Boudreau, who “raised” some of these kids in Hershey and who was/is a bigger risk taker in terms of the offensive aspects of the game – sometimes at the expense of goaltenders. Kolzig’s statistics have suffered under Boudreau – 3.14, .879 in 21 games – while his win-loss record has improved (10-6-4). But Sunday, he was pulled after 26:08 and giving up four goals on 16 shots. Kolzig noted that the goals were not so much bad as they were, in his word, “circumstantial.” He has a point. For example, the last goal – the one that sent him to the bench – deflected off a stick, and he still managed to get a glove on it, although not enough to keep it out of the net.

Out of this, we’re provided this comment…

"Bruce is not a goaltender guy. One thing about Bruce, he's hard on goalies because he doesn't understand the position. And a lot of coaches that haven't played the position are usually that way. You know: 'Just stop the puck and get it done. Doesn't matter how or what.' That's something I've got to get used to because I've had Glennie here for so long and obviously being a goaltender, he understands the situation and the position."

A lot of folks are going to read that first sentence and mutter, “uh-oh, there’s a problem in the locker room…the coach and the team leader aren’t on the same page.” I read the last sentence…”it’s something I’ve got to get used to.” Again, think of your own situation where you might have worked for a boss who shares your educational or professional experience. You achieve something of a comfort level in that working relationship. Then, a new boss arrives – different experience, different attitude, different philosophy. Have you felt somewhat “apart” as a result of that, that perhaps the new boss doesn’t “understand” your situation or your needs? Look at it another way by way of a question…”was Ron Wilson a goaltender guy?” Kolzig won an Eastern Conference championship with Wilson. I don’t read anything into “that’s something I’ve got to get used to” other than precisely that. It is a new working environment.

But Wise chose to play an odd twist that underlines the nature of the “conflict” – there is the gratuitous swipe at Boudreau (“essentially the Crash Davis of hockey?”), and the reference to Kolzig as “a piece of Washington sports memorabilia.” Both comments seem to me unfair to their subjects, characterizing one as the hockey equivalent of a bus-riding bumpkin (who, not insignificantly, won more than 330 games in the AHL with consecutive trips to the league championship final, winning once), the other as a relic to be dusted occasionally and treated lovingly until he can go out on his own terms. And underlying that is – as always, it seems – the contract, in this case the absence of discussions of an extension for Kolzig.

The object of the exercise is to win games and compete for championships. Sports is the ultimate meritocracy in that respect, and we suspect both coach and player know that. The livelihood of each depends on being successful in that pursuit. The Caps are winning (which means Kolzig has been winning, even if his “statistics” are not up to his usual standard), largely on the basis of an emergence of what was until late November dormant fire-power, but occasionally as a result of the efforts of the big guy in goal.

Kolzig isn’t quite done, yet, although he has many more games behind him than ahead of him. Boudreau isn’t entirely ignorant as to the value and necessity of having a strong, experienced netminder to be there when the kids get a bit too rambunctious.

I suspect that while there are those who will read a bit too much into the quotes and general tenor of the article, it is merely a snapshot of the occasional frustration one experiences from time to time as a professional in a changing work setting, the kind of which that might get a person thinking about retirement or perhaps a new job. It might come to that, but “might” is a far cry from “will.”

As for the situation here, read it for what it is…”that’s something I have to get used to.”


Anonymous said...

this was as irresponsible as journalism can get

Anonymous said...

i meant Wise and not you Peerless with the above comment!!!

Jon said...

Peerless, your analysis of Wise's editorial in the Post was spot-on. Bravo! I read it just as you did and appreciated Olie for his honesty and his, well, just plain humanity. Bad day at the office, got the Hook, not entirely justified ("circumstantial"?? whazzat?), grousing at the boss, getting weary of the grind, boss doesn't appreciate how hard I work, maybe I'll call it a day, blah blah blah yada yada yada.

On the other hand! If it weren't for that "I've got to get used to it" part, I might be tempted to use the label Whiner. But I won't.

Also, if I'm a man with as much pride in his work as Olie has, I would definitely object to being labeled a "piece of Washington sports memorabilia" as if I was already dead, stuffed, and mounted. Sheesh! A little premature, I'd say.

And, golly, I got a bit of a laugh from that Crash Davis analogy. I wasn't quite so offended. I guess I never thought of Crash as "bush league".

Anyway, again, thanks for the analysis, Peerless. Very well done.

The Peerless said...

I don't think of "Crash Davis" as bush-league either, but the first thing that occurred to me was that, like Davis, Boudreau wasn't really "NHL-caliber," that his proper station in life was at the AHL level. Coaching is often a "good-ol'-boy" thing, with the same names circulated around. Boudreau has more than earned his chance -- on the merits of his record -- and he's grabbed the opportunity by the throat.

I'm glad to be proven terrible wrong, in that while I thought Boudreau deserved a shot behind an NHL bench, I didn't think it was a good idea that it be Washington's bench.

Good on Bruce. And on George for bringing him up.