Friday, May 09, 2008

"For me, it was disappointing the way it ended..."

Any Capitals fan who has been following the team since 1989 could say the same thing this morning.

Olaf Kolzig confirmed that his career with the Washington Capitals has come to an end. An entire generation of Capitals fans that has known no other number one goaltender other than Kolzig has to be sharing Kolzig’s thought that “it just doesn’t feel right.”

Why? Kolzig has played in 711 of the franchise’s 2,640 regular season games, 45 of its 164 playoff games. A player whose career spans more than a quarter of all the games it has ever played leaves an indelible mark.

But it isn’t just that. It would be a memorable tenure only for his on-ice performance over the years…301 regular season wins, five 30-win seasons, 35 shutouts, a Stanley Cup final, a Vezina Trophy. But for all that, Kolzig leaves a mark in the larger Washington community for his off-ice work that makes him an icon in local sports history, one who rivals any Redskin, any Bullet, any Wizard, any Senator, any…well, anything you’d care to name.

Having equal reputations for a volcanic temper and for being one of the true nice guys and gentlemen in the sport, he cast a large shadow over the local sports scene since assuming the number one goaltending role under somewhat unusual circumstances early in the 1997-1998 season. By this time he’d already staked out a place for himself in Capitals history as being the unfortunate victim of a four-overtime loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins in the 1996 playoffs. But he was not the starting goaltender on opening night of the 1997-1998 season…at least, not until Bill Ranford took a shot to the groin that forced him from the game, Kolzig into the nets, and fans searching for the meaning of the name, “Wally Pipp.”

It was a long road from draft day in 1989 to starting goaltender for the Caps, and Kolzig held onto the job tenaciously once he had it, averaging 68 appearances and 3,970 minutes a season from 1997-1998 until the lockout season (three times surpassing the 4,000 minute mark). After his first season as the Caps' full-time number one goaltender, one in which he would lead the Caps to their only Stanley Cup finals appearance, the club had intermittent success, but his standing among his peers and commentators as one of the NHL’s elite goaltenders and fiercest competitors did not suffer.

After the lockout, Kolzig toiled behind a makeshift, inexperienced club that was rebuilding around a new star – Alex Ovechkin. His statistics suffered with a very green defense in front of him that left him to face almost 2,000 shots in 59 games in 2005-2006. He could have asked for a trade in that season, and he could have left Washington after that season as a free agent, but he re-signed with the club in a two-year deal in February 2006 with the hope of being in Washington when the good times returned.

This could have been that season. However, for all the movie sentimentality of sport, in reality it is cold and not without a sense of cruel irony. The foreshadowing of future events might have unfolded on opening night of the 2007-1008 season as Brent Johnson, not Kolzig, started for the Caps. After a 7-13-1 start, though, Kolzig was 15-6-5 from December 8 – February 26. But the Capitals seized the opportunity presented to them to obtain goalie Cristobal Huet from Montreal for a second round pick in 2009. Huet made the most of his opportunity, going 11-2-0 in a season-ending rush that cemented his role as number one goaltender, catapulted the team to the Southeast Division title, and earned the Caps a playoff berth.

It was not supposed to end this way, not for Kolzig. Like any of the elite performers of his craft, it could be fairly said that he was compensated well for his talents over the years. But he gave as much back to the team and to the community. The debates over whether his number should be retired to the rafters or whether his 301 wins, Vezina Trophy, and Stanley Cup finals appearance merits Hall of Fame consideration are for another day. Today, things just don’t feel right in Capitals Nation. There is a six-foot-three-inch hole in its heart.