Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Thanks, Olie...

Olaf Kolzig retired today.

There will be a lot of words and pixels devoted to Kolzig’s career in Washington – the long road he took to taking on the role as the number one netminder, the incredible run to the Stanley Cup finals in 1998, the playoff trials against the Penguins, the ups, the downs, the records.

While he has a special place in the hearts of Caps fans who have followed the club for any length of time, he is perhaps remembered more across the league as the goalie with the lyrical nickname – “Olie the Goalie” – than he is for his accomplishments. Let’s leave aside the fact that there are only 20 goalies in the history of the NHL with more wins than Kolzig’s 303 (301 of them with the Caps). Let’s go back to that magnificent 1997-1998 season in which he took over for an injured Bill Ranford in a game against the Toronto Maple Leafs and led the Caps to a Stanley Cup finals berth that following spring.

Starting with that year and for an additional five years, it was something of a golden age of goaltending. Martin Brodeur, Dominik Hasek, Ed Belfour, Patrick Roy, and Curtis Joseph were at the peak of their respective games and perhaps earned more accolades than did Kolzig, who played for what many hockey fans regarded as something of a backwater in the NHL. Not that those other goalies didn’t deserve their recognition; they were some of the most successful goaltenders in the history of the NHL. Four of them (Brodeur, Roy, Belfour, and Hasek) won Stanley Cups in this six-year period). But here is how they stacked up against Kolzig in terms of their average seasons during those six campaigns:

Only Martin Brodeur averaged more wins a season. Only Patrick Roy and Dominik Hasek had higher save percentages. Only he and Brodeur averaged over 4,000 minutes per season. While Kolzig finished down the list in goals against average, he also faced the highest number of shots per 60 minutes over that period. What those other goaltenders had that, frankly, Kolzig didn't was a better team in front of them.

Kolzig was and remains a legend in the Washington community as much for his charitable endeavors as for his accomplishments on the ice. A winner of the Vezina Trophy for top goaltender (2000) and the King Clancy Trophy for leadership and humanitarian contributions (2007), one could say that the phrase, “pillar of the community,” seems to have been coined for him.

Kolzig is the first Capital in as long as I’ve been a Caps fan that I saw drafted, watched as his career unfolded, and would see leave the club and eventually the professional game. In those years are so many images – that 1998 run with his impossible long legs flashing a pad to make save after save, coming out of nowhere to a make a miracle glove save against the hated Penguins as time was running out to preserve a win, popping an Atlanta Thrasher in the mouth as he got too frisky in Kolzig’s crease, dropping f-bombs and shattering sticks if his performance even in practice didn’t meet his exacting standards.

But one thing never looked right on Kolzig in our mind – a red jersey...

The black jersey seemed to fit him and his style better – the outsized goaltender lurking darkly like a shark in the blue of his crease. And the red jersey was a reminder that all things change, including number one goaltenders, even one as iconic as Kolzig.

A player of immense talent and a person of considerable humanity, Kolzig leaves a lasting impression in the community as he takes the first steps in the next phase of his life. And it is good that Caps fans take a moment to remember that. But remember this, too. For those years he battled against the likes of Brodeur and Belfour, Joseph, Hasek, and Roy, Kolzig could fairly be mentioned in the same breath as those greats as a great himself.

Congratulations on a great career, Olie, and the best of luck in all you do.

1 comment:

Dan, Jr. said...

Thanks for posting such a truthful and thorough recollection of a great hockey player. you did an excellent job!

Olie is one of the best and most memorable Caps of all. We were blessed to have him on our team for as long as we did.