Olaf Kolzig on Goaltending And A Life With Capitals
Drafted 19th overall in 1989, Olaf “Olie” Kolzig went on to become one of the Washington Capital’s most iconic players during his 19-year pro career.
After representing New Westminster Bruins and Tri City in the WHL, Kolzig played 711 games for the Capitals, breaking every franchise goaltending record and backstopping Washington to its first Stanley Cup Final appearance in 1998.
“Obviously going to the Stanley Cup Finals is a favourite memory,” Kolzig told InGoal Magazine, “But winning game 6 in Buffalo to win the Conference, that was huge. Unfortunately it was our last win of the season, as we lost four straight to Detroit in the Final, but that was my break-out year, so it will always be special.”
Kolzig played 64 games that season, going 33-18-10 as the Caps finished fourth in the East, before posting an incredible 1.95 goals-against average and .941 save percentage in the playoffs. It cemented the netminder’s place in fans’ hearts, and proved to be a turning point for Kolzig.
“I had been fighting to find consistency in the years before, and wasn’t able to take over the No. 1 spot at any point,” he said, “But that season became my break-out year and helped me establish myself on the NHL landscape.”
While he went on to greater things, NHL firsts are special for every player – and it was no different for Kolzig.
“My first NHL game was in Hartford in October 1989 and it was a total surprise for me,” Kolzig said. “It was the year I was drafted and I had no thoughts of making in the NHL at that time. I was 19 years old and just wanted to make an impression; but I made the team right out of camp. That’s obviously a big highlight for me.”
Kolzig played one further game that season before returning to the Tri City Americans, where he is now part of the ownership group. But it was another three years before he tasted NHL action again, playing a single period during the 1992-93 season.
Then 22, Kolzig played seven games for Washington the following year, but spent much of the season in the American Hockey League with Portland, where he helped the Pirates lift the Calder Cup, winning the Jack A. Butterfield Trophy as playoff MVP. But it wasn’t until the 1994/-5 season that he had his first taste of success with the Capitals.
“My first win against the Islanders in ’94 was huge because it was such a long time coming,” he said. “After the initial success of making it to the NHL in 1989, it took me a while to get back there. So when I did come back, I really appreciated it.
“I’m proud to say I never took a practise off, never took a game off. I was always worried about someone else taking my job, so I wanted to make sure I left an impression with coaches and management – that I was ‘the guy.’ So that first win was big for me.”
Kolzig established himself as the team’s No.1 and won the Vezina Trophy in 2000 after winning 41 games, helping Washington win their second Divisional championship. But it was another award that sticks in Kolzig’s mind.
“The year I won the King Clancy Award (2006), for leadership on and off the ice was probably the pinnacle for me,” he said. “At the end of your career you’re going to be remembered more for what you do off the ice, and how you are as a person. So to win that award in the same year my dad passed away, that meant a lot because he and my mom would have been very proud of the son they raised.”
Kolzig’s efforts off the ice became as well known as his exploits on it; and along with good friend Byron Dafoe and Scott Mellanby, he started the Athletes Against Autism program to help raise awareness and funding for research, treatment, and education for autism.
“Sadly Athlete’s Against Autism disbanded a few years ago when the country went through the recession” K0lzig said. “Charities were all hit very hard, and we had to cut the program sadly.”
An offshoot of Autism Speaks, Athletes Against Autism was able to help its parent charity before the program ended, something Kolzig is still proud of.
“One positive that came of it was that, just before the program ended, we were able to recruit golfer Ernie Els. And so Autism Speaks has Ernie as one of their foremost ambassadors – we’re very proud that was able to happen.”
In 2004, Kolzig’s founded The Carson Kolzig Foundation, in honour of his son. Based in Washington State, the foundation has helped the local community for more than a decade now.
“We’ve established an autism centre for the Columbia Valley region of Washington State, and raised over $1.2-milllion in the 11 years since the foundation began. I’m very proud of that.”
During his 19-year pro career, Kolzig became one of the most respected goaltenders in the NHL. With competition for places high, Kölzig feels fortunate to have had such great coaching support throughout his career.
“Obviously (long-time Capitals goalie coach) Dave Prior was monumental in my career. Mitch (Korn) was my first pro goalie coach, and he helped me create a foundation, helped me become more consistent, but Dave probably had the biggest impact on me,” Kolzig said.
“I’m a big guy at 6-foot-3 and 225 pounds when I was at my playing weight, but I was fairly athletic for my size. I didn’t rely on a lot of speed. I put myself into a position where we considered a shot wide was as good as a save. You might not get credit for it on the scoresheet, but proper positioning and good foot work put me in some good spots that forced players to miss the net.”
Despite making it look easy at times, Kolzig did not reach the top of the game without working hard, and there was one area in particular he feels is key to becoming a successful goaltender.
“For me, being a big guy, one of the biggest things I worked on was foot work. And I think that’s the most vital skill for young goaltenders,” he said. “When you start playing hockey, if you aren’t a forward or a defenseman early on you can sometimes be found lacking a little in terms of skating skill. To be able to move around the crease like guys do now, moving East to West, footwork is vital. So that became the thing I concentrated on the most; that and good positioning.”
Inducted into the ECHL Hall of Fame in 2010, Kolzig is keen to enforce the need to retain a balance.
“It’s a fine line. I’ve worked at a couple of clinics this summer and my final message to the kids is always the same – first and foremost, you have to have fun.”
With so many resources available to young netminders now, it’s easy to get bogged down in the latest techniques and teaching methods; but Kolzig doesn’t want young goalies to get ahead of themselves.
“Of course there’s going to be a point at which you’ll have to make a decision – ‘Is this what I want to do?’ – and when you reach that point you’ll obviously have to take things a little more seriously, become more focussed on the finer points of the position,” he said. “But at a young age I always tell them ‘for now, it’s about having fun.'”
Kolzig’s other advice to budding netminders is equally simple.
“Hard work in practice. There’s a lot to be said for a good work ethic, and your teammates will respect you for that. Players will work that little harder in front of you if they see you’re a tremendous worker,” he said. “As they get older, if they want to take the game a little more seriously, I’m sure they’ll be involved with a goaltending coach or goaltending academy. Coaches now are very well educated in the position and seem to be teaching a lot of good fundamentals.”
As someone who learned his craft in the 1980s, Kolzig has seen many changes in the way the position is taught and assessed. With changes in equipment, technique and the support goaltenders receive, goaltending is very different now to when Kolzig made his debut in 1989.
“I definitely think the goaltenders of today are tremendous athletes. They have to be really. The game has got so much faster, and the shooters are so much bigger and stronger. The only thing that hasn’t really changed is the size of the rink,” he said. “Now goaltenders have to be world-class athletes. When I broke in to the league in 1989, the position was already starting to evolve in a sense. Goalies were becoming more athletic even then. But kids now train for 12 months-a-year, they have individual trainers and goalie coaches. I didn’t have a formal goalie coach until my third year as a pro playing in Rochester.”
With an ever increasing number of goaltending coaches at senior and junior clubs, and a growing knowledge base throughout the community, it’s easy to to play things by the book, but Kolzig feels the position is still about more than just learning from a manual.
“Goaltending has become a lot more technical, but I think some of the greats in the league are not only good technically, but play with great instincts,” he said. “You look at Henrik Lundqvist, Jonathan Quick and Tuukka Rask, they’re just flawless in how they play the position. They have great instincts, and combined with their technique and athleticism, it’s how they make saves. With all the coaching kids get now; if they can ensure they keep using their instincts as well, instead of just becoming robots, they’ll have a greater chance of success and a longer career.”
And Kolzig has a hand in helping the Capitals next generation achieve that success, stepping in to the role of professional development coach with the franchise this year after working as the team’s NHL goaltending coach last season.
“I’ve taken a step back from coaching, but I’m still involved with the Caps,” he said. “I’m currently in charge of pro development, which means I take all the young kids who have moved up from junior, college or Europe to become pros. It’s part of my job to teach them how to adjust to the pro lifestyle, and to help them become leaders and good professionals.
“It’s a role I’m excited about starting at training camp, because I think it’s very important to work with these young guys and steer them in the right direction early. Because then the organization is going to have some tremendous kids, tremendous leaders, for years to come.”
With the franchise celebrating it’s 40th anniversary this season, Kolzig feels hockey has come a long way in the US capital over the past decade, with the 2015 Winter Classic a great indicator of just how well the club has done.
“I think it speaks volumes about where the organisation has gone,” he said. “At the beginning and into the middle of my career, it wasn’t really known as a hockey town. The (NFL) Redskins are king here, and it’s probably safe to say we were behind the Baltimore Oriole’s and the Washington Wizards as well. But I’d say over the last decade that has really started to change. Even though the Redskins are still king, we’ve had a little more success and to me it shows that people here love the Capitals. We’ve become a staple in the NHL landscape and for the league to bring it’s most prestigious event here, I think goes a long way to validating Washington as a hockey town.”
Despite some murmurs the iconic Camden Yards should have been chosen to host the event, Kolzig has no doubt Nationals Park was the right choice of venue for Washington to host Chicago in on January 1.
“In my mind there was never any other choice. Camden Yards is in Baltimore, and even though Washington and Baltimore have a bit of a history together – and the Capitals did have a minor league team there – I still think that a venue which has the capitol and the monument in the background, well to me it was a no brainer to have it there,” he said.
One feature controversially missing from this years Winter Classic is the alumni game. A huge success with fans at previous events, Kolzig is disappointed not to have the opportunity to don the pads one more time for Washington.
“I’m very disappointed,” the former Vezina winner said. “I had major hip surgery two years ago and told myself I’d never put the pads on again; but over the past year and a half I’ve had a bit of a change of tune. I was excited when I heard Washington had been awarded the Winter Classic, because I knew there was going to be an alumni game. I was already preparing to play in it: I was going to have a mask designed and really go all out with it. And then when I heard they weren’t going to have one, it really threw me through a loop.
“I don’t know why they’re not going to have one. This franchise has been here 40 years now and has some great former players. Obviously the Blackhawks are an Original Six team as well, with a rich history, so I think it would have been a fantastic game – I’m a little bit perplexed as to why it isn’t taking place.”
Despite the disappointment surrounding the alumni game, the franchise seems to be in a good position heading in to the new season. Are they still contenders though?
“I think so” says Kolzig, “But obviously the window is starting to close with our core players. They’re getting a little older, and the pressure is on them to have success now. But I think we’re all optimistic going in to the new season. It was unfortunate we didn’t make it last year, and the organization saw fit to make some changes. Whether they were good or bad remains to be seen, but I’ve known Barry Trotz a long time.”
Trotz spent 15 seasons as Nashville coach, but his relationship with Kolzig and the Capitals dates back to the early 1980s when he served as a scout for the club, and then Head Coach of their minor league affiliate, the Baltimore Skipjacks. The skipjacks moved to Portland in 1994, becoming the Pirates, where Trotz won two Calder Cups.
“He was the Western scout for the Capitals back then, and was a big part of the club finding and drafting me. I played for him in Portland, where we won a Calder Cup together,” Kolzig said. “And obviously (new Capitals goalie coach) Mitch Korn was my first goalie coach in Rochester. So I’ve got a little bit of history with him too. They’re not only great coaches, but also fantastic people.
“So far, just talking to all of the players, they’re all ecstatic for this year and really looking forward to it.”
Kolzig also played in two Olympics and a World Cup, representing Germany 18 times. With NHL participation in Pyeongchang still a hot button topic around the league, Kolzig admits he can see both sides of the coin.
“I don’t think the NHL has an obligation for the players to be there,” he said. “We only started playing at the Olympics in 1998, before that it was all amateurs. So it was never something that was always there, it was something the NHL decided to do, so it’s their right to decide not to send them anymore too.
“The owners don’t want to send their star players to play in the Olympics. With the threat of injuries and so forth. The NHL is a multi billion dollar business now, so you can understand that. But having been there, and having played in a World Cup as well, I don’t think there is any question – and any player will probably tell you the same thing – the Olympic experience is phenomenal. For every player, it’s truly an honour to go there. I was hoping my body would have been in good enough shape to play in Vancouver, but sadly it wasn’t the case”
Kolzig played in Nagano in 1998, and then again in Torino in 2006, and treasures the experience the two tournaments gave him.
“To be part of something that’s been around so long, the overall Olympic experience, the history and to say you were an Olympian – it’s truly an honour,” he said.
Looking ahead to 2018, Kolzig understands both sides of the argument.
“I’d love to see the NHL go, the players love it but equally, being on the other side of the fence now, I can understand why management don’t want to send their players,” he said. “If they decide to bring back the World Cup, I think that would be a great substitute. You’ll still have all the greatest players in the world representing their country and playing some exciting. Either way I don’t think the public will lose.”
Special thanks to Olie for his time. You can follow him on Twitter @OlieKolzig37