On Hockey: Alex Ovechkin can’t get ‘wrapped in rock-star status,’ Capitals assistant Olie Kolzig says


Olie Kolzig on the Caps’ captain: “He just has to get back to being the way he was in his younger days and maybe not get wrapped up too much in the rock-star status that comes with being Alex Ovechkin.” (Matt McClain/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)
February 15, 2012

Most associate goalie coaches don’t have the qualifications necessary to comment about the source of the team captain’s struggles or the head coach’s motivations and methods.

But Olie Kolzig does. Alex Ovechkin and Dale Hunter were Washington Capitals teammates of his. They shared a dressing room and, on occasion, a dinner table. So on Wednesday, when a briefing on goaltenders shifted to a conversation about Ovechkin and Hunter, those listening leaned a little closer. And in typical Kolzig fashion, he didn’t pull any punches.

“For Alex, it’s a work ethic,” Kolzig said. “He just has to get back to being the way he was in his younger days and maybe not get wrapped up too much in the rock-star status that comes with being Alex Ovechkin.”

It’s not like Kolzig is the first person around the Capitals’ dressing room to think something like that. He’s just the first to say it publicly.

“I think a lot is frustration,” Kolzig continued. “Obviously he’s not scoring at the clip he’s accustomed to. Part of that is not having Nicky Backstrom in the lineup [because of a concussion]. Alex — and I think I’m seeing it a little more with Dale behind the bench — Alex was getting away from playing the hard, no-nonsense, honest type of hockey, exuberant hockey that he displayed the first three years that he was in the league.

“I think that’s what endeared him to everybody. Then, all of a sudden — he was the same Alex — he was celebrating certain ways, and what endeared him to everybody now made him look like a villain,” added Kolzig, likely referencing Ovechkin’s infamous “hot stick” routine at Tampa Bay to celebrate his 50th goal in March 2009. “So, I think part of it is he’s feeling a little not as loved as he used to be; he brings that on himself sometimes.”

Kolzig witnessed Ovechkin’s meteoric rise when the two were teammates from 2005-06, the Russian’s rookie season, to 2007-08. He also has seen, from afar, Ovechkin’s precipitous decline in point production. With 23 goals and 21 assists this season, he is on pace for a career-low 65 points.

“Teams have kind of got a handle on him, maybe how to close the gap on him and not allow him to score those fantastic one-on-one goals that he used to score,” Kolzig said.

He was nearly as candid about Hunter, who in the past few days has irritated Mike Knuble and Michal Neuvirth.

“As a coach, you’re going to bruise some egos, going to hurt some feelings but that’s what he believes in,” Kolzig said of his former teammate in Washington from 1989 to 1999. “If that’s what it’s going to take to get this team close to winning a Stanley Cup, I think at the end of the day, if that happens, all those unpopular decisions will all of a sudden look pretty smart.”

Knuble, a respected voice in the dressing room voice and an alternate captain, has been a healthy scratch the past three games. Neuvirth, meantime, arrived at Verizon Center on Monday afternoon expecting to make his second straight start in place of an ill Tomas Vokoun. Instead, he watched from the bench as Braden Holtby, called up from the minor leagues, made his first NHL start in almost a year against San Jose.

Hunter is an“old-school, no-nonsense kind of guy,” Kolzig said. “He gave up a pretty lucrative, successful stint down in London [Ontario] to chase the one thing that’s eluded him: a Stanley Cup. He’s coming in here [and] he’s got nothing to lose.”

On Friday, the Capitals embark on a critical four-game trip. With just three wins in 11 games, they sit in ninth place in the Eastern Conference and are hardly assured a playoff spot.

“He’s only got a one-year contract,” Kolzig added of Hunter, acknowledging what has been reported locally but never confirmed by the Capitals. “He wants to do everything possible to put the team in a position to win a Stanley Cup. Sometimes you make decisions as a coach that are unpopular.”

Kolzig also hinted that the Capitals’ depth in goal — Vokoun and Neuvirth as well as prospects Holtby and Philipp Grubauer — could come into play at the NHL’s trade deadline on Feb. 27.

“Other teams covet our goaltending and if there’s a deal that needs to be made . . . ” he said. “We’ve got four guys that can all play, and it’s a nice benefit to have. It’s a good chip as an organization to have.”

Because of Kolzig’s job description — he’s largely in charge of developing the team’s goaltending prospects in Hershey, Pa., and Charleston, S.C. — he doesn’t make it to Arlington all that often.

But he should. Because there’s more than one reason why he was a favorite during his 16-season tenure in Washington: In addition to being a heck of a goalie, he always told it like it is.

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