By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 9, 2008
Olie Kolzig, the Washington Capitals goaltender through some of the best and worst moments in the team's history, confirmed yesterday what had been suspected for weeks: He has played his final game for the franchise that drafted him in 1989.
Kolzig's only regret, he said over lunch, is that his tenure did not end the way he always had envisioned it: with him hoisting the Stanley Cup and skating around the ice at Verizon Center. Instead, his Capitals career came to an abrupt conclusion April 22, when the free-agent-to-be watched from the bench as the Philadelphia Flyers vanquished Washington in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals.
"For me, it was disappointing the way it ended," said Kolzig, who led the Capitals to their only Stanley Cup finals appearance in 1998. "It's unfortunate, because they have a good team here now. It's a fantastic team, fantastic group of guys. Not to be a part of that is going to be tough, especially after 17 years and three years of what we went through post-lockout."
After a long pause, he added: "It just doesn't feel right. But at the same time, as an athlete, you have to know when to move on."
Kolzig, Washington's longest-tenured professional athlete and a fan favorite, knew that the time had come after Game 4 against the Flyers, who won in double overtime to take a 3-1 series lead. He was hopeful Coach Bruce Boudreau might turn to him. But the night before Game 5, goaltending coach Dave Prior told Kolzig that the coaching staff had decided trade-deadline acquisition Cristobal Huet would make his 12th consecutive start. Prior told him that switching net-minders had not been discussed, Kolzig said.
"When you're down three games to one in the playoffs, I felt like it was an opportunity for me to get in there with the experience I have," said Kolzig, who is tied for 22nd on the NHL's career victories list with 301. "Our backs were against the wall, but it didn't happen. I said to myself: 'My time here in Washington has passed. They've chosen to go in a different direction, and this was the exclamation point on it.' "
After the Game 7 loss in Washington, Kolzig removed his nameplate from his locker stall and skipped a team meeting the following morning. He said he plans to frame the nameplate with a jersey.
"In my mind, there wasn't anything hateful," Kolzig said of removing his nameplate. "I wasn't there for the meeting because I didn't want to have to face the media. I wanted to avoid [reporters] as long as I could. It got blown out of proportion.
"I realized that Game 7 was my last game as a Cap. That night was a very emotional time for me. I was one of the last guys to leave. It sucked that I wasn't playing, but I wanted us to go as far as we could. In the back of my mind, I thought that it's ironic, I'm not playing, but this could be our time to win a Cup. And in a weird way, this is how I get my ring, especially the way we were coming back. So I was even more disappointed when we lost Game 7, knowing that was going to be my last game."
The season had begun like the previous nine: with Kolzig, the 2000 Vezina Trophy winner as the league's best goaltender, entrenched as the Capitals' starter. But Kolzig's dominant performances became less frequent as the season wore on. So as the Capitals attempted to battle back from their worst start in 26 years, General Manager George McPhee traded for Huet, sending a second-round draft pick in 2009 to the Montreal Canadiens for the 2006-07 all-star.
At first, Boudreau split playing time between Huet and Kolzig. But Kolzig did not start another game after a 5-0 loss in Chicago on March 19, his 711th game as a Capital. Huet started the final seven regular season contests, winning them all to help the Capitals clinch the Southeast Division title -- and their first playoff berth in five years -- on the final day of the regular season.
When Kolzig sat down on the team bus after the loss in Chicago, he had a sinking feeling.
"I told [No. 3 goalie Brent Johnson], 'That was probably my last game as a Capital,' " Kolzig said. "Obviously it was at a crucial point in the season where we needed to win every game. They were a team we felt we could beat. Whether we were ready to play or not, we didn't beat them. Huet went in, won seven in a row and the rest is history."
Kolzig recorded his ninth season with at least 20 victories, winning 25 games. But his .892 save percentage and 2.91 goals against average ranked near the bottom of the league, and were well below his career numbers of .908 and 2.69 entering the season.
"It's hard to argue this because the season is done and my numbers are set, and when you compare them to other goalies on the team, I had the worst numbers," Kolzig said. "I did not play as well as the previous few years. But I didn't play as poorly as my numbers indicated, as some people want to believe. I never was a save percentage guy. For me, it was all about wins."
Though Kolzig's time in Washington has passed -- he's in the process of selling his family's $3.5 million house in Potomac -- Kolzig does not feel as if he's done playing hockey. In fact, he has resumed training for next season and plans to approach the offseason as if he is going to play. And if the right situation were to present itself -- joining a contender is high among his priorities -- he would return for a 17th NHL season.
If that doesn't happen, Kolzig said, he would seriously consider retiring.
"I haven't completely made up my mind," Kolzig said. "For me, it's all about my family. The situation has to be good for my family. I still feel that I can be a dominant goalie in this league. If the offer is not out there . . . I'll just sit by the pool with a six-pack."
McPhee declined to comment because he had not spoken directly to Kolzig.