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Capital in Odd Clothing

By Mike Wise
Monday, November 10, 2008

Before he cemented his identity as Washington's goaltender for parts of three decades -- before the Stanley Cup finals in 1998, the Vezina Trophy in 2000 or any memory of the Capitals -- Olaf Kolzig was a kid in junior hockey, trying to make a name for himself in front of family on his first trip home to Vancouver Island.

The only problem was, this annoying gnat of a player kept buzzing the crease, getting in the teenager's face -- until the young goalie finally dropped his gloves and squared off against Len Barrie.

The same Len Barrie who partnered with an investment group to purchase the Tampa Bay Lightning this past summer.

"I can say I won the fight," Kolzig said, laughing. "But who knew 21 years later Lenny was going to be my boss?"

You play more than half of your life, hockey becomes a small world.

Olie the Goalie comes home tonight, to the franchise that drafted him 19 years ago, to the city where he minded the net for 16 seasons.

For longtime Capitals loyalists, Verizon Center is going to have the same awkward feel of Patrick Ewing returning to Madison Square Garden in a green-and-gold Sonics uniform. Watching Olie grab his water bottle off the back of the visitor's net is essentially being from Green Bay and having no idea what to feel when Brett Favre drops back for the Jets.

Endings are often cruel in sports, even for the iconic athletic figures. After Michael Jordan's messy departure, no town knows that better than Washington. But Jordan was just passing through. Olie was part of the landscape, much more than one of the greatest goaltenders of his era.

He co-founded Athletes Against Autism and the Carson Kolzig Foundation for Youth Autism, to help encourage more research and awareness in honor of his son, who is afflicted with autism.

For two decades it didn't matter whether the Caps were god-awful bad or Stanley-Cup-run good; Olie was the franchise the way Darrell Green was the Washington Redskins for an NFL-record 20 seasons.

Think about it: Olie played goalie for the Capitals organization nine years longer than Jon Jansen, at 10 years the longest-tenured pro football player in Washington, has played right tackle for the Redskins. He started as a Capital four years longer than Wes Unseld wore his Bullets uniform and four years longer than Jaime Moreno has lined up corner kicks for D.C. United. After Green, no one comes close to Olie for longevity in Washington.

Kolzig deserved a better ending than a benching at the end of last season and an eventual divorce from the club, and so did the people who saw him intimidate with his 6-foot-3, 220-pound frame all those years, crouching purposefully as he cleared the crease of players and pucks. Everyone deserved better than seeing Olie the Goalie skate slowly around the ice by himself after the Capitals' wrenching Game 7 loss to Philadelphia in last spring's first round. He stayed long after everyone had gone to the locker room and cups and pizza boxes flew from angry Caps fans, because he knew it was over.

"I understand it's a business and I'm getting up there and they thought I was on my way down," Kolzig said. "Being the owner of a junior team, I know how that works. And I know I didn't have a great year. The only thing that really bothered me was the lack of communication. I just wanted someone to be up front with me, tell me what the deal was."

The moment General Manager George McPhee traded for Montreal's Cristobal Huet at the trading deadline, it was over. Huet started the final 12 games of the season, often standing on his head until the playoff run came to a halt.

"Obviously it was the right move the way our team took off," Kolzig said. "I'd never seen the building as loud and passionate as in those four games against the Flyers.

"There was never anything like that in my 19 years in the organization. I was happy to be part of that, even though I wasn't playing. Of course there is part of me that says, 'Why did it have to end this way?' But we all move on."

At 38, he strongly considered retirement. But his ending in Washington changed his mind.

"It's not about proving the Caps wrong, it's about proving to people in general that I can still play at a high level," he said.

The Lightning has yet to find a rhythm under new coach Barry Melrose, the former ESPN analyst. Kolzig will start tonight, but mostly he now alternates as a backup to Mike Smith.

"I'm not playing as much as I'd like to, and I'm trying to get used to it, but you've got a 26-year-old kid who's playing phenomenally," he said. Kolzig also realized he's now become what Bill Ranford was to him, almost two decades after the former Capital goalie's injury opened the door for Kolzig to take his place and not look back.

"At this point, how Billy treated me then is how I want to treat Smitty now," Kolzig said. "Billy could have had sour grapes after I took over and never looked back. But he never did any of that."

Huet left Washington for bigger money in Chicago, and his replacement, José Theodore, has not been very good. The Caps' backup, Brent Johnson, whom Kolzig dined with last night, has been better. If Washington is going to make a genuine Cup run, it will have to get the kind of play in goal Kolzig gave them for much of two decades.

"I like Olie, I think we all like Olie, and the people in Washington love Olie and rightfully so," Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau said yesterday. "But when the puck drops, I hope we score more than they score against us. I hope if he's starting [the fans] give him the round of applause I think he deserves and the recognition he deserves."

A short video tribute will be shown on the JumboTron during the first timeout of the first period tonight, which seems a bit trite and jammed in, especially given his years of service as a player and ambassador. Maybe feelings between both sides are a little raw, but he deserves a pre-game tribute of some kind -- especially for a guy who did not have to sign a two-year extension with a team that had no intention of spending money or contending after the lockout. Washington is all he knew in the NHL, so he stayed.

"To go through 2 1/2 years there and not be part of the future, that was tough," he said.

The $3.5 million house in Potomac sold the first day on the market. He and his wife, Christin, traded up for a four-bedroom, 5,000-square foot, waterfront home between Tampa and St. Petersburg. When he leaves the rink at 1 p.m. in November, Kolzig notices it's always sunny and warm.

The adjustment period with teammates didn't take long, either. "The old characteristics come out," he said. "Guys take shortcuts in practice or try too much fancy stuff, you kind of get a snarl on."

But Olie the Goalie made his greatest memories in Washington, on the ice of the building where he will play tonight as a member of another team. Here's hoping his homecoming is treated with the same dignity and passion he gave this city for almost 20 years.

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