Olaf Kolzig was spotted from across the lobby inside Piney Orchard Ice Arena by Brendan Witt, who immediately swaggered over, threw a playful punch at Kolzig's midsection and then hugged the big goalie.
It had been awhile. Too long, the longtime Washington Capitals agreed. Teammates since 1995, and two of the club's few remaining veterans, Kolzig and Witt had not skated together since the Capitals' final game of the 2003-04 season. A labor dispute wiped out all of last year.
Finally, more than a year and half later, they could call themselves NHL players again.
"It feels good, feels really good," Kolzig said yesterday as the Capitals opened training camp. "I spent three months last year in Germany playing, trying to fill the void. It was nice and had a great time, met some great guys. But it's not like playing in the NHL."
"Everyone, to a man, is excited to be back out here," he added. "You miss the whole NHL lifestyle. The one thing about playing in Europe is you realize how good you have it playing here. It's the little things. Over there, you pack your own [equipment] bag, carry your own bag."
Kolzig and Witt were among the nearly 50 veterans, prospects and draft picks inside the Capitals' practice facility in Odentonfor the start of Glen Hanlon's inaugural camp as head coach. It is the team's first camp since its 2004 salary purge, which saw Jaromir Jagr, Sergei Gonchar, Robert Lang and Peter Bondra, among others, traded away in anticipation of an owners' lockout that resulted in a new collective bargaining agreement that limits what teams can spend on players' salaries.
Bondra had been negotiating a return to Washington, but that won't happen. The 37-year-old right wing, a fan favorite during 13-plus seasons in Washington and the franchise's all-time leader in goals and points, agreed to terms with Atlanta, a Southeast Division rival that the Capitals will face eight times this season. Final details of the contract were being worked out last night, according to Bondra's agent, Ritch Winter.
"We did the best we could and it didn't work out," General Manager George McPhee said of Bondra. "We wish him well."
The Capitals had offered Bondra a one-year contract worth $1.5 million, with incentives that would have increased the value to $2 million. Bondra countered the Capitals' offer with a proposal for two years and more money. It's believed Bondra has agreed to an incentive-laden one-year deal.
"There is a changing of the guard here," said Hanlon, who replaced Bruce Cassidy as head coach on Dec. 10, 2003. "But it started last hockey season. We have removed some of our veteran players that fans have been synonymous with. We're hoping Alexander Semin, Alexander Ovechkin and Steve Eminger will replace the Langways of the teams of the past."
Ovechkin, on his first day -- officially -- as an NHL player, stood out as he glided around overmatched defenders and ripped wrist shots past equally overmatched goalies.
"He's a dynamic player, he's a fearless player, he's a player you can build a team around," Hanlon said of the Capitals' 2004 No. 1 overall draft pick, who skated last season for Dynamo Moscow.
With so many prospects expected to receive significant playing time, it figures to be a long season for the Capitals as they rebuild from the ground up. The regular season begins Oct. 5, when the Capitals host the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Kolzig, for now, is embracing his role as starting goaltender and mentor. Meantime, Witt, 30, has requested a trade to a contender, a wish he reaffirmed yesterday.
"I'm happy to be back in the ice rink," Witt said.
He just wishes it was someplace other than Piney Orchard. Asked if he still wanted to be traded, Witt said: "I've been really adamant and I still feel that way. The team is going in a different direction. I look at my age and I want to move forward. That's my honest opinion."
Witt added: "They are rebuilding, they are in a five-year plan. And that's fine. Nothing against that. I just don't want to be involved in that. I'm here to play hard. Hopefully they'll grant my wish soon. I'm not angry. I just want to play for a contending team."
Kolzig, in a similar predicament at age 35, is taking the opposite approach.
"You can look [at the rebuilding process] two ways," he said. "I'm not going to lie to you and say that I haven't thought about requesting a trade. But at the same time, I want to be one of those athletes who begin and finishes his career with the same team.
"I can help bring along a guy like Ovechkin, just in how to deal with things, how to deal with the ups and downs, how to be ready to play every night. Not a lot people are expecting a lot of things from us. We want to go out and prove everyone wrong."
Not even the prospects of a dismal season and trade demands could damper the giddy mood yesterday as players, coaches, front-office staffers returned to what they love doing. McPhee admitted to feeling like a kid again. He woke up at 3:30 a.m., nervous in anticipation of the day's activities.
"I can probably speak for everyone in the organization, the night before camp, we all have seem to have butterflies," McPhee said. "It's a big day. The players are nervous, the coaches are excited about getting going and hoping they have everything set up the properly. It's not unlike the night before Christmas. It was hard to sleep."