On the ice at the Washington Capitals’ development camp last week, Olie Kolzig’s towering 6-foot-3 figure was clad in bright red warmups rather than the familiar jersey, mask and pads of his playing days. The fiery temperament that earned him the nickname Godzilla wasn’t on display as much as Kolzig’s patience and role as “good cop” to the prospects half his age.
These changes seem to suit Kolzig, 41, as he makes his foray into the professional coaching ranks as associate goaltending coach for the Capitals, the team he spent 17 years and more than 700 games representing as a player.
Kolzig will work primarily with the organization’s minor league goalies in the American Hockey League and ECHL, but if he takes to the job and the demands of a coach’s life, it’s possible he could be guiding the goaltenders in Washington sooner rather than later.
“This is only my first camp in this capacity, but I can see myself doing this down the road,” Kolzig said last week. “It’s something that I wanted to try and it’s a good situation because I’m not just getting thrown to the wolves immediately. I’m able to learn under Dave [Prior] for at least a year and see if it’s something I would enjoy doing full time. So far, I’m really enjoying it.”
Kolzig’s introduction to coaching came during the two years following his NHL retirement in 2009, when he began tutoring the goaltenders on the Tri-City Americans, the junior hockey team he co-owns in Kennewick, Wash.
Intrigued by the ability to share his experience and mold young prospects, Kolzig had developed an itch to get involved with the NHL again when the Capitals presented him with the perfect opportunity.
Prior, Kolzig’s longtime coach with the Capitals and close friend, had agreed to resume the role of Washington’s goaltending coach when Arturs Irbe departed for family reasons following the 2010-11 season. Before he agreed to take his old job back, though, Prior requested that he be allowed to groom a possible successor and could envision no better candidate than Kolzig.
It had been more than two years since Kolzig’s public breakup with the organization in 2008, when he was relegated to the third spot on the depth chart and then skipped a team meeting and removed the nameplate from his locker stall at the end of the season.
Kolzig had moved on, and he was ready and willing to return to the team to which his legacy remained tethered.
“Obviously it was well documented what happened a few years ago, but time heals all wounds,” Kolzig said. “Everybody was ready to move on, and this is just another part of that process. I’m glad that I’m back and we’re moving forward.”
Now Prior, whom Kolzig credits with helping him maintain a lengthy and successful career, is tasked with teaching the former Vezina Trophy winner how to guide young goaltenders.
“There’s a lot of stuff he knows from having been coached and working with people like myself, but there’s a lot of learning what the prospects are like and finding solutions to their deficiencies that’s new,” said Prior, who hopes to mentor Kolzig and then slide back into the advisory role he held the two previous seasons of helping draft and develop the organization’s youngest goalies.
General Manager George McPhee acknowledged there is a definite possibility of Kolzig becoming the team’s full-time goaltending coach in the future.
“Dave, in his mind, thinks he can give us a couple more good years, maybe one, maybe three. At some point if Olie really takes to this and likes it and is good at it, we could see a transition there,” McPhee said. “It’s great to have him back. He looks great in Caps colors.”
On the ice and in meetings during development camp, Kolzig set about learning the personalities and playing styles of Washington’s prospects, from 2011 draft pick and raw talent Steffen Soberg to 2010 draft pick Philipp Grubauer, with whom he will likely work closely next season.
For Grubauer, there is an instant respect of Kolzig’s career and knowledge in even the earliest stages of their player-coach relationship.
The 19-year-old prospect and fellow German named Kolzig as one of his childhood idols.
“Olie played the game for so many years and was one of the best goaltenders out there. It makes it easy to want to listen to everything he says,” Grubauer said. “It’s helped me tremendously just being with him on the ice and being able to talk to him about problems and ask questions.”
Kolzig said he wants to ensure that the message and direction he delivers to players is consistent with Prior’s. But because he’ll be working primarily with Braden Holtby and Dany Sabourin in Hershey, Pa., and Grubauer in South Carolina, Kolzig knows the ability to draw on his past may be one of his most invaluable assets as a teacher.
“I’ve gone through a lot of ups and downs and had a lot of experiences, like being in the minors for four years and taking even longer to establish myself as a number one goalie,” Kolzig said. “I understand what it’s like to have high expectations for yourself and yet you haven’t reached them. I can relate to those highs and lows and hopefully help keep them on an even keel.”