If you were to carve a Mount Rushmore representing loyalty and service of professional athletes in Washington, these four faces would be on the mountain: Darrell Green, Redskins, 21 seasons. Sam Rice, Senators, 20 seasons. Monte Coleman, Redskins, 16 seasons. And ...
Olie Kolzig, Washington Capitals, 15 seasons and counting.
The Capitals goalie now is one of the grand old men of sports in this town. He first appeared in a Caps uniform in 1989 and has been back for all or part of every season since 1992-93 after several years in the minor leagues.
In 1989, Joe Gibbs was coming off his first losing season, and the Redskins still played at RFK Stadium. The Wizards were still the Bullets and played in Landover. The Orioles still played at Memorial Stadium, and Frank Robinson was their manager. Washington's future baseball team still was in Montreal with an 81-81 record, and the District still faced two more rounds of rejection in the derby for an expansion franchise.
Kolzig has seen the entire sports landscape in this town change while he was in net for the Caps. He never received the attention given the stars in other sports who have come and gone in Washington because of the status of hockey here.
He is, nevertheless, a big part of Washington sports history, and, at the age of 36, he is determined to write one great, final chapter in his story.
"I don't feel like the grand old man," Kolzig joked after stopping 35 shots in Wednesday night's 6-2 win over the Ottawa Senators. "I don't feel old, period. I feel as good as I ever have."
And looking as good as ever, too.
Kolzig holds nearly every Caps goalie record, is a two-time All-Star and once won the Vezina Trophy. This season, he has exceeded all expectations with his play except perhaps his own. He stopped 48 shots in one game and has five games with 40-plus saves.
"I felt good going into the season," Kolzig said. "I felt my game was good last year, and that was after basically missing a year [because of the lockout]. I felt energized and refreshed. This summer, I did a different workout routine and lost seven pounds. Not that I was fat before, but instead of bulking up on muscle I did more toning and working on certain areas.
"Coming into camp I felt great, and being around a bunch of young guys like we have here, like the exuberance of Alex Ovechkin, it kind of rubs off on you," he said. "With goaltenders, if you can maintain your physical conditioning and your health and you have so much experience and maturity that the mental part of the game is a lot easier for older goalies than for younger goalies."
Kolzig signed a two-year contract extension last season to stay in Washington, but some questioned whether he could maintain the level of his play long enough to stay around when the franchise's youth movement finally paid off. After all, he could have signed with a team much closer to winning a Stanley Cup than the Caps were at the time.
But the way the Caps are playing right now -- the club is 12-9-6 and coming off four straight wins, three of them at home against Ottawa, Buffalo and Dallas -- Kolzig believes it is clear he made the right decision, though he said he never considered signing with another team.
"I never looked at leaving," he said. "I was close to being traded a couple of years ago when they had the fire sale here. I don't know how that would have turned out. But when it came to my decision, being a free agent, I said to myself, 'I like where our team was and where it was going.' Going to another team may increase your chances short term of winning a Cup, but you also lose that stature that you establish with one organization.
"Even though I am a veteran in the league, I go to a different team and you are sort of on the lower end of the totem pole again. There's that comfort level that you have to establish again."
Kolzig also likes the direction of his team.
"I thought, what better story would there be than if I stayed with one team for my entire career and ended up winning a Stanley Cup here?" Kolzig said. "I think that would be the ultimate. I have no regrets about staying here, and I think my decision has been a little more vindicated by the way we are playing. We still have a long way to go, but I think we are getting better and better. This year we get into the playoffs and next year add a few more pieces of the puzzle and really put us over the top."
Washington sports fans -- even if they are not hockey fans -- should treasure the time there is left for Kolzig, because in this day and age athletes like him are few and far between. In this town, we may be watching the last one.
"My roots are really here now in Washington," said Kolzig, the winner of the 2006 NHL King Clancy Memorial Trophy for his leadership on and off the ice. "We love the area. I feel more a part of the community than I ever have. The work I do with the autism community here [his son Carson is autistic] hits home a little more than the average person.
"Being an athlete, we are in a situation where we are being paid very well to play a game. We are in a fortunate situation, and we have the ability to help less fortunate people. I have always felt that way and will continue to feel that way."
Someday his No. 37 jersey will hang from the rafters at Verizon Center. And if ever there could be a Mount Rushmore of Washington sports, he would belong there as well.
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