In the late summer of 1989, Don Beaupre was holding out and Bob Mason was hurt as the Washington Capitals toured Sweden and the Soviet Union for the first three weeks of training camp.
An 18-year-old rookie goalie, a first-round draft pick two months earlier, made the roster. He was huge and talented but green. He made it as much by default as anything.
He lost his first game 4-1 in Hartford. He lost his second game 8-4 in Toronto after holding a 4-1 lead. Then he was returned to his junior team.
At the end of the 1996-97 season, Olie Kolzig had an NHL record of 14-36-8 and appeared to be a career backup at best, a first-round disappointment.
Then came Oct.1, 1997, at Maple Leaf Gardens, Toronto. Exactly 2:29 into the first game of the season, Caps starter Bill Ranford stopped a shot where no male athlete likes to get hit with anything. He aggravated the injury just before the end of the period and didn’t return for the second.
“At the time, I didn’t think it was an opportunity, [that] I was just filling in for the rest of the game, that Billy would be back,” Kolzig said yesterday. “His misfortune was my fortune.”
Kolzig’s next victory will be his 200th in the NHL. He now is 199-172-51, a turnaround of 49 games. And at 32, when a goalie is really just reaching his prime, he is showing that things other than fine wine improve with age.
“I didn’t start out too well,” he said, smiling. “I was like a lot of players who get drafted they have all the tools but between the ears they’re a little soft. That’s a learning process.”
Two hundred is a nice round figure. Only about 50 goalies in NHL history have reached it Beaupre (268), Pete Peeters (246) and Ranford (240) are the only former Caps to get there but it’s not the figure that separates the elite from the very good. (Patrick Roy, at 529, is at a level all his own.)
Asked if 300 wins was out of the question for him, Kolzig replied, “Goalies are basically rated on that stat and how you do in the playoffs. I think 300 is a realistic number. We’ve got a good team here, and you have to be fortunate to be playing on a good team. If I stay healthy and we keep the nucleus of the team here and we stay competitive every year, I think it’s a realistic number.”
Kolzig is well known for what is mainly an irrelevant fact, that he was born in South Africa. He is the son of German nationals who made their living in the hotel business and happened to be working in Johannesburg when he was born. He was raised primarily in Canada.
Momentarily stumped when he was asked to define his goalie, coach Bruce Cassidy replied, “He’s the backbone, the glue. If you went through our whole roster, he’d be the one guy we could least afford to lose.”
Washington’s fortunes rise and fall with how its goalie is performing.
“He gives us a chance to win every game, and he wins games for us,” said Cassidy. “Off the ice, he’s a diehard Cap. He’s been here forever. He epitomizes a Washington Capital. He’s concerned about what goes on in the room, about team morale, about building the team all those things and more. He’s a complete team player.”
Notes Sergei Gonchar, who is second in the league among defensemen in scoring (10 goals, 36 points) and fourth overall with a defensive rating of plus-21, has been named to the Eastern Conference All-Star team. This will be his third straight appearance in the exhibition. Right wing Jaromir Jagr will start for the East.
Little-used defenseman J.F. Fortin was assigned to Portland, Maine, for conditioning. Left wing Josh Green took part in practice after being claimed off waivers the previous day. Defenseman Joel Kwiatkowski, obtained from the Senators for a conditional draft pick, joins the club in Ottawa tomorrow. Defenseman/wing Alex Henry missed yesterday’s short drill with the flu.
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