- The Washington Times - Friday, January 5, 2007

They should have been the bitterest of opponents, and they were while on the ice fighting for jobs. But off the ice, Olie Kolzig and Byron Dafoe — both drafted by the Washington Capitals in 1989 — were as close as competitors get.

They trained together, played together and became business partners. They were each other’s best man at their weddings, and celebrated the birth of their children together.

Then one morning, Kolzig and his wife came to the realization their oldest child, Carson, was autistic. And Dafoe and his wife started to recognize some of the tell-tale signs the Kolzigs had talked about in their only child, Eric, who is 18 months older than Carson.

“It’s a small world,” Kolzig said. “They say if you don’t know somebody with autism, you soon will. Coincidence? Yeah, I guess. My son is autistic, my godson [Eric] is autistic and with our backgrounds, me and Byron, how close we are … like I said, it’s a small world.”

Tonight, the Caps host their second annual Autism Awareness Night as a part of the Atlanta Thrashers game. That in itself is fitting. Dafoe finished his NHL career with Atlanta and right wing Scott Mellanby, whose son Carter also is autistic, will be present. The three men formed an organization called Athletes Against Autism as a support group for each other. That mission accomplished, they are reaching out to others.

Autism is a disease that attacks children, mostly males, scrambling the brain waves in such a way that victims can’t always interact socially, have marked repetitive behavior patterns and suffer language dysfunction. The cause is not known nor is there a cure, although treatment has progressed dramatically in recent years.

The hockey sprang to life when Kolzig reached out. He called an old friend, Stu Barnes, who now plays for Dallas, and Barnes put him in touch with Mellanby. Rivalries were not a factor, only children.

“Our pediatrician said he thought Carson might be autistic,” Kolzig said. “It tore our world apart. We didn’t know what to do, where to turn. Stu said to call Scott and believe it, it’s probably the most important phone call we’ve made.

“Scott was blatantly honest. He said he wasn’t going to sugar coat anything, that we have a rough road ahead. He said what was coming would try our patience and our marriage. He prepared us, moved us in the right direction. We started asking questions and slowly got Carson on the right track.”

That was four and a half years ago. Athletes Against Autism has now grown to about 50 athletes, about half of whom have a family member who has autism. The group has raised about $500,000 to help fund its mission — assisting others who suddenly find themselves in need of a support system.

“We have our own support group for Carson and the other guys do the same,” Kolzig said. “We’ve gone through the highs and lows, we know what to expect — two steps forward, one step back.

“But we need support for other people. I’ve had a couple people call me at home through the Web site. They know they can call, that’s why we’re there. They have children they suspect are autistic. We want to help them cope because there’s a very rough road ahead of them.”

Kolzig will be honored in a pregame ceremony when the King Clancy Award he won last June will be presented to him again. The award is presented yearly to the athlete who displays leadership on the ice and off the ice helping charitable organizations. During his career, Kolzig has helped raise hundred of thousands of dollars for the Children’s National Medical Center.

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