- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The night at Verizon Center began pretty much as expected for a sports icon in an opposing uniform returning to the city that identified with him for so long.

The crowd cheered during the pregame introductions for Olie Kolzig, who had played 711 games for the Washington Capitals over his long career but was now the goalie for the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Some fans chanted “Ol-ie! Ol-ie!” after the national anthem. There was a sign posted in the arena that said, “Welcome back, Olie.” And a row of fans were wearing different versions of Capitals jerseys featuring Kolzig’s name and number.

It seemed as if this would be a lovefest for the guy who was going to do everything he could to stop the home team from scoring a goal, let alone winning the game. Kolzig’s former Washington teammates seemed to join in as well, not even taking a shot on Kolzig in the first eight minutes of the game.

Then it came.

Shot by Tom Poti — score.

Shot by Mike Green — score.

Not long after: shot by Eric Fehr — score.

Three goals by the Capitals within an eight-minute span — two of them coming on the first two shots.

Final score — Washington 4, Tampa Bay 2.

Welcome home, indeed.

Washington had never seen anything like this — an athlete of Kolzig’s stature coming back to town as the enemy. There have been fan favorites traded in this town who have come back to face their old team and fans but not at this level. Art Monk left the Redskins and signed with the New York Jets at the end of his career but never came here to play in a Jets uniform.

Owner Ted Leonsis wanted to make sure everyone knew that while he, too, recognized Kolzig’s place in franchise history, no one lost sight of the reason for playing the game — to win.

“That is all I am thinking about, and I am hopeful that is all our team is focused on as well,” he wrote in an e-mail before the game.

The Caps got focused about midway through the first period and stayed focused after that, pounding Kolzig with 12 shots in the final 12 minutes of that period and scoring three of their four goals. Kolzig, who admitted before the game this would be “one of the hardest games I have ever played,” appeared to get caught up in the whole surreal atmosphere.

“Of course I was [nervous],” he said in the visitors’ locker room after the game. “I won’t sit here and lie to you and say that I wasn’t nervous. I was really nervous. But that didn’t have anything to do with spotting them three goals. I would have liked to have stopped one of those first two, but it is over with, and we’ll move on.”

Kolzig said he appreciated the reception from Capitals fans.

“It was great,” he said. “It was like the old days.”

But by the time the team played a video tribute on the scoreboard halfway through the first period, Kolzig was in no mood for tributes.

“At that point, I really didn’t pay too much attention to it,” he said. “We were down 2-0, and believe me, I was thinking about some other things. I am not a big fan of being the center of attention like that. It was nice what they did. I wish I could have paid more attention to it.”

Kolzig had been the identity of the Capitals since he became a starter in the Stanley Cup Finals run in 1998. But when new coach Bruce Boudreau arrived in late November of last year, Kolzig saw his playing time reduced and he shared time with Brent Johnson. Then he found himself shut out altogether after a trade brought Cristobal Huet to the District at the end of February.

When Kolzig did not see any playing time in the playoffs against Philadelphia last season after Huet struggled, he knew his career with Washington was over. He thought about retiring but believed, at the age of 38, he could still play.

Tampa Bay felt the same way, and Kolzig signed a one-year, $1.5 million deal.

Now everyone can move on. Kolzig will be back at Verizon Center as part of the opposition again this season, and it will not carry with it the same significance and fanfare that Monday night’s appearance did.

Someday, though, Washington fans will chant “Ol-ie, Ol-ie!” again as loud as they can — when they can welcome him back as a Capitals legend to be honored and not the enemy.

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