TAMPA, Fla. | It’s a simple exercise - three forwards against one defenseman and a goalie from close range - that favors the players on offense.
A pass comes from behind the net and a wild flurry ensues. The goaltender turns aside the first shot … and another … and another. Finally, with the netminder sprawled across the ice, a player flips the loose puck into the net.
The goaltender fishes the puck out of his goal and kicks at it. Then he whacks it to the other end of the ice with his stick and curses.
It took nearly 45 minutes of watching practice, but there is the fiery and competitive Olie Kolzig that Washington Capitals fans adored for more than a decade.
After the workout ends, Kolzig is calm and philosophical - at peace with his departure from the only organization he knew for half of his life and ready to begin anew with the Tampa Bay Lightning.
When the Caps host Philadelphia in their penultimate preseason contest Friday night, Kolzig will be more than 4,000 miles away with his new team, which opens the NHL‘s regular season slate Saturday in the Czech Republic.
“I’ve moved on,” Kolzig said. “As painful as it was, because this time last year I thought I would end my career with the Caps. I had the summer to reflect on it. I made my decision at the end of the year, and I stand by it. No regrets, no hard feelings - it is a business and sometimes you don’t like how the business works out in your favor, but then you realize that there are other teams out there that are interested in your services.”
Kolzig, the 2000 Vezina Trophy winner as the NHL’s best goaltender, won a franchise-record 301 games in 15 years with the Caps. The two-time All-Star also helped the organization to its only Stanley Cup Finals appearance in 1998. He remained the franchise’s most popular player for 10 years, and when the team jettisoned other veterans during the pre-lockout fire sale he requested to stay.
Sure, Kolzig received financial rewards, but his loyalty was not lost on teammates, management or fans.
Kolzig’s statistics suffered during the Capitals’ rebuilding project, but when the team improved last season and his production didn’t, the Caps added Cristobal Huet at the trade deadline and he assumed the No. 1 job.
By the time the season ended with 14 consecutive starts for Huet (including the playoffs), Kolzig had planned to move on. By the end of the first day of free agency, Kolzig was a member of the Lightning.
Even when Kolzig considered himself a career Capitals player, he and his family had always planned to return to Washington state for his post-playing days. He is part-owner of the Tri-City Americans, a franchise in the Western Hockey League.
“I honestly contemplated retirement this summer,” Kolzig said. “I really wondered if I wanted to go through the whole grind and moving the family and going to a new place. Once I got the emotional part over with after a couple months and got further and further away from the season, I realized I still had a lot to give to this game and I didn’t want end my career the way it ended last year so I decided to give it another go. If we had decided that Washington [D.C.] was going to be our home, I think I probably would have leaned a little closer to retirement.”
Now Kolzig is in a different role with the Lightning. For the first time since the 1998-99 season, he didn’t come to training camp as the clear-cut No. 1 goaltender. He will battle Mike Smith for playing time in Tampa, and serve as a mentor for Smith and Finnish prospects Karri Ramo and Riku Helenius.
He is also adjusting to new teammates, but he’s not alone. Because of Tampa Bay’s offseason makeover, there are many new faces in the dressing room.
“He’ll bring an incredible level of professionalism, but a guy that we believe still has the ability and the burning desire to want to be that No. 1,” Tampa Bay director of hockey operations Brian Lawton said. “That’s what we’re looking at. He’s not here on a retirement package. He’s here to compete for the No. 1 spot, and either earn it or push for it every single day of the season.”
Added Kolzig: “It is funny - Florida really is where all the old people go between me, [Mark] Recchi and [Gary] Roberts. At least I’m not the oldest. I don’t want to just come here and ride this thing out. I still have some good hockey in me. It might not be 70 games a year, it might not be 50 games a year, but I can still have an impact on this game with this team.”
A week after Kolzig signed with the Lightning, he and his wife flew down and picked out their new home. The family moved into the house in late August, and his offseason routine included a heavy dose of unpacking boxes along with the workouts and the skating.
There was some trepidation about the move, specifically about how their 7-year-old autistic son Carson would react. Kolzig said his son is doing well, but finding the right school that can challenge him intellectually and handle him emotionally hasn’t been easy.
“He had a great summer,” Kolzig said. “Coming to a new spot we were worried, but he’s embraced it. He loves it, and that is just one less thing I have to worry about.”
Kolzig will return to the District for a game at Verizon Center on Nov. 10. He is likely to receive a warm reception from fans and former teammates alike.
His relationship with other members of the organization strained by the end of last season. General manager George McPhee said he phoned Kolzig the day after the season ended, but the call was never returned. Kolzig’s agent, Art Breeze, said there was no communication between the two camps in the days leading up to July 1.
“That was probably the hardest thing about the whole deal is that George and I had a pretty good relationship for 10 years, and it just ended the way it did,” Kolzig said. “I have no hard feelings and no regrets. If I’m walking in the Verizon Center and I see him, obviously I’m going to say hello to him and shake his hand. I’m not a cold person and I don’t hold grudges. I’ve moved on, and hopefully I can still show everyone that I can play this game at a high level.”