Kolzig Relishes New Role As Caps’ Pro Development Coach
By Mike Vogel
Of the 706 goaltenders that have suited up for duty in the NHL’s history, only 21 have appeared in more games than Olie Kolzig (719). And only 25 of those goaltenders have authored more wins (303) than Kolzig.
Although he holds virtually all of Washington’s all-time goaltending records, it’s worth remembering that Kolzig’s career took several seasons to get on track. Chosen in the first round (19th overall) of the 1989 NHL Entry Draft, Kolzig took a circuitous route to success and stardom in the NHL.
In his new position as professional development coach for the Capitals, Kolzig hopes to use his own life and playing experiences to help ease the transition from the amateur ranks to the professional level for Washington’s young prospects.
Kolzig spent last season as Washington’s goaltending coach, but requested a reassignment within the organization over the summer so that he could be able to spend more time with his three children.
“At the end of the day,” says Kolzig, “I’ve always thought about trying to get into the management side of things. And this is a great way to start. You’re developing players, you’re watching them and nurturing them. And at some point, when my kids get older and I feel that I can spend more time up here, then maybe that’s something that I’d like to pursue. But for now, I was very appreciative that the organization accepted my new role and the proposal that I sent to them. I’m really looking forward to it. It’s great because it does allow me to get back and be with the kids, and at the same time have that chance to get my name on the [Stanley] Cup.”
Two of Kolzig’s ex-teammates here in Washington, Craig Billington and Chris Clark, held similar positions in the league after their playing careers concluded. Billington is now an assistant GM with Colorado while Clark is still a development coach with Columbus
“When Biller first went to Colorado, he introduced this proposal to them, and I think it’s a vital thing in the game today, developing these kids,” says Kolzig. “And not just from how they are on the ice and their skills set but their transition from junior hockey or college or European hockey to all of a sudden pro hockey.
“You’re used to a regimented schedule, you’re staying with families or you’re in a dorm, you have people doing your laundry, you have people making meals for you. Now, all of a sudden you’re on your own. You’ve got all this free time, and you’ve got a pretty hefty paycheck. How are you going to handle all this stuff? It’s easy for some kids to get sidetracked.
“My role and what we came up with, is to help these kids in that transition. Show them the proper way to grocery shop, so it’s not like you’re leaving practice and you’re going to McDonald’s to grab a quick burger. It’s how to eat properly, how to get proper rest, how to find a hobby to fill the time and not just play video games or go back home and take a three-hour nap. It’s about becoming a pro, and being a pro is not about collecting a paycheck. It’s about preparing yourself day in and day out, so that you are someone who is playing at a consistent level and someone that a coach and a teammate and a city can rely on day in and day out.”
Kolzig made his own NHL debut at the tender age of 19, but didn’t establish himself as a bona fide NHL netminder until he was 27. Early in his career, Kolzig spent time in the ECHL and he was also loaned to the Buffalo Sabres’ organization for a season. He held a 14-36-8 career record going into that age 27 breakout season of 1997-98.
“It takes some time to develop a routine and to develop something that works for you,” says Kolzig. “It’s a huge transition. I don’t think people understand how big it is. What you try to do is to keep them busy so they’re not constantly thinking about the game. You need a break. There is a lot of pressure in pro hockey. If you’re in a bit of a slump, your tendency is just to go home and dwell on it and at the end of the day, it will probably snowball and you’ll put yourself in more of a funk. It’s better to leave whatever it is at the rink and then go home and do whatever else it is. Maybe you have a dog, or a girlfriend, or you’re learning a language or an instrument. Just something to be productive.
“I know we all like to live and breathe hockey, but at the same time you also need something away from the rink. When I was younger, I played golf. It was a different time back when I came in; you had a lot of veterans and you did a lot of team bonding stuff away from the rink. And that’s not the case nearly as much now. If I can get the guys to be a lot more comfortable and keep the mountains low and the valleys high, and just keep them at a consistent level, then I think I’ve done my job.”
Although the primary focus of Kolzig’s new position will be on player development, he will also occasionally help out with the team’s young goaltenders as needed, supporting the efforts of Caps goaltending coach Mitch Korn and associate goaltender coach Scott Murray.
“I’m going to be a bit of a fill-in coach for the goaltenders as well,” says Kolzig. “Mitch thought it was vital that Scotty gets a break and is able to go home every once in a while to see his family at home up in Sudbury. And so we’re coordinating a schedule right now where – if it works out with my family situation – I would come in and at that time Scotty would go home.
“There will be a few times this year I think where Mitch might not be here [in Washington], and I’ll come in and fill in for a few days. It’s good to at least keep my finger on the pulse of the goaltending as well, because that was something that brought me back to the organization. Working with Braden [Holtby] and [Philipp Grubauer] and [Brandon Anderson], and then being here to bring Pheonix [Copley] in, you still feel like you’re part of that. And I didn’t want to totally separate myself from that, so I’m glad that I can do that as well.”
Korn and Kolzig have a history that dates back about a quarter of a century.
“When I was in Rochester,” remembers Kolzig, “Mitch was actually my first true goalie coach. We talked about it the other day. It wasn’t like he was there every day; he came in probably once a month. But it was enough that he got me on track. I had probably my breakthrough year that year in the minors, and I carried it through to the next season when we won a Calder Cup in Portland.
“I consider Mitch to be vital in giving me my base. And then working with Dave Prior brought me to another level. Obviously Mitch and Dave worked together when they were younger, and they were both from the same school of goaltending. Mitch gave me the foundation and then Dave took me the rest of the way.”
Kolzig expects to have somewhat of a blank canvas with which to work as he goes about his job, but he also knows he can check in with people like Billington or Clark if he needs guidance along the way.
“There are other people in the game that I can call or get advice from if I’m stuck with something,” he says. “Or if I try something this year and it doesn’t work, we can adjust it and do it next year. I’m excited. When I came in as a goalie coach, I had Dave Prior [as a mentor] and he kind of laid the groundwork for me, but now I’m on my own. I’m going to rely on a lot of people to help me with this, and I’m excited about it.”
Kolzig will be starting his new position in earnest this weekend.
“We’re going to break camp here on Sunday,” says Kolzig, “and I’m going to go up with the kids to Hershey and then I’m going to get to know them a little more one on one, and spend a whole day with each one of them and get them on track. Then I’ll go away for a couple of weeks, and I’ll come back and see where they’re at.
“I’m also going to be a bit of a confidante. If they have any issues on or off the ice, I’m someone that they can come to and it’s not going to go any further. I might not have the answer for them, but I’ll be able to somehow get them the help they need or at least point them in the right direction. I think it’s vital. These kids need someone to trust. You want them just to focus on hockey. Take care of all the off-ice things and just be able to concentrate on hockey.”
No player continuously served the Capitals organization longer than Kolzig; his playing career here in the District spanned nearly two decades. For the last decade of his career with the Caps, he was an unquestioned locker room leader who essentially served as an additional team captain (goalies couldn’t wear the “C” at the time) in those years. The trials and tribulations of Kolzig’s early career and the heights and achievements of his later years should be equally valuable to him in his new post. It’s another win for Kolzig, his family, the organization and his legion of fans here.
This article has been republished with permission from Mike Vogel