Sunday, October 3, 2010

Godzilla Takes Washington

Olaf Kolzig is a staple of the Capitals franchise.  He is the only player to have worn all three of the Caps jerseys in the team’s history.  He was the main reason for their only Stanley Cup Final run in 1998.  There was even some talk of him becoming captain in the early 2000s.  He left the franchise on a sour note, but Ollie the Goalie returned to the District this weekend for the second annual Caps Convention with a smile on his face.

The Capitals drafted Kolzig in the first round (19th overall) of the 1989 Entry Draft.  He was the first South African-born player to be drafted into the NHL.  Working his way through the minors, Kolzig split four seasons between the NHL and AHL before finally earning a full-time spot on the team for the 1996-1997 season.

In 1998, he caught fire during the playoffs and led the Capitals to their first and only Eastern Conference Championship and trip to the Stanley Cup Finals.  Kolzig was elected to the All-Star game in 1998 and 2000.  He took home the Vezina Trophy as best goaltender in the regular season in 2000 as well. 

Kolzig, while often displaying a firey temper on the ice that captured Caps fans’ hearts (and earned him the knickname “Godzilla”), was known for his generous community and charity work.  With fellow NHLers Byron Dafoe and Scott Mellanby, he founded Athletes Against Autism to raise awareness and encourage research of the disease.  The charity was created in honor of Kolzig’s son, Carson, who is autistic. 

Washingtonian Magazine named him one of the ten Washingtonians of the year in 2000.  For his efforts, Kolzig also took home the King Clancy Memorial Trophy for humanitarian service at the 2006 NHL Awards.  In 2005, he and some of his fellow Tri-City American alum formed and ownership group and bought the WHL team, assuring it would remain in Kennewick, Washington.

The legacy Kolzig built up with the Capitals is tarnished only by the way in which he departed the team in 2008.  In February of 2008, GM George McPhee acquired goalie Cristobal Huet.  Huet would eventually take over Kolzig’s starting position and lead the Capitals on an 11-1 streak to end the season, winning the Southeast Division and guaranteeing a playoff spot on the last day of the season.

Kolzig became a free agent that summer and signed with the Tampa Bay Lightening.  After a January injury that ended his 2008-2009 season, he was traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs at the trading deadline, though he never played a game for them.  He announced his retirement in the summer of 2009.

Despite bad blood about the departure, fans began calling for Ted Leonsis to retire Kolzig’s jersey almost immediately after he announced his retirement.  Before coming back to DC for the convention on Saturday, he said, “I should have retired a Cap,” and “I always consider myself a Cap.” Even though he left the team, in his final year he never felt comfortable in his new dressing rooms; he still thought of himself as a Cap.

Kolzig holds almost all of the Washington Capitals goaltending records.  It was his home for twenty years.  He is still among the top two greatest Caps of all time in fan voting.  A few hurt feelings at the tail end of his career didn’t end his relationship with the team, and his excitement about Saturday made that clear.  After being the only player to survive nearly every Capitals era, both good and bad, Olaf Kolzig remains a Cap in our hearts, our minds, and our memories. 

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