Olie Kolzig has never been shy about discussing the impact coaching had on his own NHL playing career. He will now have the opportunity to have a similar impact on netminders in the Washington system as he takes over as the Capitals’ goaltending coach.
“He played the game for a long time and played at a high level and was arguably the best goaltender this franchise has ever had,” notes Caps general manager George McPhee. “That experience – coupled with his training and development the last couple of years in teaching – we think suits him well to take over the NHL club now.”
Five years ago at this time, Kolzig was preparing for what wound up being his final NHL season, an injury-abbreviated campaign with the Tampa Bay Lightning. A career in coaching was not in the forefront of his mind.
“My focus was solely on hockey and trying to win a Cup,” recalls Kolzig. “I had retirement in the back of my mind and was going to enjoy time spent with the family. I had no visions of getting into coaching at all. A couple of years went by and I started getting the itch to get back into hockey. [Longtime Caps goalie coach] Dave Prior pitched the idea of being an associate goalie coach working on the development side of the game and I thought, ‘Why not give it a shot and see if I enjoy it?’ Lo and behold here I am a few years later really enjoying it.”
Having had two seasons of experience as the team’s associate goaltending coach, Kolzig is now ready to take the next step up the coaching ladder.
“It helps a lot,” says McPhee of Kolzig’s two-year apprenticeship in the organization. “There’s no learning curve involved. He knows these players very well. He has worked with them at the NHL level and at the American league level. He won’t change their game very much at all; a couple of tweaks here and there, minor adjustments. What’s most important is his relationship with them and being able to talk with them about things going on in the game and preparation, and just being that guy that’s there for them.”
Drafted in the first round (19th overall) of the 1989 NHL Entry Draft, Kolzig debuted in the NHL as a teenager and went on to a strong career in the NHL. With 303 career wins in the league, Kolzig ranks 25th on the circuit’s all-time ledger in that category. He also holds virtually all of Washington’s career and single-season netminding records. But the early years of his pro career were marked with potholes and speed bumps. Eight years after he was drafted, Kolzig owned a career NHL record of 14-36-8 and he was a backup to veteran Bill Ranford in Washington.
Kolzig will be the first to tell you that he was on the verge of extinction as an NHL goaltender until Prior got a hold of him in 1997 and refined his game.
“I maybe would have played another year or two,” says Kolzig, when asked how he thinks his career would have played out without the impact of a goaltending coach. “For me, Dave was a huge part of my success not only from a technical standpoint but also in making me more emotionally balanced. I sometimes let my temper get the better of me. He was able to help me find a way to help me channel my energy differently. Things that had bothered me in the past, I would be able to put aside and just focus on stopping the puck. That, combined with refining my style and my technique, obviously helped me. It was no coincidence that when Dave took over as the goaltending coach my career took off.
“I never really had a goaltending coach until I was in Rochester playing for the Amerks and Buffalo’s farm team. Mitch Korn was Buffalo’s goaltending coach at the time. Even though I was property of Washington, he came down to Rochester and worked with the goalies.
“Twenty years ago when games were 6-5 and 7-6, I think goalies probably just needed more of a psychologist as opposed to a goaltending coach. But now in a day when games are 1-0 and 2-1, it’s such a vital position. Out of all the positions, it probably requires the most coaching. You need a goalie at the top of his game night in and night out because the difference between having one or two off nights could be the difference in not making the playoffs. There is such parity in the league now that the teams with the edge in goal are usually the ones with an advantage. It’s such an important position.”
Kolzig didn’t take over the reins as a starting NHL netminder until he was 27 years old in 1997. In Michal Neuvirth, Braden Holtby and Philipp Grubauer, the Caps have three netminders aged 25 or younger that they’ve drafted and developed. That trio and the rest of the goaltenders in Washington’s system are now be Kolzig’s own prized pupils. The Caps’ goalies are all familiar with Kolzig from his two-season stint as the team’s associate goaltending coach.
“It definitely prepared me,” says Kolzig of his previous post as the team’s associate goaltending coach. “You think you have an idea of what it takes and what’s involved in being a coach, but you don’t really unless you’re involved on a day-to-day basis – the amount of time you spend at the rink and the amount of video work. And just getting used to breaking down video and critiquing the goaltenders. You train your eye a little bit differently and become a little bit more detail-oriented than when you were playing and you had somebody else telling you what to do. You’re the one having to correct and make adjustments with the players.
“For me, it took a little bit of time to find those details. I was fortunate to have Dave with me to guide me along and really help me become a better coach. I’m glad I did it that way as opposed to jumping in at the NHL level right away.”
Kolzig now joins former Caps teammates Adam Oates and Calle Johansson on Washington’s coaching staff. The threesome spent more than five full seasons together as teammates from 1997-2002, and now they’ll join forces to help guide the current Caps toward the goal that eluded them all as players, a Stanley Cup title.
“They all have a great perspective on the game from their individual participation in the game and contributions to the game,” says McPhee. “But combining the three of them together really creates another perspective. They know what each man is made of. They’ve known each other well enough to know that each of them showed up and played well and I think there is a lot of respect amongst them for that reason. They all have a real good understanding of not only their position but also the game overall. That’s critical and it just creates a great synergy amongst the staff. You don’t ever want conflicts or incompatible relationships on your staff. You want people that respect each other and get along and can debate and reach healthy results without a lot of bickering. We have three guys here that have earned a lot of respect and shared a lot of respect.”
Kolzig echoes the tenet of respect when discussing his longtime teammates and coaching brethren.
“As teammates back in the day we were a close bunch of guys,” Kolzig says. “We really respected each other’s talents and what we brought to the team. I think the same holds true as a coaching staff. We have our fun and we have our laughs, but at the end of the day it’s about getting the job done and everybody having their responsibility. I think everybody respects what the individual brings to his job title.
“Calle was one of the best and most underrated defensemen in the league. You saw his work ethic then and you see it now, and nothing has changed. He puts as much into coaching as he did into playing the game. I always thought Adam was one of the smartest hockey guys that I played with. I learned a lot from him being his roommate and playing with him for a number of years. I always thought he would make a fantastic coach. Obviously it took him a little while to realize that’s what he wanted to do. But that he’s here, he’s been successful in a relatively short time and has the respect of all of the players.”
Kolzig’s coaching philosophy is a simple one; it’s built on relationships. And because he has already established relationships with Washington’s stable of young goaltenders, he will be able to hit the ground running in his new post.
“I try to coach the same way I was as a player,” states Kolzig. “I try to establish a good relationship with the goalies. For me it was just about getting in there and getting their trust because I was relatively new. I think they respected me because of the way I respected them and they were patient with me. When you work with guys like the goalies we have, it makes your job so much easier. You tell them one thing and they’re doing it right away.
“That’s really the most gratifying thing about being a coach and I can understand why people enjoy being coaches. When you’re working on something with someone and you see them apply it in a game and have success with it and see their confidence build, it really is the most gratifying thing as a coach. I treated them the way I wanted to be treated as a player and we’ve built up a great rapport.”
McPhee and the Capitals have also announced the appointment of Scott Murray as the team’s associate goaltending coach, the position vacated by Kolzig’s promotion. Murray spent the last five seasons as goaltending coach for the Sudbury Wolves of the OHL.
“He’s technically very good,” says McPhee of Murray. “He’s really studied the game for a number of years and he has also played the position. Your goaltender’s performance is critical to the performance of the team and can have a disproportionate effect on the game. So we’ve decided to put a lot of resources into developing our goaltenders throughout the system and we really like the people that we have working for us.”
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