You think it will be strange to see Olie Kolzig in a Tampa Bay Lightning uniform Monday night in the opposing goal at Verizon Center?
Think how strange it will be for Kolzig.
“Yes, I am thinking about Monday night,” Kolzig said when he came off the ice Saturday after the morning practice at Wachovia Center in Philadelphia, where the Lightning faced the Flyers that night.
He didn’t play, but Kolzig already knew he was scheduled to start Monday night against his old team and had been thinking about this game since he signed a deal with Tampa Bay.
Kolzig said he spoke to teammate Jeff Halpern about how to approach this moment as Halpern did when he played for the Dallas Stars after six seasons with the Capitals.
“He said the key is to not worry about what people will be thinking and don’t worry about them trying to analyze your every move out there,” Kolzig said. “Just go out there and try to win a hockey game and play like you play.”
While Jeff Halpern may have been the local kid made good playing for his hometown team in the District his return as an opposing player is not quite the same as the return of Olie the Goalie, who debuted with the Caps during the 1989-90 season and was the face and identity of this franchise for much of that time.
From 1998, the year the Capitals went to the Stanley Cup Finals, until the emergence of superstar Alex Ovechkin last season as hockey’s dominant player, Kolzig was the Capitals.
The joke in town used to be that a Capitals player could walk down the street outside Verizon Center and not be recognized. Not Kolzig - which is ironic because he was the one player who wore a mask that covered his face. He was often the spokesman for the team in the locker room and was so active in community service that he was the exception to that joke.
That’s why it was so difficult and messy last year when Kolzig found himself on the bench more often after the arrival of new coach Bruce Boudreau, first sharing time with Brent Johnson and then shut out altogether after a trade brought Cristobal Huet to the District at the end of February.
That’s why Monday night will be so tough.
“It will obviously be emotional for me,” Kolzig said. “You don’t play in a city for 19 years and all of a sudden forget about it. It is a great city that treated me very well, and I have lot of ties there … but I made my decision, and you have to face it at some point.”
It will be emotional for the Caps as well, who are dealing with welcoming back such an important player to their history while still trying to win a game. They will, for the first time, show a video tribute to an opposing player during a game.
“He was one of the greatest players to ever wear a Caps jersey, and I have much respect and admiration for him and his family,” team owner Ted Leonsis wrote in an e-mail. “Right now, though, we are focused on preparing to battle a division rival. When Olie eventually retires, we can focus on his legacy, but for now we have to focus on getting two points.”
Kolzig, 38, made his decision to play for Tampa Bay, but who made the decision about the end of his career with the Caps and how it was made is open to debate. It was an uncomfortable situation that stayed in the background as Caps won 11 of their final 12 games and the Southeast Division title last season. But it nearly bubbled to the surface again during the playoffs against Philadelphia, when the Caps were down two games to one after Huet struggled in a 6-3 loss - yet Kolzig remained on the bench.
“That was the icing on the cake,” Kolzig said. “I felt at that point they had made up their minds they were going to go in a different direction - and they were going to stay in that direction.”
Kolzig said, despite reports, he had no problems with Boudreau. His issues were with what he said was a lack of communication about his future with the team after the Huet trade.
“There were no conversations about why or what the future was, and that hurt me,” Kolzig said. “I felt like, after being there 19 years, I might not like what they have to say, but at least give me the respect [to] let me know.”
It’s history now, and Kolzig is comfortable with Tampa Bay, sharing playing time with Mike Smith. Kolzig has a 1-1-1 record, a 2.67 goals-against average and a .925 save percentage. And he has some familiar faces in the locker room, such as Halpern and two other former Caps, Matt Pettinger and Steve Eminger, who was just dealt to the Lightning on Friday. “There is a lot of familiarity here,” Kolzig said.
But it won’t be familiar Monday night for Kolzig to be in the visitors locker room at Verizon Center - and it won’t be right to see Kolzig and his No. 37 in the opposing goal.
It won’t be right until his number is hanging from the rafters there.
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