Kolzig needed to grow thicker skin. He also needed help from the only man in hockey who seemed to believe in him. Last year Capitals general manager George McPhee hired an owlish, soft-spoken hockey itinerant named Dave Prior as Washington's goalie instructor. Prior had met Kolzig in 1989, when Prior was with NHL Central Scouting and Kolzig was playing junior hockey in the Western League. They became reacquainted in the summer of '96, when Prior was a consultant to Germany's World Cup team and Kolzig was making his international debut.
Prior liked Kolzig's size and agility but wanted to make him play bigger. Kolzig, who's a butterfly-style goalie, had always stationed himself three or four feet outside the crease even though with his girth he could have blotted out the net by playing at the top of the crease. He also would follow his wanderlust after rebounds instead of setting himself to stop the next shot. Prior had Kolzig play deeper and cut down on his roaming. "People looked at him and wondered why he couldn't win, why he couldn't be a Number 1," Prior says. "He just needed some adjustments."
Kolzig also needed another chance, one that came in the first period of Washington's 1997-98 opener when starter Bill Ranford was struck in the groin by a shot. For the next three weeks, as Ranford rehabilitated his injury and auditioned for the Vienna Boys' Choir, the Capitals had no option but Kolzig. He never relinquished the job, winning 33 matches, going to the All-Star Game and putting together a 2-0 record for Germany in the Nagano Olympics. Kolzig's only slump came immediately after the Games, when he lost five straight starts. "I thought that maybe the run was over," Kolzig says, "and wondered if I might be a flash in the pan."
The dip occurred when Prior was out of town. When Prior returned, he ran a videotape that convinced Kolzig he'd been playing better than his record indicated. Prior also repositioned him closer to the net. Kolzig finished the regular season with an 11-3-1 surge, and some Caps began calling Prior Moses for having led Kolzig out of the wilderness.
For a franchise that had almost consigned itself to being destiny's doormats—"You came to believe that this organization was cursed when the playoffs came around," Kolzig says—the serendipity of Godzilla's cinematic release last spring, when Kolzig was leading the Caps to the Cup finals, was too good to be true. Washington might be a little fuzzy on hockey, but it can spot a good story. MCI Center was suddenly populated with blowup Godzilla dolls. Kolzig, nearly impeccable with a .941 save percentage and four shutouts while outplaying Hasek in the Eastern Conference finals, became the face of the Capitals' long-awaited success. He was glib, witty and handsome. He was also extroverted, a trait he ascribes to his upbringing. Olaf grew up as a hotel brat (his father, Axel, worked as a food-and-beverage manager for hotel chains) and lived a bedouin-and-breakfast existence, moving 23 times in 28 years. He knew how to make friends, and he made plenty of new ones with his performance last season. "Olie became our backbone," Reekie says. "Everyone in the dressing room liked him because he was so intense, and people who saw him interviewed on TV liked him because they could tell he was genuine. Olie was just one of the guys you root for."
Now whenever Godzilla looks as though he might erupt in practice, Wilson skates over to egg him on. Kolzig ignores Wilson's taunts, refusing to give him the satisfaction of a tantrum. If he sticks to his nonaggression policy, he'll end up resembling the green plush Godzilla he keeps in his truck (license plate: ZILLA), one that looks more likely to nuzzle its victims than stomp them.