There had been almost a quarter century of hockey purgatory, of squandered playoff series, of short springs pungent with the smell of disaster. In a suburban dungeon of an arena outside a city where the only two sports that mattered were pro football and political football, the Washington Capitals were the NHL's unloved child, a nice enough team, sure, but a forsaken one. Then last fall the Caps moved into a new arena downtown, into the gut of the city, if not quite into its soul, and by season's end they were storming to the Stanley Cup finals. Throughout their miraculous run, one creature towered over everything. Yes, there really is a Godzilla.
His name is Olaf Kolzig. He has been called Godzilla since 1992, when he was tagged with the nickname by fans because of his size (now 6'3", 225 pounds) and temper. Kolzig might well have earned the moniker for his horrifying record in his first six NHL seasons (14-36-8). But last year, at age 27, he transformed himself from a career backup with a reputation for finding a way to lose into what Washington coach Ron Wilson calls "one of the top five goalies in the league, easy."
Before the Montreal Canadiens' back-to-back games against Washington and the Buffalo Sabres last weekend, Canadiens coach Alain Vigneault likened the prospect of meeting Kolzig and two-time MVP Dominik Hasek on consecutive nights to a baseball team's facing Kevin Brown one evening and Greg Maddux the next. Kolzig, who stopped 25 shots in a 2-2 tie with Montreal last Friday, didn't even try to suppress a grin when told of Vigneault's comment. "That's better than being Mitch Williams," Kolzig said, "like I was a few years ago."
Kolzig used to be the Wild Thing in the net, and the reason he was in contention for the Conn Smythe Trophy last spring and the reason he's off to a terrific start this season (through Sunday he was 2-1-1 with a 1.48 goals-against average and one shutout) is that he finally tamed his savage instincts. Kolzig found that by controlling himself he could master others. He curbed his hotheadedness and became an elite goalie. "Curbed? Did you say curbed?" Capitals backup goalie Rick Tabaracci asks in mock surprise. "How closely have you been watching?"
O.K., so Godzilla hasn't turned into Barney. But Kolzig, who once could have supplied enough kindling to fire up every barbecue in Georgetown with all his splintered sticks, has broken just one since training camp began last month. He smashed it over the crossbar at the end of a practice last week, a justifiable reaction considering that teammates Kelly Miller and Mark Tinordi, not exactly the Great One and Super Mario, had just slipped two shots over his glove, the same spot where the Detroit Red Wings' Doug Brown beat Kolzig in a 3-2 Washington loss the night before.
You mess with Godzilla at your peril, even when he's a two-inch computer-generated image on giant-screen television. When PlayStation reps brought one of their video games to the Capitals' practice rink three days before the season opener, defenseman Joe Reekie challenged Kolzig: Reekie's Team Canada, starring Raymond Bourque, versus Kolzig's Team Germany, starring Olaf Kolzig. "Naturally I give the puck to Bourque, and he beats Olie with, a slap shot," Reekie says. "Olie gets angry, and when I'm not looking, he punches me in the shoulder."
"True," says Kolzig, a South African-born German citizen who moved with his family to Canada when he was four. "In this game, you have to pay the price."
For years Kolzig paid a steep price for his combative nature. He always wanted to play extraordinarily well, and he would beat himself up when he didn't. He was Washington's first-round draft choice in June 1989, played his first NHL game four months later at age 19 and never considered himself a career backup, even as he rode the pine. But he unwittingly developed a backup's mentality: After allowing a bad goal, he'd fear that he'd have to wait weeks for another chance to play. Kolzig had an opportunity to win the starting job going into the 1995-96 season, after the Capitals traded Don Beaupre, but Washington opened the lockout-shortened campaign 2-8-2. A hot minor league goalie, Jim Carey, was summoned to Washington and wound up winning the Vezina Trophy that season. Carey couldn't catch a cold in the playoffs the next two years, while Kolzig had three wins and a 1.87 goals-against average, but Kolzig's reckless style and snits made him too unreliable to be No. 1.
In September 1996 then Capitals coach Jim Schoenfeld, now behind the bench for the Phoenix Coyotes, was blunt: He told Kolzig that temper tantrums in practice were hurting him and disrupting the Caps. "That was a wake-up call," Kolzig says. "I realized I didn't have too many chances left to play in the NHL. I started to channel my competitiveness more, but it got tough playing only once every few weeks, and I went back to taking out my frustrations. If you're a forward or a defenseman, you can let out your frustrations by running someone or shooting the puck as hard as you can. I thought maybe I was playing the wrong position."
Wilson, who succeeded Schoenfeld in June 1997, tried a different tack. After one stick-smashing incident in last year's training camp, Wilson skated by Kolzig and kiddingly told him he looked like a big jerk. Soon Washington players were chiming in with a chorus of good-natured abuse. "He deserved the ridicule of his teammates," Wilson says. "They got to him, and they enjoyed getting to him because those volcanic eruptions were funny. Olie's a funny guy. I just wanted him to focus on the puck, but he was more worried about everyone's reaction to him. He cared more about what Joe Reekie thought than stopping the puck."