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The World According to Olaf Kolzig

Most hockey fans remember Olaf Kolzig as one of the best goaltenders in the NHL for much of his career, which started in the 1989-90 season and lasted for 17 years. 

But not as many fans know he also worked with Carey Price when the Montreal Canadiens’ star played for the Tri-City Americans, a major junior team in Kennewick, Washington. Kolzig, who had played for the team in the 1980s, returned to Kennewick to train during the 2004-05 NHL labor dispute. 

While researching my book Behind the Mask I interviewed ‘Olie the Goalie.’ He shared his thoughts about Price and recounted the time he and his protégé dropped the gloves and grappled like two sumo wrestlers on skates. 

Kolzig also revealed which shooters he feared the most during his playing days and told me what he considers the highlight of his career. Hint: It wasn’t winning the Vezina Trophy in 2000. 

Here’s part of that interview:

RANDI DRUZIN: You have watched Carey Price play and have worked with him directly. What do you feel are the physical and mental factors that make him such a good  goalie?
OLAF KOLZIG: First and foremost, it’s his athleticism. He’s got a long torso, so when he’s in the butterfly position, he covers a large part of the net. But, in my view, his biggest strength is his demeanor. He doesn’t get flustered. He has a way of calming his teammates down. There’s so much scrutiny in Montreal that playing net for the Canadiens is like being a starting quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys. But if there is one person who is perfect for the job, it’s him. Not much fazes Carey and, if something does, you’ll never know. 

RD: Do you feel it’s an acquired trait or was he just born this way? 
OK: I think he was born this way. He was the same when he played for the Tri-City Americans. Of course, he’s older now and is more mature. He has a family now, so he has a perspective than he did when he played junior hockey. But even then, he was a very calm guy. 

RD: You worked with him when he was just starting out. What was that like? 
OK: I was sort of a big brother, a mentor to him. What stood out to me at the time was his athleticism. He was explosive and smooth. The fluidity of his movements, the way he tracked the puck, the way he processed the game, you just knew there was something special about him. 

RD: When old friends or colleagues get together, inevitably, one person starts a sentence with the words, “Remember that time …?” When you get together with Carey now, how do you finish that sentence? Is there one incident or experience that sticks out in both your minds after all these years? 
OK: One time we were on the ice together after a practice, and he wanted to have a play fight to see how he stacked up against me. He was a feisty kid. I was like his big brother, and he wanted to see how he stacked up against me. We dropped the gloves and grabbed each other’s sweaters. Obviously, no punches were thrown. We just wanted to see who would get the better of whom. I think I got the better of him. I taught him the meaning of “old-man strength.” 

RD: Is there anything about Price that his fans might not know?
OK: He’s a big rodeo guy – a big roper. There were times where I thought he would have rather been on a horse than in net. He’s a very good golfer, too. He’s an avid outdoorsman so whenever he gets the chance, he’s out hunting, hiking or fishing. I understand he just bought one of those Airstream trailers, so it looks like he is going to be doing a little camping. 

RD: What were the highlights of your NHL career?
OK: One was the 1997-98 season, when we went to the final against the Detroit Red Wings. [Editor note: Detroit beat Washington in four straight games.] Another one was winning the King Clancy Award in 2006. [It’s given to the player who best exemplifies leadership qualities on and off the ice and has made a noteworthy humanitarian contribution in his community.] Hockey is a game and you’re remembered for what you did on the ice but, at the end of the day, it matters more how you’re remembered as a person. My father passed away just before I won the award. In my acceptance speech, I commented about how proud of me he would have been. It was a bittersweet moment.  

RD: What were the low points in your career? Were there times you thought, “Man, this just sucks.”
OK: Early on, there were numerous times when I thought I might become the starter but it didn’t work out. It didn’t happen until I was about 27 years old. I was fortunate to be in an organization that was patient. I had a falling out with Capitals’ management in 2008, and that was another low point. [Editor’s note: The Capitals benched Kolzig in March. Less than four months later, he signed with the Tampa Bay Lightning as a free agent.] I regret that part of my career. I don’t think either party handled it well. I wish I had retired as a Washington Capital. But I ended up making a lot of friends in Florida.

RD: What do you see as the biggest difference between goalies during your playing days and now? 
OK: Back when I was in the NHL, it was more of a north-south game as opposed to an east-west game. In those days, the goalie just focused on the shooter and didn’t worry too much about a lateral pass because the defensemen would tie up opposing forwards. There was quite a bit of clutching and grabbing. There isn’t much of that today because of rule changes. Because it’s now an east-west game, goalies must be very powerful laterally. They must be super athletic. During my career, most goalies incorporated the butterfly but, beyond that, we all had different styles. Now they tend to be more robotic; there is uniformity in their moves. For example, they’re all on their knees a lot. That’s because the game is much faster now and every goalie must be ready to face shots at all times. But the very good goalies, like Carey Price, Marc Andre Fleury and Andrei Vasilevskiy, still have good instincts. 

RD: Goalies are also much bigger now than they were back then. 
OK: When I started playing in the NHL, I was 6-foot-3 and 225 pounds, and I was in the top 5% in the league in terms of size, not just among goaltenders but among all players. Now, I would be just about average for a goalie. 

RD: In your playing days, which goalies did you have the most respect for? 
OK: Patrick Roy wasn’t the first butterfly goalie but he is the one who brought that style into the 21st century. Modern goalies fashion their game after him quite a bit. I also respected Dominik Hasek’s style. It looked a little out of control and unorthodox, but he made shooters feel very uncomfortable. It was incredible to watch him, to see a guy play like that and be as successful as he was. Ron Hextall was another one. I modelled my game after him as a junior because he was fiery and I had the same temperament. 

RD: In your playing days, which shooters did you dread facing the most? 
OK: Ron Francis didn’t have the greatest shot but he had a lot of success against me. He was always in front of the net and managed to get rebounds and deflections past me. Mario Lemieux had great reach and was a lot faster than people think. He covered a lot of ground in a hurry. Brett Hull was another guy who wasn’t pleasant to face. 

RD: If you were playing now, which shooters would concern you the most?
OK: Alexander Ovechkin for sure and probably Steve Stamkos. I remember him taking a shot on me when he first came into the league. I wondered how such a skinny, young kid could have such a powerful shot. Connor McDavid doesn’t have the hardest shot but he’s got the hands. I might be a little intimidated facing him.

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