Trip to Germany a homecoming for Kolzig
|Olaf Kolzig left the only hockey home he has ever known in Washington to sign with Tampa Bay, but Kolzig will be returning soon to his homeland, Germany for a Lightning exhibition game.
"My cousin lives in Berlin and I have a ton of uncles and aunts that live in Hamburg," Kolzig told NHL.com. "Within an hour drive, I have a handful of relatives."
The Lightning's newest goalie was born in South Africa and grew up in Canada, but his passport says Germany and that's the country he considers to be his homeland. He has represented Germany on the international stage, twice in the Olympics.
But that's only part of what makes Tampa Bay's visit to Berlin a homecoming for Kolzig. For the first time in his professional career, the former Washington Capitals star will be playing against a former team.
Kolzig, who until this summer had spent his entire NHL career in D.C., played a dozen regular-season games and four postseason contests with Eisbaren Berlin during the lockout season before suffering a knee injury. His presence helped Berlin win the first of its three German Ice Hockey League (DEL) championships (2005, 2006, 2008).
"He brought an unbelievable influence of professionalism to our club," Eisbaren GM Peter Lee told NHL.com. "He showed what it takes to be an NHL player. His team spirit, everything, was just amazing. We get North Americans here that play leadership roles, but it was great to see a real pro here and what he does to become a winner."
Kolzig said he expects -- and is hoping for -- a heartfelt welcome from the Eisbaren fans when he's introduced to the crowd at Berlin's new O2 World Arena.
"We're playing against the Eisbaren and they're so loyal to their team that they could turn the table on me," Kolzig said, "but I expect it to be a warm reaction."
He's also hoping that warm reception comes when he's announced as Tampa Bay's starting goaltender, but that's a decision new coach Barry Melrose has to make. Kolzig said Melrose will do what is best to prepare the Lightning for their regular season-opener against the New York Rangers in Prague four nights later.
"Berlin is such a fantastic city, and they're hockey crazy over there," Kolzig said. "I'm really looking forward to seeing some of the guys I played with and the fans that supported me. It'll be a good time."
Back in 1989, Kolzig was camping in Kitchener, Ont., with the rest of the best junior-aged players in Canada, all of whom were hoping to land a spot on the prestigious National Junior Team that would travel to Alaska for the World Junior Championship.
There was just one problem.
"The second-to-last day we had visa application form we had to fill out and sign and we needed our passports, but I had too many numbers on my passport," Kolzig recalled. "I showed someone my passport and he was like, 'You have a German passport.' Two hours later they knocked on my door and told me I was ineligible. I thanked them for the shirt and shorts and went on my way."
Kolzig's parents were German, which is why he had the German passport. He lived in Germany for only six months when he was a toddler before eventually moving to Edmonton, but said he never thought about getting his Canadian citizenship.
By the time he was 18, Kolzig was already living in the United States while playing for Tri-City of the WHL.
"When you're young you don't think about those things," he said. "You go to school and play hockey."
It wasn't until Kolzig got to talking with former Capitals' prospect Stefan Ustorf in 1996 that the German Ice Hockey Association became aware that he was actually a German and could represent the country in international play.
Ustorf, by the way, currently plays for Eisbaren Berlin.
"I told him (Stefan) I had a German passport, but he didn't believe me so I brought it in to show him the next day," Kolzig said. "Sure enough, he got on the phone and that summer I was playing for Team Germany in the World Cup."
Kolzig also represented Germany at World Championships in 1997, the 1998 Winter Games in Nagano, the World Cup of Hockey in 2004 and the 2006 Winter Games in Turin, but said his first experience with Team Germany felt weird.
|Olaf Kolzig has represented Germany in numerous international competitions, including the World Cup of Hockey in 2004.
'The best decision I made'
Throughout the summer and into fall in 2004, Kolzig remained hopeful the NHL and the NHLPA would strike an accord to avoid a season-long lockout. He was so optimistic that he never considered playing in Europe as an option.
When January finally rolled around and there was little movement in the negotiations, Kolzig fielded a call from Lee, who was interesting in bringing the German National Team star over to Berlin to play for the Eisbaren.
"I thought, 'OK, you're 34 and you're not getting any younger so you got to get playing,'" Kolzig said. "Peter Lee gave me a call. I thought about it and I said the longest I'll have to go over there is 2½ months. It was the best decision I made."
Kolzig still follows the DEL, especially the Eisbaren, on a regular basis.
"It was so much fun," he added. "Berlin was one city that I had never been to and obviously we won the championship. So how much better of a story could it be?"
Kolzig already knew toward the end of last season that Washington was going in another direction this summer, so his days as the Caps' No. 1 goalie were over. It made him contemplate retirement.
"I was on the fence, 50-50 as far as retiring," Kolzig said. "Then I saw the changes Tampa made and the interest they had in signing me. I talked to my family about it, and it just made sense to go there."
He signed a one-year contract on July 1 with the knowledge that Tampa Bay views Mike Smith as its goalie of the future, and most likely the present. With Karri Ramo also in the mix, Kolzig understands why the Lightning were interested in him.
"It's two-fold," Kolzig said. "I can still play the game, and I can act as a mentor for Mike and Karri."
While Kolzig said he's not going to "stir the bees nest," meaning he won't cause a controversy about playing time, he's not conceding the top job either.
"I know it's not realistic for me to play 75 games at a high level anymore, but I still think 50 games at a high level is realistic for me," Kolzig said. "I want to prove to people that last year was just one of those years as opposed to a decline in my skills. I wasn't as bad as people made me out to be last year, so there is motivation behind that."
Contact Dan Rosen at email@example.com
Author: Dan Rosen | NHL.com Staff Writer