Countries like Canada, the U.S., Sweden and Russia have been the primary sources for NHL talent since Europe’s insurgence to the NHL in the 1990’s. While these five countries make up more than three quarters of NHL players, some unique countries have also contributed players to the world’s top league with one of the greatest contributions being South African-born Washington Capitals goaltender Olaf Kolzig.
A Life on the Move
The origin story of “Olie the Goalie” goes much deeper than simply being born in South Africa. Kolzig was born April 6, 1970, in Johannesburg, South Africa and lived in Denmark during his early years. His family moved to Canada when he was young, where his love for the game of hockey began. Of course, growing up in South Africa, Denmark, and Canada means Kolzig could be none other than a German citizen. Yes, both of his parents are German and a majority of his family resides there. Germany is the country he refers to as his homeland and the one he represented on the international stage.
Kolzig’s Impressive Career
After moving to British Columbia with his family, Kolzig began his junior hockey career with the Abbotsford Falcons of the BC Junior Hockey League (BCJHL) and the New Westminster Bruins of the Western Hockey League (WHL) during the 1987-88 season. In 1988-89, he joined the Tri-City Americans of the WHL where he played 84 games over two seasons.
Kolzig’s professional career began after being drafted 19th overall in the 1989 NHL Entry Draft to the Capitals. Though he would get a crack at the NHL during the 1989-90 season, he spent the next seven seasons bouncing around between the NHL, AHL, and ECHL playing for teams such as the Baltimore Skipjacks, the Hampton Roads Admirals, and the Rochester Americans.
It wasn’t until the 1997-98 season where Kolzig got his chance to become a full-timer in the NHL, as he posted an exceptional 33-18-10 record that season. This breakout season would result in a playoff berth, and he took the Capitals on an unexpected run to the Stanley Cup Final where they lost to the Detroit Red Wings in four games.
‘Godzilla’, a nickname given to Kolzig for his large physical stature, never looked back after the 1997-98 season as he played 10 straight seasons amassing 719 games played, 303 wins and 35 shutouts. He also earned a few individual accolades over that span. In the 1999-00 season, his 41-20-11 record, 2.24 goals against average and 9.17 save percentage was good enough to earn him the Vezina Trophy for the NHL’s best goaltender. While he spent nearly his entire career with the Capitals, he finished his career playing eight games with the Tampa Bay Lightning in the 2008-09 season. Kolzig is often regarded as the best goalie in Capitals franchise history.
Kolzig’s Off-Ice Impact
Even though he accomplished a lot as a player, Kolzig is most proud of his balance of both on and off ice accomplishments. He was the recipient of the 2005-06 King Clancy Memorial Trophy, awarded to the player that best exemplifies leadership on and off the ice. Even though he was struggling a bit with his play late in his career, he mentioned receiving the King Clancy as “the pinnacle” of his career. Kolzig would always give 100 percent in practice and act as a role model in the dressing room for the younger players around him.
Kolzig has also been involved in charitable work throughout his career. During a routine check-up, his 15-month-old son Carson was diagnosed with autism. This flipped his world upside down, as autism is a disorder that affects social development making it difficult for those with autism to communicate and socialize. He recalls his son seemingly not wanting anything to do with him, which was extremely difficult for someone whose main goal in life was to be a good father to his children.
Following the diagnosis, Kolzig began the ‘Athletes Against Autism’ initiative to raise money for research, care and education for individuals with autism. He was able to get a few NHL players on board, but the peak of the initiative was getting Ernie Els on as an ambassador. The fellow South African provided a wide-reaching audience for the foundation and Kolzig was ecstatic to have an international sensation like ‘The Big Easy’ on his team. This was a cause near and dear to Kolzig’s heart and he was very proud of the impact and awareness he was able to create over the years the foundation was active.
Although his playing career ended after the 2008-09 season, Olie the Goalie continued his career in hockey as a goalie coach for the Capitals for the 2011-12 and 2012-13 seasons. While he no longer coaches players on-ice, he is still involved with the Capitals as a professional development coach teaching young players the ins and outs of being a professional hockey player and representative of the Capitals organization.
Kolzig was able to raise the Stanley Cup with the Capitals following their 2017-18 Stanley Cup victory, exactly 20 years after he came so close to accomplishing the same feat during his 1997-98 playoff run.
Maple Leafs writer. Holds a Master of Business Administration (MBA) and Bachelor of Sport Management (BSM) from Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario. Lifelong hockey player and fan. Prior work in communications with the Professional Hockey Players’ Association and as a Sports Content Coordinator with Rogers Communications.