Now 37 years old, Olie Kolzig reported to training camp Thursday looking as spry as he did when he was 27. The body still has plenty of gas in the tank, and the mind - at least in a hockey sense - feels much better now that the Capitals are no longer expected to be among the dregs of the NHL.
"I'm a vintage car. I can keep going," Kolzig said. "My body feels fine, and the mind this year feels good, too. With the potential we have, going onto the ice gives you a little bit of a piece of mind. It's not, 'Oh, it's going to be a long night, go out and get through it, there are better days ahead.'
"These are the better days. So there's that optimism and enthusiasm that maybe I haven't had the last couple of years."
Kolzig made his Capitals debut in 1989, became the full-time starter in 1997, played in the Stanley Cup loss to Detroit in 1998 and has been with no other NHL team in a career that includes two all-star appearances and 276 victories. He and Martin Brodeur are the only active goalies with 250-plus wins to get them all with the same team.
"Nothing surprises me with Olie," coach Glen Hanlon said. "There's a real fire in his belly. He's gone though a couple of hard years. He's been here when this organization was in the final and I know how much he wants to get back there. He is a huge part of our success, and we're looking forward to riding him again."
Kolzig is congenial when he wants to be, fiery when he has to be. He'd be the team captain if NHL rules allowed goalies to wear the "C." He's the big name the Capitals kept around when they were dumping salaries in 2004, and he expressed his faith in the franchise's loss-heavy rebuilding plan when he signed a contract extension in 2006.
Now he's ready for the patience to pay off. After back-to-back last-place finishes in the Southeast Division with a low payroll, the Capitals are poised to improve. The younger players have matured, and a handful of free agents were signed to take some of the load off of rising star Alex Ovechkin.
"We knew there were going to be some growing pains the last two years," Kolzig said. "We've gone through them. We've learned a lot, and we've become pretty close as a team, and now to add these quality players, it's a great feeling. It kind of justifies why I stayed - because I honestly did believe that we were eventually going to be a competitive team again."
The plan relies on Kolzig to maintain his top form for at least another season or two. That should be no problem, given that goalies such as Dominik Hasek have played into their 40s, but Kolzig is finding that age requires him to do quite a bit more work before taking the ice.
"Before, I'd just come to the rink with a coffee, sit in the middle of the room and stretch, put on my gear and go," he said. "Now I've got to sit in the hot tub, I've got to get a massage, I got to ride the bike, I've got to stretch, I've got to stretch again. The process is a lot longer."
The hot tub and massage are easier to get now that the Capitals have a permanent place to call home. They moved into a new, still-not-quite-finished practice facility in the middle of last season - they had to use space heaters in the locker-room to stay warm - but now the complex is finished and so state-of-the-art that it can't help but give the team a psychological boost.
"Last year, we were kind of vagabonds," Kolzig said. "We just went to what was available, and we didn't have the cushy comforts that we have here. Not to say that this is going to spoil us, but it's going to put us in better physical condition to go on the ice and compete."