In the winter of 1990, Olaf Kolzig had dreams of returning to the National Hockey League.
And why shouldn't he?
A year earlier, Kolzig was a Washington first-round draft choice and as a 19-year-old rookie had made the Capitals' team right out of training camp.
What Kolzig didn't realize at the time was that his long, arduous journey back to the NHL would make a few side trips, including an extended stint in the East Coast Hockey League.
Kolzig, now Washington's roving goalie coach, believes playing in the ECHL was a blessing in disguise for his career, and a big reason he ended his career as the Capitals' winningest goalie with 301 victories.
"It's a process and I didn't realize it at the time I got sent down," Kolzig said. "The Capitals had several prospects and they wanted them all playing. There was a pecking order and they wanted me to get as much ice time as I could get and the East Coast league was the place where I was going to play the most. It's the best thing that could have happened in my career. I needed time to develop."
Kolzig started the 1990 season with the American Hockey League's Baltimore Skipjacks -- one rung below the NHL. But he struggled stopping the puck and was eventually sent down to the Hampton Roads Admirals of the fledgling ECHL.
"I wasn't very happy," he said with a chuckle. "You've got remember when that was, 1990. The ECHL has gotten so much respect over the last 20 years; it was a totally different league back then. I had visions of (the film) 'Slap Shot,' where there's a fight every shift ... so I thought my career was going nowhere."
Kolzig learned quickly that the ECHL was going to help his pro career rather than hurt it.
"The league was legit, even back then," Kolzig said.
It was in Hampton Roads that Kolzig met coach John Brophy, now in the ECHL Hall of Fame. "John is one of my favorite coaches of all time. He taught me a lot about the game and a lot about what it means to be a professional hockey player."
He helped the Admirals to an ECHL title in 1991. The next year, he went 11-3-0 with a league-best .914 save percentage. "That season was a turning point for me," Kolzig said. "That gave me the confidence I needed to succeed at the next level."
ECHL changed since Kolzig stint in early '90s
A lot has changed since Kolzig last played in the ECHL.
"The skill level is so much higher now than it was when I played," he said. "They play a great brand of hockey. When I played, you had a lot of older guys who were here just to pick up a paycheck. It was older guys who couldn't make it at the American League level and didn't want to give up on the game, and now you've got the veteran rule, so it's a much younger, much faster and more skilled league.
"There's a hunger down here because a lot of the guys are working toward getting into the (AHL). And American League coaches realize that this a good league with a high talent level so they can make the transition up to the American League without too much trouble."
The ECHL has turned into a top feeder league for the NHL, Kolzig said. For evidence, look at Boston Bruins star goalie Tim Thomas. Last year's Conn Smythe Trophy winner as the Stanley Cup playoffs MVP began his pro career with the ECHL's Birmingham Bulls.
"I think it's a legitimate developmental league," Kolzig said. "Just look at the number of goaltenders that are playing in the NHL right now that started their careers in the East Coast league. They use this league as a stepping stone to the next level and to the NHL. It works."
Michal Neuvirth and Braden Holtby, who combined to win 37 games for Washington last season, spent time with the Stingrays before moving up in the organization.
Kolzig's latest star protege is Stingrays rookie goalie Philipp Grubauer, who is among the ECHL leaders in wins (10), save percentage (.934) and goals-against average (1.84).
"Realistically, he shouldn't be down here, he should be in the American League. But Philipp is going to get more ice time down here, and at this point in his career that's what he needs most," Kolzig said. "I think Philipp has a very bright future with the Capitals. I think he's going to surprise a lot of people down the road."
Who: Gwinnett Gladiators (11-8-8, 30 points) at South Carolina Stingrays (14-9-1, 29 points)
When: Today, 7 p.m.
Where: North Charleston Coliseum
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