By Scott Stuccio | AHL On The Beat Archive
The Hershey Bears Hockey Club is 52 games into its 11th season as the top affiliate of the Washington Capitals.
A rather large player turnover happened last off-season, with some of the team’s veteran corps heading overseas or to other organizations. That, coupled with the excitement of several rookies ready to make the leap to the American Hockey League, brought to life one of the youngest rosters ever seen during the partnership with the parent club.
It has been a very long time since the Bears have had not one but two players sitting in the top six in points by an AHL rookie – especially at this point in the season.
The on-ice success of such players has been tremendous, to say the least. But the off-ice portion is something that truly does not get enough press—and is the portion to which fans are just not privy.
Some players may not have siblings to help them along in their lives, but they certainly have a “big brother” in Chocolatetown—one who put together a tremendous career of his own, yet never had a strong tie to Hershey when he played.
He is Olie Kolzig, the organization’s second-year player development coach. Owner of a Vezina Trophy, King Clancy Memorial Trophy, two NHL All-Star appearances and countless records as Capitals goaltender, he agrees that the position has quickly grown in importance. And it is something that he certainly did not have when he began his AHL career with the Baltimore Skipjacks in 1990-91.
“Well that’s the early 90s that we are talking, a quarter of a century ago,” he laughed. “No, we didn’t have development then. Your development was ‘go down and play and practice’. Not so much figure it out on your own, but there wasn’t somebody there to really guide you along. That role has definitely changed.”
Kolzig attributes his approach to his current position to a former teammate and Capitals goaltending comrade.
“Craig Billington has been with Colorado for the longest time,” Kolzig said. “When he got out of the game, that was his role with the Avalanche. It wasn’t so much about skill on the ice, it was about developing the kids off the ice. It was basically teaching them how to be pros. And that’s becoming a lot more prevalent now. The amount that is being spent on some of these young players, teams want to get the most out of their investments, and that’s where the position of a development coach comes in – to really help get the most of them.”
Players and staff alike welcomed Kolzig with open arms when he first joined the Capitals as associate goaltending coach in 2011. When he was promoted to head goaltending coach in 2013, he wasn’t seen as often in central Pennsylvania—until the results he was getting expanded far beyond the stalls of the organization’s netminders.
He was missed. Today, he is a valuable asset to everyone in Hershey.
“Overall, Olie reports to a number of people,” said Bears head coach Troy Mann. “He and I are in constant communication about our young players. He has been coming here once per month for about a week. I think it has been a great role for him. He’s done very well being a sounding board for me, and reinforcing some of the things that we’ve talked to each kid about.”
Since Mann has been coaching, he said that having a person like Kolzig physically around the locker room has done wonders for everyone.
“I think in terms of coaching in general, there is much more of a psychological component to it,” Mann said. “There are a lot of individual meetings that go on nowadays, and players always want to know where they stand. Sometimes they might have something going on in their lives, and you’re talking to them all the time. But it isn’t about getting things off of our plate as coaches and giving it to someone else. To have someone around to take a guy like Riley Barber or someone out to lunch and talk about his recent play and things like that, I think that’s great stuff.”
Bears long-time head trainer Dan ‘Beaker’ Stuck deeply believes in—and emphasizes every day—the word “professional”. In the same way that he earns the respect of his players by the job he performs, he expects the same in return. And working with someone like Kolzig helps even him.
“He’ll call me before he even gets to the rink,” Stuck said. “If there are any issues in the room or things that I see or hear about, he comes in here and talks to me. He’ll take them out to dinner and he explains to them really how to act to become a professional. Some guys come in here and there really is no guidance for them. There is no book that says what to do or how to do it. With Olie, he’s gone through it. So for me, since he’s gone through it, he knows where they stand too. He’s been there. He gets it.”
Travis Boyd is one of those players who is getting it—and one of the two Bears rookies among the top six in AHL rookie scoring. Boyd played the last two regular-season games with Hershey last season, and this year, has jumped into a big role at forward. Would he be at the level he is without a development coach?
“The big thing he’s done for me is teaching me how to be that very good pro,” Boyd said. “He’s also just there for you. He’s there for any concerns or comments, or anything you have on what things are acceptable and what things aren’t. He’s always there for you over the phone, too, and texting us to see how things are going. He’s making the transition from college to pro as easy as it could be.”
Kolzig himself said that the job has been a learning experience for him. As a parent of three—one of them the basis for his tremendously successful Carson Kolzig Foundation for Youth Autism—he says that, at times, parenting does come into play.
“There were a couple of situations last year where I needed to go, whether it was here or South Carolina, and be a little bit of a father figure,” he related. “This year, not so much. It’s Chandler’s (Stephenson’s) second year, it’s Nathan’s (Walker’s) third year. It’s Connor’s (Carrick’s) third year. Those three are prototypical pros now. They prepare so well. When it comes to those type of guys, there might be a time where they get in a slump, or something’s going on off the ice. What I try to tell them is that I’ll be there for them.”
“I think that being a younger guy, you’re not used to being on your own very much,” rookie defenseman Madison Bowey said. “The list goes on and on as to what’s involved in being on your own. Olie really made the adjustment a lot easier. You always can go talk to him and lean on him. For sure, you can really go and talk to him about anything. He’s obviously great and like a big brother to us.”
“Whatever they tell me, it stays with me, unless it might become detrimental to the organization,” Kolzig finished. “And fortunately that hasn’t happened. I’ve just been trying to be more like a big brother to them than an authoritative figure, and hopefully that has more of an impact on a greater number of guys. It’s so gratifying to have an impact on a player, see him be able to develop his game and take it to the next level, and still be there for them after year one.”