In this edition of Colorado Avalanche Throwback Thursday, we profile former Avalanche defenseman Sandis Ozolinsh
With the Avalanche: 72 goals (+18 playoff goals)
The Wandering Latvian, the Wild Stallion —Sandis Ozolinsh
was known for his roving ways.
Talk about a roving player these days, and Tyson Barrie‘s name comes up. But long before Barrie declared he would make the team or get shipped back to the minors based on his personal style of play, Sandis Ozolinsh let his skating do the talking.
Apparently Ozolinsh’s skating started in a unique place — figure skating classes. According to an interview Ozolinsh did with CNN, his mother insisted he take figure skating classes when he was five years old. He preferred hockey, but presumably Mama Ozolinsh didn’t want her son playing such a dangerous sport:
"“I made a deal with her. If I could do pirouettes to her liking, then she would have to stay in the net as a goalie, and I’d do shootouts on her. She got tired of being a goalie, so she decided to take me to hockey.”"
And the Colorado Avalanche are glad she caved in.
The Avs didn’t have the pleasure of drafting Ozo — that honor went to the Sharks. They chose him 30th overall in 1991 — not bad for a kid who didn’t even know he was eligible for the draft:
"“I got drafted while I was in the Soviet army. I was sitting in a barracks, and somebody came with a newspaper, and showed me that I was drafted. I had no idea that I was going to be drafted — I didn’t know what the draft was.”"
Let the record show that this happened way before the Internet became a household staple.
181 assists (+47 playoff assists)
Ozolinsh became a Colorado Avalanche on October 26, 1995, when then-GMPierre Lacroix
to the San Jose Sharks for him to bolster a “lackluster” defense.
The Wandering Latvian was especially useful on the power play. He quarter backed that power play with his sheer force of will.
253 points (+65 playoff points)
Ozo made seven All Star Game appearances, including First Team All Star in 1997. In fact, that appearance marks one of my favorite Ozo memories. He was performing a skating competition for defensemen, one of those that has the player weaving between cones while stick-handling the puck. Ozo made his run, and by the final leg, he was way ahead of his competition. So, with a smooth twist, he transitioned into skating backwards and hot-dogged it to the finish line. The Wild Stallion.
Mile High Sticking editor Jeremy Lambert has his own favorite Ozolinsh memory:
His hat trick goal against the Vancouver Canucks is all you need to see to know the kind of game that Ozolinsh played. He skated through the entire Canucks team before finishing off the hat trick on a brilliant individual effort. That was the kind of thing he could do at any given moment in a game. When it comes to power player defensemen, there are few people I would want ahead of Ozolinsh. He had a great shot (hard and accurate) and could be all over the offensive end without a care because of his great skating.
Sandis Ozolinsh wasn’t a defenseman. He was a fourth forward. Don’t get me wrong, he was good in his own end, but when the Avs were in the offensive zone and Ozolinsh was on the ice, he was the most dangerous person on skates.
Known for his smooth skating, vision, and stick handling; Ozolinsh was the prototypical offensive defenseman. Whether he was starting the break out, possibly by himself, or running the power play, Ozo was a one man force on the blueline. The Avs had plenty of offensive talent up front, but their defense was filled with anchors like Adam Foote and Jon Klemm. Ozolinsh brought an entirely different element from the back end.
He holds the record for most goals (23) and points (68) by an Avs defenseman in a regular season, and it’s tough to see either of those records falling anytime soon.
Head coach Patrick Roy, who back-stopped the only team that awarded Ozolinsh a Stanley Cup, the 1995-96 Colorado Avalanche, shared his own Ozo reminisces:
"“He created a lot of scoring chances at the offensive end — and he also created chances at the defensive end. If there was an occasional chance against you, you didn’t mind because he gave you so much at the other side.”"
One time he did mind — when Ozo made one of his rare gaffes and dropped the puck back to a goalie who’d already been pulled — thus scoring on his own team. As Roy said, though — he created so many scoring chances on the other end, that you had to forgive him such a mistake.
Ozo got traded to the Carolina Hurricanes during the 2000 NHL Entry Draft, and so ended the era of the Colorado Avalanche’s original rover.