Commentary

A sober Ozolinsh knows his latest NHL stint could be his last

Updated: November 29, 2007, 11:41 AM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

SAN JOSE -- Mike Ricci, the former Sharks centerman now in the team's front office, sauntered by Sandis Ozolinsh in the San Jose dressing room Tuesday afternoon and asked the veteran defenseman if he was up for some beers later.

That would be Sandis Ozolinsh the recovering alcoholic, a player who has returned to his first NHL home for one last kick at staying sober, one last kick at staying in the game and ahead of the bottle.

Ozolinsh grinned.

Sandis Ozolinsh
Don Smith/NHLI/Getty ImagesSandis Ozolinsh signed a one-year deal with the Sharks before the start of the 2007-08 season.

"Sure, I'll have soda," he said, eyeing Ricci's equally mischievous smirk.

Ozolinsh then suggested that perhaps Ricci would like to accompany him to one of his Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.

Oh no, Ricci said. He didn't need that.

"Denial," Ozolinsh quipped, a reference to one of the first signs of a drinking problem.

Insensitive? Maybe. But this is a hockey dressing room, where little is out of bounds, and the good-natured banter is the currency of acceptance that may help Ozolinsh continue to find his way back with the club that first drafted him out of Riga, Latvia, in 1991.

"If they want to know [about my problems], I'll tell them," he told ESPN.com earlier this week.

After all, it's really no secret Ozolinsh was at the bottom of the abyss.

Ozolinsh voluntarily entered the NHL/NHL Players' Association's substance abuse and behavioral health program in December 2005 while playing for the Ducks. He entered the program a second time in the spring of 2006 after a drunken driving charge.

Last season, Ozolinsh played only 21 games for the Rangers and his campaign came to a halt while on injured reserve, ending his season and, for all intents and purposes, his career. The seven-time All-Star, Norris Trophy finalist, Stanley Cup winner and Latvian hero appeared to be done.

"Bleak. Not very good," was how the 35-year-old viewed his prospects for future employment. "I, myself, was not very positive about my future. Then, something changed in the offseason."

Exactly what changed is hard for him to put his finger on. Ozolinsh seems at a loss to identify that "something."

Maybe it was accepting the alcohol recovery program spelled out by both the league's plan and Alcoholics Anonymous.

Maybe it was his two sons, ages 11 and 13, and his desire to show them that change is possible, that good things come if you try.

"About not giving up, that hard work pays off, at least if you get a chance," he said. "Hopefully, they'll remember."

After working out with a personal trainer in the Colorado area, Ozolinsh decided to give himself a test. He ran a triathlon. There was a field of one -- him. His wife, Sandra, and his children were his support team, counting the laps in the community pool as he swam 1½ kilometers. They followed him in the car as he biked 40 kilometers and then ran 10 kilometers.

"I didn't want to get lost or fall down and hurt myself," he joked.

Why did he do it? Again, Ozolinsh seems a bit perplexed.

"Why? I don't know. I just wanted to see if I could do it," he said.

Not too long after the triathlon, Ozolinsh's longtime agent, Paul Theofanous, received a surprising call from San Jose GM Doug Wilson, asking if Ozolinsh was interested in a tryout.

Assistant coach Rob Zettler, a former teammate of Ozolinsh's when the defenseman first broke into the NHL in the early 1990s, worked with Ozolinsh and couldn't believe the defenseman's fitness level.

"He went all out from beginning to end, no matter how long we went," Zettler said. "The first day I saw him with his shirt off, I was like, 'Wow, that's not the Sandis Ozolinsh I know.'"

After being cleared to play by doctors within the league's substance abuse program, Ozolinsh signed a one-year deal with San Jose.

Who knows how long this new Ozolinsh will be around? A third return to the program will bring with it a six-month suspension and almost certainly would be the end of the line for Ozolinsh's NHL career.

However long it is, he is enjoying the moment as much as possible.

"I do not know what is going to happen," he said. "One day at a time. I'm no genius. I'm just following what others have gone through before me."

He is somewhere he didn't expect to be: back with his first NHL team, playing meaningful minutes, working at becoming a mentor to the Sharks' young defensive corps.

And he is sober.

In accepting him, his teammates have accepted Ozolinsh's past and the uncertain future that all alcoholics face.

"I'm not embarrassed. I have accepted what has happened," he said. "That's a big change from last year."

Ozolinsh acknowledged it's not his favorite topic because he understands he is always perilously close to being back where he was.

"Last time I talked about this, I got into trouble," he said, referring to a piece in The New York Times back in April 2006 that delved into his problems with alcohol.

Less than a month later, he was charged with drunken driving in White Plains, N.Y. His blood-alcohol level was twice the legal limit. He pleaded guilty and the charge was later reduced to driving while impaired.

If there was clarity during the offseason, a dedication to preparation and a desire to write his own final chapter rather than having it written for him, the game itself has brought additional challenges.

Ozolinsh said he has always had difficulty separating his hockey life from his home life. The game would often follow him home, often haunting him. Even now Sandra sometimes asks him, "Are you still talking to your teammates in your head?"

"It's not as easy as I thought it would be," he admitted. "I need to give myself a break, but not too big a break. I'm trying to do the best I can to keep up what I was doing during the summer."

Part of that is by sticking to his off-ice routine even when the Sharks are on the road. Ozolinsh finds AA meetings in different cities away from San Jose, and he said there are a lot of meetings wherever he travels.

Always a gifted skater, smooth passer and hard shooter, Ozolinsh has likewise been particularly hard on himself for mistakes. Given his penchant for a high-risk, high-reward style of play that made him attractive to teams, he has had plenty of time for self-flagellation.

He is now working to be less hard on himself even though he is trying to adjust to a new team after playing in just 57 games since the end of the 2003-04 season. Some days, he wonders about his passing; other days, it's whether he holds onto the puck too long; sometimes, it's positioning that bewitches him.

"I need to give myself a break. But not too much of a break," he said. "I am doing my best, but is it enough? Is it? I don't know."

While he may not know what his future holds, he is sure of one thing: Sandra has made sure there is a future to contemplate.

The two met in school in Latvia. They came to North America together, first going to Kansas City of the now-defunct IHL after the Sharks selected him with the 30th pick in the 1991 draft. Neither spoke any English.

Ozolinsh recalled then-Sharks GM Dean Lombardi sitting with him on the plane and teaching him hockey English -- crease, dump, center, circle. Sandra learned English on her own.

Even now, their boys will sometimes correct their English.

"I'm very grateful to have married my wife, that she actually said OK," Ozolinsh said. "She's been there for 15 years. Through all the tough times, we've been together. She knows me better than anybody else. Even better than myself.

"You know what they say, 'Behind every good man, there's a great woman.' Not that I'm saying I'm a good man."

Ozolinsh may be reluctant to describe himself as such, but others do.

Anaheim GM Brian Burke, who inherited Ozolinsh when he took over the Ducks after the lockout, praised the defenseman's efforts to put his life back together.

"Obviously, Sandis had a problem that came to light late in the [2005-06] season. He's a quality person," Burke said. "I think people deserve a chance. It's the thing that I've always said with Todd Bertuzzi. In Sandis' case, it's a disease, not a mistake. He's a good person and a good teammate."

Wilson, who played with Ozolinsh during the D-man's first stint with the Sharks, flew him in to San Jose this summer "to look him in the eye" and see if Ozolinsh was truly committed to coming back.

"It's one thing to say you want to play. It's another to do the things that can allow you to play," Wilson said. "It's a credit to the whole family. I think he's in a pretty good place now."

In his first 10 games, Ozolinsh was plus-1, had three points and was averaging 20:33 in ice time. San Jose coach Ron Wilson said he hasn't bothered to discuss Ozolinsh's past with his new defenseman.

"He's totally committed. I haven't even talked to him about what's happened," Wilson said. "I don't think you need to harp on something like that with a guy. He understands that this could be his last chance. I think he's taken whatever he needed, or felt, in the past with the problems he had and focused everything on conditioning and fitness."

The main focus will be helping Ozolinsh make adjustments to his game. Because the Sharks are a cycling team, Ozolinsh's desire to sometimes jump into the play puts him too close to the action.

"When Sandis wants to drive in … you're driving right into where everybody is, you're running into the forest instead of staying a little bit on the outside so you can count the trees," Wilson said.

Ricci played alongside Ozolinsh in Colorado when the Avs won the Stanley Cup in 1996. He sees a player now taking advantage of another chance.

"You know what they say about whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger? I think that's where he's at right now," Ricci said.

Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.