I have to be honest: I had no idea when I was getting into my last couple of years that I'd even be coaching. I probably thought I'd be living up in the mountains. —Anaheim Ducks assistant coach Steve Konowalchuk
ANAHEIM, Calif. — A native Utahn's hockey career reflects a father's unfulfilled devotion.
Steve Konowalchuk, the first Utahn to play in the NHL, returned to the league this season as an assistant coach with the Anaheim Ducks. The 45-year-old native of Salt Lake City played for 15 seasons with the Washington Capitals and Colorado Avalanche before going into coaching in 2009.
For the past six years, Konowalchuk coached the Seattle Thunderbirds of the amateur Western Hockey League. Under Konowalchuk's guidance, the Thunderbirds won the league championship last season and qualified for the tournament for the Memorial Cup — North American hockey's most prestigious amateur trophy.
"As a player, I had to work for everything I got; that's how I stayed in the league," said Konowalchuk, who directs the Ducks' power play. "As a coach, I try to put that same kind of effort in and put in the time to give our players the best chance or the best information I can."
Ducks head coach Randy Carlyle called Konowalchuk's approach "very honest and straightforward." "That's the type of player he was. He's very simple. There's not a lot of gray areas," he said.
"I like that in people. I like the people who are direct. I like the people who are committed to their beliefs."
That approach resonates with at least two of Carlyle's players.
"He's very calm and easygoing," rookie defenseman Brandon Montour said. "He's definitely very vocal. If I need help on places to be on the ice, he's very helpful. He comes to you when he has stuff to say or for you to work on. He's helped me a lot this year in knowing where to help out the rest of the group, just easier ways for me to find open lanes and open nets."
Konowalchuk's approach has also helped the Ducks' power play gain a sense of poise after finishing 17th among the NHL's 30 teams the previous season.
"He wants us to feel very confident and make sure that we really use the man advantage," forward Rickard Rakell said. "Last year, when the power play didn't work, it was almost like panic mode. They'd say, 'We're not working hard enough,' or something like that.
"This year, we recognize that when we're doing well, we have good structure. If it's not working, we just try to go back to our structure and help each other out. It's working for us. Everybody knows the structure, but we're allowed to make plays out there."
"He understands where we're at," the young defenseman said of Konowalchuk. "He puts in the blueprint and things to do but he lets us be players, too, and make plays and be creative, if need be. It's definitely nice to have that."
Nearly four decades before joining the Ducks, Konowalchuk learned the game in Utah from his father, Wally, whose own love for hockey began at home in Lethbridge, Alberta.
"He's a die-hard hockey man," the coach said about his father. "Part of his passion is, he didn't get a great opportunity. He played a little bit on the frozen ice in northern Alberta but he didn't have the luxury to play.
"I think that's what grew his passion. I think I took over his passion."
Wally, a truck driver for Motor Cargo Industries, took his three sons after work to Salt Lake City's Hygeia Iceland and other outlying rinks.
"Away we went in the car and he'd find us ice time wherever we could get it," Konowalchuk said. "He loved the game and he wanted to give us every opportunity he could. My dad would take us public skating and also to senior league. My mother was behind the scenes as well, supporting us every inch of the way."
The young Konowalchuk also spent time playing in local adult hockey leagues while growing up in Utah.
"I remember playing men's hockey when we were 11, 12 and 13 just anywhere we could get ice time," Konowalchuk said. "The guys would let us in and skate with them. I had a lot of fun that way. We had a good group of minor hockey league players, a good core that was a lot of fun to play with. My family ended up moving to Prince Albert (Saskatchewan) when I was 15 to give us a chance to play hockey."
In his only season for Prince Albert's Midget AAA team in 1989-90, Konowalchuk collected 30 goals and 28 assists in 36 games. Konowalchuk then moved to the Western Hockey League's Portland Winter Hawks and accumulated 43 goals and 49 assists in 72 games.
In June 1991, the Capitals chose Konowalchuk as a left winger in the third round of the NHL draft but sent him back to Portland, where he amassed 51 goals and 53 assists in 64 games to win the league's most valuable player award.
Konowalchuk made his NHL debut April 12, 1992, for Washington and became the team's captain in 2001, one year before Carlyle joined the Capitals as an assistant coach.
"Honest, hardworking player," Carlyle said about Konowalchuk. "I respected his work ethic, what he brought to the rink day to day. After his retirement, I followed his career a little bit."
The Capitals traded Konowalchuk to Colorado in October 2003, but an irregular heartbeat forced him to retire in September 2006.
"I thought I had a couple of years left to play," the former winger said. "It's different when you go out and retire (voluntarily) but when something's taken away from you, you realize real quick how much it means to you and how much you enjoy doing it."
The end of one career meant the beginning of a new one. Konowalchuk joined Colorado's player development department in 2007, got his first coaching job the next year as an assistant for a Junior B team in British Columbia, then returned to the Avalanche in 2009 as an assistant. After two seasons in Colorado, Konowalchuk became the Thunderbirds' head coach.
"I have to be honest: I had no idea when I was getting into my last couple of years that I'd even be coaching," Konowalchuk said. "I probably thought I'd be living up in the mountains."
Yet despite his unexpected career change, and in the midst of daily professional pressure, he revels in being on the ice for the Ducks' practices. Lacing up his skates connects him with his Utah roots.
"There's always stresses for players or stresses for coaches," Konowalchuk said. "You always want to be perfect. But when you're out there, to me, I always feel like it's still a game. Whether you're playing pick-up hockey on the pond or with a bunch of guys goofing around on the ice, it's still a hockey game and it's a great game."