Washington’s early season visit to Denver provided us with a chance to catch up with three old friends: Steve Konowalchuk, Ken Klee and Andrew Brunette. All three players were drafted and developed here in Washington before moving on to other NHL locales, and all three currently reside in Denver, drawing paychecks from the Avalanche.
Two of Washington’s better late-round draft choices of the last couple decades currently toil for the Avalanche. Defenseman Ken Klee was the Capitals’ 11th choice (177th overall) in the 1990 NHL Entry Draft. He debuted with the Caps in 1994-95 and played 570 games in a Washington uniform before joining the Toronto Maple Leafs as a free agent in 2003-04. The Leafs traded Klee to the Devils late last season, and he signed with Colorado over the summer. The versatile Klee, who occasionally played a very capable right wing during his days in the district, told his agent that his top preference was to sign with the Avs; he and his family have a home in Morrison, just outside of Denver.
“I called [my agent] and said, ‘Call them first,’ says Klee. “It ended up being a good fit. When they lost [Rob Blake], they were looking for a veteran D who could eat up some minutes and luckily I came in to fill that role. I’m pretty excited. We’ve been here for nine summers, and this is our home without question. We spent the lockout here and this is where we are pretty much set up with the family and everything.”
It’s ironic that Blake’s departure paved the way for Klee’s arrival in Denver. The two both lived in the same notoriously decrepit house at Bowling Green, where Blake was in his final season when Klee was a freshman. Then as now, Blake’s departure paved the way for Klee.
Brunette was the Caps’ sixth-round choice (174th overall) in the 1993 NHL Entry Draft. He had some big seasons with Washington’s Portland affiliate of the AHL, and broke into the NHL with the Caps in 1995-96. Brunette played in 11 games for the Caps that season, and also appeared in all six playoff games against Pittsburgh that spring.
A few weeks after the Caps moved downtown to MCI Center, Brunette was summoned from Portland when Washington was hit with a slew of injuries. The Caps installed Brunette on the left side of a line with Adam Oates and Peter Bondra (remember The BOB Line?), and the young winger quickly caught fire. He scored a goal in six straight games, which is still the longest streak of his career. Brunette was runner-up to Wayne Gretzky and Paul Kariya for NHL Player of the Month honors in Jan. 1998, but was sent back to Portland in February despite piling up 11 goals and 23 points in just 28 games with Washington.
“That’s just the way it was back then,” recalls Brunette of his time with the Caps. “The game was a little bit different. That was a veteran team. They had guys coming back from injuries and they went back in the lineup, which is the way it should be. I got the short end of the stick, but it all worked out in the long run.”
He never donned a Caps sweater again. The Nashville Predators selected him from the Caps in the expansion draft, and he has since played for the Preds, the Thrashers, the Wild and the Avs. Brunette has had three 20-goal seasons in the NHL and totaled 24 goals and 63 points for Colorado last season.
One of his favorite NHL experiences was getting to the Western Conference finals with Minnesota in 2003. He had seven goals and 13 points in 18 postseason games that year, and scored the game-winning overtime goal against Colorado that gave the Wild its first-ever playoff series victory.
“We had a nice run that year in the playoffs,” remembers Brunette. “It’s a great place to play hockey; it’s a real good hockey town. That was really refreshing. I had a little taste [of the playoffs] with Washington, but I was probably more relied upon in Minnesota. That was a unique team and a unique experience. We weren’t even supposed to make the playoffs. We had good hard-working guys who were good hockey players that everybody kind of threw to the wayside.”
It was good to see former Caps captain Konowalchuk again, but we’d all much rather see him on the ice. The hard-working Konowalchuk’s career was cut short just before the 2006-07 season started. A routine physical exam detected a genetic heart condition that forced his retirement. Konowalchuk is still associated with the Avs organization, trying a variety of roles, and looking to see which might be the best fit for his post-playing career.
“Next year we’ll get more down to what I am going to be doing,” he said. “This year they understand and they’ve given me time to separate. This year I am mostly just coming to the games. Next year, they are going to talk to me and maybe something will open up in an avenue, and they’re not sure what yet. And they’ve left it to what I want to do also. It’s wide open. It could be helping young kids, scouting or coaching young kids.”
A native of Salt Lake City, Konowalchuk also has a home in Canada.
“We do enjoy it here and we also like it up in Canada and we go back up there in the summer,” he said. “I think part of that will be what happens next year. If it’s a scouting job, I can kind of do that from anywhere. It’s kind of up in the air.”
He misses being on the ice, and that may eventually lead him down a coaching path.
“When I’m watching the game, I still want to be at ice level,” he admitted. “That’s where it all happens.”
It was hard to say goodbye to the game he loves at the age of 33, but having Klee, Brunette and ex-Cap goalie Craig Billington (currently Colorado’s director of player personnel) nearby for support was a big plus.
“Absolutely,” said Konowalchuk, when asked if having the threesome of ex-Caps around had been helpful. “Bruno was in Washington when I came into the league. Kenny and I roomed together for years. Those two guys were unbelievable when they heard the news, just being friends and being there for me. And Craig Billington was great, too. He made that transition from player to front office. You find that there is kind of an alumni of guys who had to make that transition, and you don’t realize that when you are playing. He told me you can still get a lot of enjoyment from the game and it’s not all bad.”
Konowalchuk has many friends scattered around the NHL, and a few still with the Caps. He and Washington goaltender Olie Kolzig dined together the night before the Caps and Avs hooked up in Denver last October.
“We had dinner and just caught up and had a couple beers together,” said Konowalchuk. “We talked about old times and the future. It’s kind of a funny game. You play with a lot of players throughout your career, but you probably keep in touch with your good friends, like maybe a half dozen of them and everyone else goes their own way. I consider Olie a good friend. It’s fun to watch him play and still see he is at the top of his game and still has a lot of years ahead of him.”
“Kono” had a great career, and easily won over fans everywhere he played with his tenacious, honest style of play. He doesn’t have many regrets, but he had hoped to come back to Washington – where his NHL 790-game (693 with the Caps) career began in 1992 – as a visiting player.
“I never did get back there to play a game there, which is kind of a bummer,” he lamented. “I wanted to get back once.”
He’s always going to be remembered fondly and welcomed warmly in Washington. The same goes for Klee, Brunette and Billington.