There are 30 teams in the NHL. Thirty coaches, thirty general managers. All of those teams, all of those coaches and all of those general managers would love to have Steve Konowalchuk on their teams. In fact, they’d like to have 20 Konowalchuks – or at least 20 guys with the heart and intensity of the Steve Konowalchuk who plays for the Washington Capitals.
From the day he joined the organization as its fifth pick (58th overall) in the 1991 Entry Draft, Konowalchuk has been a shining example of a strong work ethic and unwavering determination. The Caps chose four players ahead of Konowalchuk in that 1991 Entry Draft, but Konowalchuk was the first of the bunch to make it to the NHL. The Salt Lake City, Utah native first donned a Capitals sweater late in the 1991-92 season when he was a mere 19 years of age.
“I played one game with the Caps and four or five in the minors and I stuck around as kind of an extra guy through the playoffs,” Konowalchuk recalls of his late-season itinerary that spring. “I was pretty shocked, I guess. I was fairly confident, but I don’t know if I was supposed to be the guy who was already playing [in the NHL] out of that draft. I was the third round pick, not a first round pick and there wasn’t a whole lot of hope on me. Maybe for the future [there was] but to be able to get a chance at that early of an age for myself – I was a little surprised that they thought I was at that level. But it was exciting, obviously.”
It’s not like the humble, soft-spoken left-winger didn’t deserve the promotion. With the Portland Winter Hawks that season, Konowalchuk had totaled 51 goals and 104 points in just 64 games. For his efforts, he earned Western Hockey League MVP honors.
Konowalchuk made it to the NHL by constantly seeking to excel against a higher level of competition. When the competition in Salt Lake City began to level off, He moved to Prince Albert, Saskatchewan to play within a more talented tier of competition.
“I moved to Prince Albert when I was 15,” he recalls. “My brother is a year older; he played hockey and he went up there to play hockey and I followed him along to play. So I moved there, lived there for three years and then went back to play junior hockey in Portland, Oregon.”
Konowalchuk acknowledges the importance of that move in the furthering of his career.
“It [had] a huge effect,” he says now of the move to Canada. “Salt Lake City isn’t a great hockey place. It’s not bad when you’re little. At the time, there were some good players there. But as you get older, the competition kind of dies down in Salt Lake City and in the States – we played Colorado and California teams, too. We had to get where there was [better] competition to try to compete and improve.”
Konowalchuk clearly learned his craft well. He required fewer than 50 games of minor league tutelage before he was deemed ready for the NHL wars. His last stint in the minors was in 1993-94, when he scored 11 goals in eight games for the Portland Pirates of the AHL.
One of the early highlights of Konowalchuk’s career was his first NHL goal, scored on Halloween night, 1992. Still days shy of his 20th birthday, Konowalchuk’s first goal tally came in Edmonton in front of a special audience.
“I had my parents there and I had a lot of relatives in Edmonton,” he remembers. “I had relatives in Vancouver that went to Edmonton to watch the game because it was the first time I got out in that area. I happened to score there and it was kind of a nice place to score your first goal. I remember it was kind of a two-on-one and instead of passing across, I just shot it and it went five-hole. It was against Billy Ranford in Edmonton and it was just exciting.”
A little more than three years later, Konowalchuk enjoyed another big night in another Canadian province with his family once again in attendance. On December 10, 1995, Konowalchuk notched his first NHL hat trick against the Winnipeg Jets and goaltender Bob Essensa.
“That was obviously one of the more exciting nights for myself,” allows Konowalchuk. “All of a sudden, you get a hat trick – you don’t expect it. My parents drove 12 hours from Lethbridge, Alberta to Winnipeg [to be at the game]. I got a hat trick and we won the game so that was a great night.”
Through Saturday night’s game in Atlanta, Konowalchuk has skated in 523 games with the Caps and has tallied 112 goals. Fifteen of those goals were game-winners, and four of those game-winners came in overtime. Konowalchuk’s four game-winning overtime goals tie him with Mike Gartner and Mike Ridley atop the team’s all-time list in that category.
“I think that’s kind of coincidence,” he says of his success in the extra session. “I like to be out there at the end of games or in overtime. Early in my career, I had the opportunity to play with Kelly Miller and Dale Hunter and those guys were known for their heroics, too. So I just kind of played hard with them. You play with guys like that in overtime and they’re geared up and they’re ready and it makes it easy.”
Konowalchuk also seems to have a knack for scoring on his two children’s dates of birth and birthdays. Last February, Konowalchuk scored a key game-tying goal in the waning minutes of regulation time against the Florida Panthers. The goal came just hours after Konowalchuk’s son was born.
“He was born around 11 in the morning, and my wife was in labor all night,” remembers the Caps’ left winger. “So basically, I just went home, had a shower, came to the rink and played the game. It was exciting. I seem to have luck when we’ve had a baby. I had a goal there and I had an assist when my daughter was born. And then actually [November 18] I ended up getting three goals. Unfortunately, the team lost – it wasn’t great luck – but I had three goals and it was my daughter’s third birthday, so I don’t know, it’s kind of weird.”
“I remember actually going to the rink and having to shake my head a couple of times to keep awake when I was driving to the rink,” he says of the Florida game in February. “But you get to the rink and you can do that one night, just sucking it up. It was a big game and that made it easy. Obviously, we were going for first place and you didn’t want to let your team down. If you’re going to play, you’ve got to be ready to play 100 percent. Luckily, adrenaline carried me through.”
Besides his dogged work ethic and his willingness to go to the net and other high traffic areas, Konowalchuk’s versatility also makes him a valuable guy to have around. Drafted as a center, Konowalchuk has played primarily left wing in the NHL, but he is still capable of taking and winning faceoffs when necessary. He is a staple of the team’s penalty killing unit and can also perform on the power play. Konowalchuk is comfortable whether he is skating on a scoring line or a checking line, and he is effective in both roles. But regardless of which line he is on, his game doesn’t change.
“Even when I’m on a scoring line, I’m going to help create more chances by still checking the other team – still forechecking hard,” he explains. “I think if I’m playing with [Adam] Oates, obviously you have to be ready to get some more shots because you’re going to get the puck a lot more than [you’re going to get] with any center in the league. You’re going to get chances with that puck and you’re going to get time. So you just have to be ready that way. When you play with [Jeff] Halpern, you come and you’re going to wear the other team down and he’s going to be right there with you battling, and you’re going to create your chances driving it to the net and stuffing it out of the corners. I try to stay the same with whomever I’m playing with. I don’t think anybody can change their game. You are who you are and I like to think I can help out a little bit on whichever line I’m on.”
Lately, he’s been skating with Ulf Dahlen alongside Oates. Konowalchuk and Dahlen are cut from the same cloth, and the pair of wingers can really tire out a defense shift after shift as the night goes on.
“Ulfie is one of the best down low,” says Konowalchuk. “It’s unbelievable playing with Ulfie. If we can get the puck down there, I’ll give it to him, and he’ll hold the guy for a while. We’ll give and go, or we’ll try to do little picks. Sometimes it’s tiring for us so it’s even more tiring for the defense. We come to the bench and we’re [saying], ‘Whoa, that was a tough one.’ But you know the defense is twice as tired. If you don’t score [on a particular shift], hopefully it wears them out by the third period and we can create some scoring chances from that.”
With the 2002 Winter Olympics slated for Salt Lake City, it’s only natural to think of a local boy making good for the US Men’s Hockey Team. Konowalchuk would love to be there and hopes he continues to play well enough to merit strong consideration.
“That would be huge for myself as far as a goal that every kid dreams of when he is growing up,” allows Konowalchuk of the 2002 Olympics. “It’s going to be the best players in the world playing in the town that I grew up in. Who would have ever thought that chance would come around? I don’t know that I’ll be on [the team], I don’t know what they’re looking at. But I’m hoping that I can put something together for myself and at least get a good look at it for next year.”
Off the ice, Konowalchuk enjoys fishing. It’s a pursuit he saves for the summer, however. During the hockey season, his focus is squarely on the game. Once summer rolls around, Konowalchuk and his family head to their cabin in northern Saskatchewan.
“It’s two hours north of Prince Albert,” he says, of his summer residence. “It’s on a lake. Not a huge lake, but it has walleye fishing and northern pike. We go there about two months of the summer, hang out and relax. I have a little gym there so I don’t have to go into town to work out. I work out right there and take the kids fishing in the afternoon.”
Now in his 10th NHL season, Konowalchuk has risen through the ranks of the Capitals’ system from rookie to veteran leader. He ranks fifth on the team in seniority as a Capital, trailing only Calle Johansson, Olaf Kolzig, Peter Bondra and Ken Klee. Early in his career, he frequently skated on a line with Hunter and Miller, two longtime team leaders. Now, Konowalchuk is a leader himself. He wears the alternate captain’s “A” on his sweater.
“I remember playing with those two guys and it was so easy for myself to come to the rink and be ready every night because they were,” he says of his apprenticeship with Hunter and Miller. “I didn’t have to worry about my linemates. All I had to worry about was not letting them down because Dale Hunter and Kelly Miller didn’t have a bad game. As a young kid, I thought that was amazing for them to be able to play a thousand hockey games and play every one as hard as they did – to their top level every night. That’s one thing I wanted to try to do myself. [I thought] hey, if they can do it, I want to come every night and learn from them.”
It’s obvious that Konowalchuk learned a lot from them and the Caps can only hope that current and future Capitals’ youngsters learn in turn from Konowalchuk. Like Hunter and Miller before him, Konowalchuk carries on a proud Capital tradition of hard work and diligent play, shift after shift, night after night. He plays every game hard – to his top level every night. Just ask the other 29 teams in the league that have to play against him.