Wednesday was supposed to be a newsworthy day for the T-Birds, but perhaps not for the reason that we expected.
On the day of the annual CHL Import Draft, the Thunderbirds also announced later in the afternoon that head coach Steve Konowalchuk had accepted a position as assistant coach with the NHL’s Anaheim Ducks.
It’s always a surprise when a head coach departs, but in Konowalchuk’s case, it shouldn’t come as too much of a shock. In six seasons with the Thunderbirds, Konowalchuk led the T-Birds to a WHL Championship, two Western Conference Championships and five playoff appearances. He had a 219-176-22-15 regular season record and a .549 winning percentage. In the playoffs, he amassed a 38-22 record.
“I hadn’t inquired about leaving Seattle for a couple of reasons,” said Konowalchuk from the airport, awaiting his flight to Anaheim. “One, my family situation. My wife is in Seattle and my kids are in Seattle. It’s a place we’ve come to call home and I plan to continue spending my summers there. The second reason is we had a team I thought could win it all last year and the year before. I wasn’t looking or seeking out anything. This opportunity came to me and it was too hard to pass up for my career.”
While Thunderbirds General Manager Russ Farwell wasn’t in any way surprised that Konowalchuk was pursued for a job with an NHL team, he admitted that the timing caught him a bit off guard.
“We had kind of talked it through a little while ago and based on where everything was at with Steve and his family, I thought we would have him another year,” said Farwell about the progression of discussions. “But Anaheim came to us and wanted to talk to him. He knew (Anaheim head coach) Randy Carlyle fairly well and had a comfort level with him that made things take off a bit quicker than we thought, but overall it wasn’t expected. He’s done a real good job for us and looking at other guys that got jobs, I thought Steve was very deserving of the opportunity.”
Konowalchuk also helped six players get drafted by NHL clubs during his tenure in Seattle, including two first-round draft picks in Shea Theodore (2013) and Mathew Barzal (2015).
Perhaps the most impressive thing on his resume outside of winning the lone WHL Championship in T-Birds history was the way that he turned around a team that was in the midst of perhaps the darkest period in its history.
The Thunderbirds had missed the playoffs in the two seasons prior to Konowalchuk’s arrival with a combined record of 46-76-0-22, which gave them a winning percentage of just .396. The team made steady improvement after missing the playoffs in Konowalchuk’s first year, resulting in three 40-win seasons and a 38-win campaign during the next five years.
“(Our success) all starts with the players,” said Konowalchuk reflecting on the past six seasons. “It started years ago with players that weren’t even there this year. They developed a culture and a standard of as close to perfection as you can get every day. They really bought into the culture and what we were selling. How hard they worked to obtain a goal was very exciting and very rewarding. I’ll never forget that feeling after winning the championship.”
While Konowalchuk deflected most of the praise to the players on his team, Farwell wasn’t so quick to take anything away from his former head coach.
“At the end you could point to those players and say he was lucky to have them, but he brought them in as young kids and did a really good job with them. He taught them how to think and how to play and what it takes to be players. That whole group owes Steve a lot as they move on in their careers.”
“Steve coaches for the right reasons. He loves the game, he’s competitive, he likes teaching. He was the right guy at the right time for us and deserves a lot of credit. I thought he should have been Coach of the Year last year. We don’t know the votes, but if a guy was ever going to win it, I thought it should have been him. At the end you can point to the players, but Steve brought them through. I know where each one of them was when they came in and the makeup personality-wise of each one and Steve did a great job with them.”
After a long NHL career as a player, Konowalchuk transitioned into coaching in 2009 with the Colorado Avalanche as an assistant, the same team he finished his playing career with. He spent two years on Joe Sacco’s coaching staff before the T-Birds offered him his first head coaching gig.
The search for a new head coach begins immediately. Seattle loses their top five scorers from a points-per-game perspective, but expectations will remain high based on the bar that Konowalchuk and this team set the past few years.
“Conversations have been going since the week of the NHL Draft,” said Farwell. “That’s when Anaheim called and said they wanted to talk to him. I still wasn’t sure it was going to happen since Steve liked it so much here. They came to him with a real offer and chased him a bit yesterday and it just came to be.”
“(Current T-Birds assistant) Matt O’Dette is a candidate for us. He’s been a real solid contributor and will be considered going forward. We may be looking for a head coach or we may be looking for an assistant coach. He deserves to be a strong candidate and he is one for our squad.”
Farwell also said he expects Seattle’s other assistant, Tyler Alos, to return to the team as well.
“Tyler has really grown in his spot and will be a positive guy for us going forward. He’s developed and grown a lot over these past few years. Last year he was a real significant part and became a important piece of our coaching staff.”
Konowalchuk heads back to the NHL and joins an organization that almost always finds itself deep in the postseason. This year, the Ducks advanced to the Western Conference Finals before they fell to the Nashville Predators in six games.
“It’s an organization that’s been looking like a team that has a chance to win every year,” said Konowalchuk of the opportunity. “Ever since I was playing and then ever since then they’ve been right there. It felt so good to win here and I’m excited for an opportunity to go to an organization like Anaheim and try to win a Stanley Cup. The reputation of the organization with Bob Murray and Randy Carlyle is strong. I want to come in and help out right away but also learn about their culture.”