You know the old expression, "Time flies when you're having fun?" Well the last six seasons of Seattle Thunderbirds hockey have seemingly flown by in an instant. They've been six fun years. I had a front row seat watching this team come out of a couple of seasons of a non-playoff funk and build towards a championship caliber team. Winning hockey is fun hockey and it's a lot more fun to be around a winning atmosphere.
Steve Konowalchuk made it that way. Oh, it wasn't all fun and games with Kono at the helm. He demanded a lot from his players. He ran tough, grueling practices. At times he was matter-of-fact brutally honest with his players and that included high NHL draft picks. But he did it without throwing any one player under the bus. In the locker room, on the bench or on the team bus was as far as it went. Never in a radio interview, never in the newspaper or on any blog on the internet.
He stressed that to be a champion you had to practice like a champion, you had to train like a champion. It wasn't just about the sixty minutes on game nights. It was also about what you did leading up to game nights to prepare yourself. He constantly emphasized to his team you can't take shortcuts. That was something he never did as a player, and never did during his T-birds coaching tenure.
He took losses hard but instead of letting a defeat eat away at him, he used it as motivation, as fuel to make himself a better coach and make his players a better team. He passed that along to his players. That's a big reason why, in his final season behind the T-birds bench, his team captured the franchise's first ever WHL Championship. Individually he may not have had the deepest, or most talented roster, but he had the best team. He got players to buy into their roles.
Not a lot of coaches get to leave on their own terms. What's the adage? Coaches are hired to be fired. But Konowalchuk leaves the T-birds as a champion, heading back to the NHL as an assistant coach with the Anaheim Ducks after six seasons in Kent. He leaves with a resume filled with more accomplishments then any previous coach in Thunderbirds history. If you ask those who've been around the team the past six years for one word to describe him I think 10 out of 10 would say "competitor". He has a drive to succeed at whatever he does. He has set the bar high for who ever takes over.
But there is nothing left for him to prove at this level, he's reached the mountain top of the WHL. By next October, seven banners will hang from the ShoWare Center rafters. It took well over 30 years to earn the first three. Konowalchuk brought the next four into the building in just six years. He helped create a winning culture.
It seems it was just yesterday that I was interviewing Kono up in the Heritage Bank Lounge at the ShoWare Center after he had been announced as the T-birds new head coach shortly after the 2010-11 season had ended. A lot of ice has melted since then, and there were hundreds of off mic chats and on the record interviews along with countless bus rides and team meals along the way. Yep, time flies when you're having fun.