Red Deer Rebels head coach Steve Konowalchuk has travelled a winding road to get here.
The 48-year-old Salt Lake City, Utah native has chased his hockey dream around North America since he was a teenager, with plenty of stops along the way.
His latest job – Red Deer Rebels head coach – which he takes over from the legendary Brent Sutter, is no small order.
Red Deer finished 4-15-4 last year in the pandemic shortened season and Sutter stepped down from behind the bench late in the year, citing the need to give the players a new voice in the dressing room.
It took some time this summer, but Sutter, who is still the team owner, president and GM, eventually landed on Konowalchuk.
While the behind-the-scenes efforts have been underway for several months, the real work gets started Friday, when the Rebels kick off their 2020-21 training camp. The players will have fitness testing, before hitting their first on-ice training camp session Saturday.
“Very excited, feels like this week is kind of dragging by,” said Konowalchuk, a 14-year NHL veteran, who played most of his career with the Washington Capitals, before finishing it with the Colorado Avalanche.
“Players are starting to get into town and I can feel the excitement of the players, I know it’s been a long year for everybody.”
Although he’s spent the last few years scouting for the New York Rangers, Konowalchuk doesn’t come to Red Deer lacking a coaching pedigree, in WHL or otherwise.
He led the Seattle Thunderbirds to a WHL Championship in 2016-17, in just his fifth season behind the bench. That team underwent almost a complete rebuild after his first season and he figures the Rebels are further along than Seattle was back then.
“We’ve got a good mix of very talented players and very good older players who are leaders.”
As for his coaching philosophy, Konowalchuk, who also spent three years as an assistant coach in the NHL, said he won’t try and re-invent the wheel when it comes to trying to win.
Power plays and breakouts may look different at times, but in his eyes, hockey hasn’t changed that much over the years.
“Hockey is universal, there are not a lot of changes in system and structure. You watch one NHL team, in fact, I think it’s a little bit too much of a copy-cat league. If one guy is doing it, everyone does it,” he said.
“I’m going to bring my systems in that I believe in from Seattle and on to Anaheim, believe it or not, they’re very similar.”
The former WHL star will have a veteran-laden group and plenty of new talent to work with when the Rebels hit the ice for their first preseason game on Sept. 11.
Liam Keeler, a 20-year-old forward from Edmonton, who played his entire career with the Oil Kings, should play a big role this season. Red Deer also added veteran netminder Connor Ungur in a trade over the summer, who figures to fight for the number one job with Chase Coward.
In a late-summer acquisition, the Rebels also picked up 18-year-old highly touted forward Kai Uchacz. The forward was removed from the Seattle Thunderbirds roster last season, after directing racist language towards a teammate. Konowalchuk said he talked to people in Seattle, as well as Uchacz and a new chapter is ready to be written.
“I think it’s great for him to get another opportunity. From everybody I’ve talked to, I know people in Seattle. He’s a real good kid and the past is the past, he deserves a fresh start. He’s a good hockey player,” Konowalchuk said.
“We’ll see where he’s at, he obviously didn’t play a lot last year and he’s going to be a good addition to our team.”
Those faces will gel with the familiar ones, including 18-year-old captain Jayden Grubbe, who missed most of last season with a knee injury.
Grubbe will be in Rebels camp to start before heading to New York Rangers development camp next week.
The six-foot-three, 191-pound centre was drafted this summer in the third round, 65th overall by the Rangers.
Ben King and Arshdeep Bains round out a strong top six up front, alongside import pick Frantisek Formanek, who should arrive in Red Deer in the next few weeks.
Red Deer will be anchored on the blueline by Kyle Masters and Finnish import Christoffer Sedoff, as well as sophomores Hunter Mayo and Jace Weir. Trey Patterson and Blake Gustafson will play a big role on the blueline this year.
“When I talked to all the players, they believe in that group in there. That’s exciting for a coach, if you have the players that believing that we’re ready to take the next step, that’s so important,” Konowalchuk said.
“Coming from the players and us as well, it’s not about rebuilding anymore. Last year was last year, but a good a group of guys that finished strong, on top of some additions, we expect to go into every game with the mentality that we’re gonna win.”
Training camp opens Saturday with 90-minute practice sessions at 8:30 a.m. and 10:30 a.m., followed by a two-hour scrimmage starting at 4 p.m.
The same schedule will be followed Sunday, Monday and Tuesday, with the Black and White intrasquad game slated for 7 p.m. Wednesday.