Seattle Thunderbirds head coach, Konowalchuk, talks hockey and golf

Updated: August 1, 2013

By Steve Turcotte, Inside Golf Editor
When you get a round of golf set up with a former NHL hockey player, you almost expect Happy Gilmore to show up. You half expect. You think a guy will show up in an old convertible, pull the old persimmon clubs out of the back seat and have a hockey jersey pulled over the top.

But not with Steve Konowalchuk, the 14-year NHL player and now the head coach of the Seattle Thunderbirds of the Western Hockey League. Konowalchuk wishes he had some of Happy Gilmore’s game, especially those long drives but Konowalchuk is a guy that knows the difference between hockey and golf.

“Golf is hard, really hard,” said the 40-year-old Konowalchuk with a laugh. “I don’t think I will ever get this game.”

Ever since a young age and even in his early days in the NHL, Konowalchuk thought he could play some golf. Some of his former NHL teammates with the Washington Capitals and Colorado Avalanche were good golfers, he thought he could be one, too. But something happened on the way to the first tee every time he played golf.

“I just wasn’t very good,” he said. ‘But it got to the point where hockey players are really good or really bad. I fell into the really bad group and gave it up.” So Konowalchuk did what most athletes do when they don’t golf – he went fishing.

Konowalchuk swingingBut now, many years later and his NHL career in his rear view mirror, Konowalchuk decided to pick up the game again. It’s a way that Konowalchuk and his 13-year-old son Cole can spend some good father-son time on the golf course together. And Konowalchuk is enjoying the game again. “I’m ready to try and get better at this game,” he said. “Let’s see what happens.”

Konowalchuk shoots his hockey shots from the left side. He tried golf from the left side but it didn’t work. He hits righty on the golf course but does putt left handed.

Konowalchuk has some Northwest roots even before taking the head coaching job two years ago with the Thunderbirds. He spent three years with the Portland Winterhawks of the WHL before heading off to a 14-year career in the National Hockey League, spending 12 with the Washington Capitals and two more with the Colorado Avalanche.

And along the way he moved from center to wing (It gave me more playing time that way,” he said) and played in 790 games scoring 171 goals and 225 assists. Memorable moments? There were plenty along the 14-year road.

• Konowalchuk’s first NHL goal in 1992 came in a road game at Edmonton, where he had family and friends in the crowd. “I just sent a shot toward the five-hole and it went in,” he said. “I never even saw it.”

• Playing for the U.S. team in the World Cup of hockey in 1996, going against many of his hockey heroes and holding his own. “There was nothing like playing for your country,” he said.

• Reaching the NHL Stanley Cup championship round with Washington. The road to the Stanley Cup Finals were great, the championship series wasn’t as Washington lost in four straight games to the Detroit Red Wings.

Konowalchuk still gets a laugh about his time on the NHL ice. “Every time I scored a goal I was surprised it went in,” he said with a laugh.

Konowalchuk retired after the 2006 season when an EKG found that he had a condition called Prolong QT – a condition in which his heart beat took too long between beats.

The Avalanche offered a coaching job and he spent two years on the bench in Colorado before the offer to coach in Seattle sent him and his wife Leah and their two kids to the Northwest. “My daughter didn’t really like the move – I don’t think she talked to me for a year.”

Konowalchuk puttingNow, Konowalchuk is the leader on the bench. And it’s a place where he feels comfortable and has fit in nicely. The first year in Seattle was a rough one as the team won 25 games but last year the Thunderbirds reached the playoffs and nearly pulled off a first-round playoff shocker.

Konowalchuk said the bar is raised for his third year with the Thunderbirds. Training camp for the team kicks off later this month at the ShoWare Center in Kent.

“The expectations are high this year for this team,” said Konowalchuk. “We finished so strong last year we’d like to keep it going.”

Konowalchuk knows he needs to get his golf game in better shape. His son Cole gives him all the game he wants on the golf course and when he gets invited to celebrity tournaments, he wants to at least show up with a few shots in the bag.

On this day at Meridian Valley, Konowalchuk did prove that he does hit an occasional lethal 3-iron including one on the eighth hole that went 205 yards to the front of the green. “You learn to hit a 3-iron when you don’t hit the driver very far,” Konowalchuk said in between laughs. “Guess I need to figure out how to hit the driver farther so I can use other clubs. I grew up not comfortable at all on the golf course – I want to change that. I want to feel comfortable and have a good time with it.”

Does Konowalchuk pop Happy Gilmore into the DVD player when he needs some golf motivation? Not really. “But my son sure likes the movie,” said Konowalchuk. “After he saw it he went out and tried to hit it like Happy.”