Thunderbirds coach Steve Konowalchuk believes juniors sometimes mistake fighting for toughness.
KENT — In a grainy YouTube video, Steve Konowalchuk is wrestling for position in front of the net with Chicago defenseman Dave Manson.
For 14 seasons, almost 800 games with Washington and Colorado, Konowalchuk, the new Seattle Thunderbirds coach, made his NHL living just outside the crease, just within reach of every ill-intentioned defender. He hasn’t seen this video from a 1999 exhibition game, but he remembers the moment.
Manson worked him over. Hit him once, twice in the back of the head. He cross-checked him in the back. He slashed at the backs of Konowalchuk’s legs. Just outside the crease, they danced hockey’s heavy-handed pas de deux.
And then they fought.
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Most goals in the NHL aren’t scored as a result of lovely end-to-end rushes like many of Sidney Crosby’s. Most are scored in the muck, in front of the net, at the end of some nasty-edged scrum.
“If I don’t get to the front of the net, I don’t have a chance to score,” Konowalchuk said Thursday, sitting in his office at the ShoWare Center. “And if I don’t score, I don’t play.”
Since May, three NHL enforcers — Derek Boogaard, Rick Rypien and Wade Belak — have died, raising questions about what hockey can do to protect them. How does the league look for signs of the kind of mental and emotional distress that followed these players through their careers? And what is the role of fighting?
Konowalchuk, a left winger, wasn’t a fighter. When he fought, he just tried to survive. He wasn’t a fighter, but he was physical. He was willing to take the abuse in exchange for a scoring opportunity. He wasn’t a fighter, but he was tough. He finished checks. He took the pounding and the slashing in front of the net.
But now, after two seasons as an assistant coach with the Colorado Avalanche, in his first weeks as the Thunderbirds coach, he has noticed that many junior-hockey players mistake fighting for toughness.
“There’s still a lot more of the fighting mentality here than in the NHL,” he said. “To me fighting is just one of maybe 10 aspects that make up a tough hockey player.
“My message to these kids is that there’s a time and a place for fighting. It’s part of the game, but there’s a lot more to being tough than just fighting. Right now, after just a couple of (exhibition) games it seems a little like they’re thinking more about the toughness and the fighting than they are about winning the game.”
Truly tough hockey players pay the price in front of the net the way Detroit’s Tomas Holmstrom has. Or they fall on their knees to stop slap shots like Vancouver defenseman Sami Salo does. Tough players are willing to skate into the corner and get slammed into the boards.
Fighting is part of the game, but it isn’t the game.
“If you play tough, you’re going to have to fight,” Konowalchuk said. “Because eventually the other teams aren’t going to want to play against you and they will try to get you off your game. You’re going to get confronted and, yeah, then you are going to have to stand up for yourself.”
Hockey is relentless. The NHL regular season is 82 games long. Seattle’s Western Hockey League season is 72 games. That means the enforcers have to prove their toughness three and four times a week. Every time they come to the rink, they know their courage will be tested.
“If you’re a boxer, you might only have to box once or twice a year,” the Thunderbirds coach said. “These enforcers are doing it 82 times a regular season, and every game is a heavyweight bout. You might not fight every game, but every game you have to approach it like you’re going to fight. You’re in that role.
“And you’re going to take your licks from time to time. It’s not a matter of if you’ll get beat up. It’s a matter of when. That’s got to be a really tough and mentally draining way to make a living.”
Few enforcers are goons. They’d rather be 40-goal scorers than guys who lead the league in penalty minutes. They’d rather be the protected than the protectors.
“They still want to be hockey players,” Konowalchuk said, “but they’re smart enough to know that the only way they’re going make a living is by playing those two minutes a night on the ice, working hard in practice and, when called upon, to do that enforcer’s job.
“They understand, ‘If I do that job for X amount of years and make a million dollars a year, if I’m smart, I can be set up for the rest of my life.’ “
But they shouldn’t be risking their lives. As another hockey season is about to begin, let’s hope all coaches pay attention to their players to make sure that the guys who play tough on the ice aren’t paying the ultimate price off it.
Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176