The Capitals like firsts. Before Australian Nathan Walker made some history as the first player from down under, there was a left winger from Utah that made a little history of his own. This athlete came from the days when the Capitals jerseys had an eagle across the front. Steve Konowalchuk was selected as the Caps fifth pick (third round, 58th overall) of the 1991 NHL Draft and became the first Utah-born athlete to play in the NHL, having been born on November 11, 1972, in Salt Lake City.
Before the NHL Kono spent the 1991-92 season with the Portland Winter Hawks Western Hockey League (WHL) and scored 51 goals and 104 points, earning him a spot on the WHL All-Star team. He was also awarded the WHL MVP award. The Capitals later called him up in April 1992 and he played in one regular season game. He remained on the roster in the playoffs that year as an extra forward, although he never got on the ice to play. Additionally, he appeared in three games with the Capitals AHL affiliate Baltimore Skipjacks.
The next season saw Konowalchuk split time with the Skipjacks and the Capitals, playing in 37 games in the NHL and 36 AHL games. His first NHL goal occurred on Halloween night in 1992 at Edmonton.
Konowalchuk’s best season came in the 2000-01 campaign where he scored 24 goals and 23 helpers, finishing with a total of 47 points. The next season, he was named a co-captain of the Capitals alongside defenseman Brendan Witt. He became the team’s sole captain (their tenth full-time captain) in the 2002-03 season and remained in that position until October 22, 2003, when he was traded to the Colorado Avalanche. During his time in Washington, Konowalchuk scored 165 goals, 216 assists for 381 points in 693 games with the Caps.
In 2002, Kono nearly realized his childhood dream when he was selected to join the roster for the US Olympic team when Salt Lake City hosted the Winter Olympics. Unfortunately, a nagging shoulder injury would force him to miss out as he opted for a surgery to extend his playing career with the Capitals. He previously played on the 2000 U.S. IIHF team, contributing two goals and an assist as part of the championship winning team in St. Petersburg, Russia. In 1992 he competed with the US team to win the bronze medal in the 1992 World Junior Championships.
He played well during his time with the Avalanche as he scored 19 goals that year and added 20 assists. The following season was canceled due to the lockout and he returned for the 2005-06 season. He wasn’t quite the same and only played in 21 games that year because of broken wrist. He returned in time for the second round of the playoffs for two games. The Avs were defeated in the semi-finals by the Ducks.
Konowalchuk retired prior to the 2006-07 season when the team’s medical staff found an abnormality on his EKG during an examination. He was diagnosed with Long QT Syndrome which can create rapid heartbeats that could lead to fainting or seizures.In some cases, the heart can beat erratically for so long that it causes sudden death, according to the Mayo Clinic. The risk of playing had become too much.
He never left the game, however. Konowalchuk was spotted behind benching sharing his wisdom of the game of hockey as a coach. He stuck with the Avalanche organization, serving as an assistant coach for two seasons. He would later become the head coach of the WHL Seattle Thunderbirds in the 2011 season.
In June of 2017, Kono left the Thunderbirds to join the Anaheim Ducks as an assistant coach to improve their power play. A year later the Ducks would let him go. Although there was no official reason for the dismissal- the numbers speak for themselves: the Ducks finished 23rd in the league in the PP. No word yet what is next for the man who made some history just by signing a contract with the Caps!
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