Rebels head coach Konowalchuk, players eager for start of training camp and 2021-22 WHL season
The Red Deer Rebels open training camp Saturday at the Peavey Mart Centrium and new head coach Steve Konowalchuk is rarin’ to go.
“I’m very excited. It feels like this week is kind of dragging by,” Konowalchuk, who was hired in June, said Thursday. “You’re getting antsy to get going, the players are starting to get into town. I can feel the excitement of the players which is nice too.
“I know it’s been a long year for everybody. But they’re excited and that makes me excited. I’m excited to be back coaching as well.”
Konowalchuk inherits a team that finished 4-15-4 in a pandemic-shortened WHL season — with two of their wins coming in the final week — but he senses the sizeable collection of returning players are convinced the 2021-22 season will be different.
“They’re excited about a new season and from talking to them they believe in this group,” he said. “That’s exciting for a coach because when you have the players ready to take the next step, that’s so important.
“It’s not about rebuilding any more. Last year was last year and this is a good group of guys who finished strong last season. Top that off with some new additions and we expect to go into every game with the mentality that we’re going to win.”
Konowalchuk was a WHL star with the Portland Winterhawks in the early ‘90s with and went on to play 790 games in the NHL, mostly with the Washington Capitals, with whom he served as captain for two seasons.
He entered the coaching ranks in 2011 as the bench boss of the Seattle Thunderbirds. He held the position for six seasons and guided the team to the WHL championship final in each of his last two years, winning the league title in 2017.
Following his time in Seattle, Konowalchuk joined the Anaheim Ducks coaching staff as an assistant for one season and was employed as an amateur and pro scout for the New York Rangers the past three years.
Konowalchuk had an older team his first season in Seattle, with a rebuild of sorts starting the following year. The team eventually tasted success, but he sees a shorter process for the Rebels in terms of experiencing the same good fortune.
“As far as the players go, we’re ahead of when I went into Seattle,” he said. “When I went into Seattle it was a bit of an older team. Then the second year was when we got very young and built from there.
“Since the Memorial Cup was hosted here (in 2016) the rebuild has kind of been in place. I think that’s behind the players. They believe that’s all behind them and we have a good mix of talented players and a good mix of older leaders. It shouldn’t be that same timeline we compete for a championship.”
While he’s become familiar with the returning players and their capabilities via video, Konowalchuk is even more impressed with their overall mentality.
“They say they’re happy with the way they finished last season,” he said. “They’re positive, they really do believe in themselves. In junior hockey you can turn the page quickly. One year of age makes a huge difference for players.
“The next step is to go out and do it and when you start doing it that raises the bar that much higher for expectations. They believe they can do it and my job is to make sure they continue to believe and hold the team accountable to getting everything out of the guys.
“I’m very happy with their attitude and their belief that they can be a good team.”
Konowalchuk, who will employ the same — or at least similar — systems with the Rebels as he did during his time in Seattle, will oversee a competitive training camp and preseason with 11 returning forwards and three more acquired via the trade route and CHL import draft.
“We’ll have that internal competition with good depth,” he noted.
Included among the new faces is forward Kai Uchacz, who was removed from the Seattle roster in March after it was discovered he had directed racist comments toward another player on the team.
Acquired by the Rebels in a July trade, he has successfully completed the anti racism WHL Diversity Coaching Program and will be required to continue his diversity and respect training in Red Deer. All WHL players are required to complete the Respect in Hockey educational program, which includes Respect in Sport certification each season.
“It’s great for him to get another opportunity,” said Konowalchuk. “From talking to people in the Seattle organization, they say he’s a real good kid and the past is the past.
“He deserves a fresh start. He’s a good hockey player and we’ll see where he’s at. Obviously he didn’t play a lot last year but he’s going to be a good addition to our team.”
Konowalchuk has been impressed with virtually everything since moving to Red Deer, including the facility, the Rebels office staff and the city itself.
“Everyone here has been first class, and the city . . . I love it so far. I live close to the rink, you have Sylvan Lake 15 minutes away and you’re close to two big cities,” he said.
“And it’s a big enough city that you have everything you need, but not so big that you’re sitting in bumper to bumper traffic.”
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.
The Rebels’ first preseason game is Sept. 11 at Edmonton.
Red Deer will host Calgary Sept. 17 and visit the Hitmen the following evening.
The Rebels will conclude exhibition play with a home-and-home set with the Lethbridge Hurricanes, Sept. 24 on the road and Sept. 25 at the Centrium.