One of the finest I’ve ever known

Sports

When I think of excellence and people I’ve met in the hockey world, I immediately think of Gordie Howe and Wayne Gretzky.

When I think of excellence and people I’ve known in Canadian university sports, I think of Steve Konchalski.

Perfection and class.

There’s no need, after all this time, to re-examine the lifetime achievements by Mr. Hockey or the Great One. Those details are known frontwards and backwards by anyone who has ever been in a rink.

It’s much the same when analyzing the career of Stephen J. Konchalski, who was raised in Elmhurst, a neighbourhood in the borough of Queens in New York City, and wound up living three quarters of his life in Wolfville and Antigonish.

When we pick up his story back in New York, he was a teenager and budding basketball star, wondering where hoops might take him.

I don’t know the exact date on which his career path was confirmed, but I know it was in the late summer of 1962 that he arrived at Acadia University to register in the arts course and to sit down for an introductory chat with legendary basketball coach Stu Aberdeen.

That kid has been with us ever since.

The initial Konchalski-Aberdeen conversation marked the beginning of Acadia’s greatest era in basketball.

Three years later — in March 1965 — Steve and Stu led the Axemen to the university’s first-ever Canadian championship.

It certainly wasn’t their only accomplishment together. During Konchalski’s playing days in Wolfville, Acadia won four consecutive Atlantic conference titles.

Following graduation, the young man from New York entered Dalhousie Law School, but hoops never got out of his blood.

It wouldn’t be court rooms and legal debates for him. It would be provincial, national and international successes in a sport he loved from birth.

His destiny would be passing his athletic knowledge on to countless kids, primarily at St. Francis Xavier University.

Many of his own lessons were learned from working beside legendary national coach Jack Donohue during 16 years with Canada’s national team.

Dribbling ahead a few years, it was in 1975 that Steve arrived in Antigonish, the campus on which he would become as big a legend as Aberdeen and Donohue before him.

The decades of the Konchalski story are certainly known to basketball people from coast to coast and beyond.

He was that good.

He assembled so many great rosters, won so many Atlantic crowns, made so many trips to nationals, the superlatives went with him wherever he travelled.

I think Coach K — the ideal nickname for him — won just about every honour a coach can win in this corner of the world.

What achievement would he single out if you asked him to name the biggest in his long presence behind the X bench?

Maybe it was the team triumphs, first at Acadia, then at St. FX, and his becoming the all-time leader in Canadian university career victories. Maybe the number of trips he took to the conference playoffs, the number of Atlantic titles, the number of appearances at nationals.

Maybe it was the honours he’s received. Though far too many to catalogue here, they could begin with his two inductions into the Nova Scotia Sport Hall of Fame, first as a member of the 1965 Acadia champs, then as a builder 25 years later.

Maybe it was the other inductions, too — into the Acadia Hall of Fame, the St. FX Hall of Fame, the Canadian Basketball Hall of Fame.

But maybe it was the Frank Baldwin Memorial Award he received for his dedication to basketball in Nova Scotia.

My own observations of Steve the championship player, Steve the outstanding coach, Steve the beloved human being?

I saw all three.

When he was with the Axemen in the 1960s, I was working in Pictou County and often went down to the Oland Centre to see watch him.

When he became the St. FX coach in 1975, I was sports editor at The Chronicle Herald and witnessed his work behind the bench for decades, interviewing and just chatting with him many times.

When I was with him away from the court, I concluded that he is just as great a human being as he has been as a player and coach.

The longevity of his career — highlighted at celebrations this past weekend on his adopted campus — is easy to appreciate and understand.

I may have been living my newspaper dream for 67 years, but his many, many achievements in the basketball environment that he has loved forever is, in my humble opinion, a much greater story line.

His comments about his “job” have been understandably written numerous times through the years, but one may have summed up his inner thoughts better than the others.

The article by Chris Kallan was published in the program for Steve’s hall of fame induction 14 years ago.

“My work has always been my passion,” he told Chris. “I have that same fire as when I started coaching, but I direct it in a different way now. The challenge of working with young people and giving them some direction in their academic careers still inspires me greatly.”

There’s an old saying I reluctantly add here: All good things must come to an end.

Steve’s time at X — my alma mater, I like to say — is ending too quickly. According to my arithmetic, it was 16,425 days since a great coaching career began in that grand little college town.

Athletic director Leo MacPherson said X-Men basketball “wouldn’t be what it is today without (Steve’s) presence, his influence and everything he did for our sport and university.”

A perfect assessment.

And so, from this old journalist to a not-quite-as-old coach, I have one final message: Good luck, dear friend, stay safe, and enjoy retirement with your loved ones. You’re one of the finest persons I’ve ever known.


Coach Stephen J. Konchalski with Dr. Kent MacDonald, former president of St. Francis Xavier University. (Advocate file photo)