By MIKE ASHMORE
Special to ECHL.com
You could say that Zenon Konopka takes a hands-on approach to his job.
After starting his professional hockey career with the Wheeling Nailers back in 2002-03, the 30-year-old native of Niagara On The Lake, Ontario is just one season removed from leading the NHL with 265 penalty minutes. But even as early as that first season in Wheeling, it was clear that Konopka was more than just a one-dimensional player.
Despite finishing the year with 231 penalty minutes in Wheeling, Konopka also finished 2002-03 with what remains a career-high of 70 points (22-48-70), which led the Nailers that season by a longshot.
He also established himself as one of the better faceoff men in the league, something that still holds true today.
"I played that whole first year in the ECHL," Konopka told ECHL.com.
"I played four games up (in the AHL), and I played I think 80 games in Wheeling, West Va. It was pretty intense playing for John Brophy.
There were a lot of good people in the town, and I definitely learned a lot about pro hockey and playing through adversity."
The following season, Konopka earned a longer look in the AHL, playing in 43 games with the Utah Grizzlies as a member of the Dallas Stars organization, as compared to just 23 with the Idaho Steelheads. But, despite finishing the regular season with Utah, Konopka sensed something special was about to happen in Idaho in the postseason. He wanted in.
"My second season, I finished the year in the AHL and I actually asked to go down to the ECHL for the playoffs. People thought I was crazy," Konopka said.
"But I’m a loyal person, and there were a lot of good people there in the organization in Idaho, including the coach, so I went back. Making that run was pretty special. Any time you win a championship, it’s a good time. I had a lot of great, great memories from Idaho and with Wheeling. There’s a real nice spot in my heart for the ECHL. You really understand where you come from, and you never forget it."
Of the things Konopka — or anyone who traveled with him — soon won’t forget is how the Steelheads would dress up in garb inspired by other team’s moniker before each playoff series. Playing Gwinnett? Then the Steelheads traveled in gladiator outfits.
"We had a lot of fun in the ECHL," said Konopka with a laugh.
"Every round, me and Lance Galbraith would have our costumes on and go to the airport and kind of get a kick out of it. We had a swagger about us, we had a swagger team. Some people might call it confidence, some people might call it cocky or swagger. But we knew when we got on the ice, we weren’t going to lose."
The road to the Kelly Cup, swagger or not, was a long one for the Steelheads in 2003-04. After their Pacific Division Semifinals series against Las Vegas went the full five games, the Steelheads were slated to face Alaska for the Pacific Division Finals. On the road in Alaska in Game 4, Konopka scored a controversial game-winning goal that knocked the Aces out of the playoffs.
"I scored one off my foot and they didn’t think it was a good goal," Konopka recalled. "I got beer cans smashed over my head and fish heads and beer. I mean, my equipment stunk like beer and alcohol for weeks. It was pretty legit, but it was great, it was intense. They’re intense fans."
Hoisting the Kelly Cup after a 5-2 Game 5 victory over the Florida Everblades in 2004 would be the last time Konopka would wear an ECHL sweater. He joined the Anaheim Ducks organization for the 2004-05 campaign, and after spending a full season in the AHL with them, he split the 2005-06 season between the Portland Pirates and the Ducks.
The October 30, 2005 contest against the Phoenix Coyotes marked the first of 23 NHL games he played that season.
With so many players coming straight to the NHL after being drafted, you might think Konopka would be bitter about having to take the road less traveled. Turns out, he wouldn’t change a thing.
"I think it’s a little sweeter at the end of the road," he said. "Last year, when I was in camp, a few reporters asked me if it was all worth it. Is the over 500 stitches worth it? Do you ever worry about your body for the future and for your life after hockey? And I said, ‘Well, when I was in Wheeling, West Va. making 300 bucks a week to do the same thing and I loved it.’ Obviously things are a little better now financially and everywhere else, but you play for the love of the game. We played for John Brophy, and we played every night like it was our last. It’s something that you take great lessons from; life lessons, not just hockey."
From the 2006-07 season through 2008-09, Konopka would play in just 16 NHL games between the Columbus Blue Jackets and Tampa Bay Lightning.
Konopka didn’t enjoy his first full season at the game’s highest level until just last year, when he played in 74 games with the Lightning.
Finally getting an extended look in the NHL, it was his faceoff skills and his feared fists that kept him in the lineup despite limited offensive production.
"It was something where when you come from the ECHL, it’s a long road," Konopka said.
"When you’re not drafted, you have to prove to the league and players and coaches that you belong. I felt when I was given the opportunity, I could prove that. But it’s tough to get an opportunity coming from there, so it was pretty gratifying to finally get that opportunity and prove the critics wrong."
Although it wasn’t overnight by any means, Konopka had gone from an outcast in the game to a sought-after commodity in the National Hockey League by the time the 2009-10 season had ended. The New York Islanders, looking to surround their young core of Kyle Okposo, Matt Moulson and their number one overall pick, John Tavares, with some muscle. On just the second day of the free agency period, the Islanders rewarded Konopka with a one-year deal worth a reported $600,000. Although it’s a big upgrade from the days where Konopka was making $300 a week, you can also count Tavares among those pleased with the deal.
"It’s a big sacrifice, it’s not easy," said Tavares about the role that both Konopka and fellow ECHL graduate Trevor Gillies fill.
"You see them drop the gloves and stand up for their teammates.
That’s stuff you appreciate immensely, and it means a lot to everyone in the room. They’re tough individuals. Not only that, they’re some of the best guys you can have in the locker room. Really fun guys and they really lighten up the room. They keep us loose. They have our backs on and off the ice as well. They’re important parts of our team."
Konopka reportedly had offers from several teams looking to add an enforcer. The Islanders, he said, just felt like the best fit.
"This was something where the coach, general manager, organization, it seemed like they were on the same page," he said.
"With those years of coming from the ECHL and playing in the AHL, I think I can help the young guys here. There’s a great city and great fans here as well, so we’re looking towards the future and looking towards improvement and making a run at the playoffs."