By Lindsay Kramer
SYRACUSE, N.Y. – Syracuse Crunch center Zenon Konopka is in the midst of writing his own ticket, and a plump, fat one at that.
Given the captain’s surly mood these days, he’d probably like to punch it right now. But both his hands hurt too much, and he needs to save them for scoring goals and throwing haymakers at opponents. So he’ll wait until the offseason, when he’ll be an unrestricted free agent for the first time in his career and face a fascinating decision.
Should he go for the bloated paychecks from Europe, where several teams have already contacted him? Should he try to start over in an NHL organization that still sees him as a potential depth player? Or should he stick with Columbus, which would likely mean a return to the Crunch and the chance to build upon his legacy as the most popular and unifying leader in franchise history?
Lots of questions revolve around one certainty. Konopka makes $75,000 this season, a salary that places him near the top of AHL bargains. That figure should at least double next season to bring him closer in line with players who don’t mean nearly as much to their teams as he does to Syracuse.
“There’s a lot of people who are real rich in this world who are miserable,” said Konopka, 27. “For my sanity, I need to win.”
Everyone says that, naturally, but even in the wild-eyed world of hockey Konopka takes zeal to another level. In 2003-04 he was playing for Utah of the AHL and at the end of the season he begged to be sent down to Idaho of the ECHL for that team’s playoffs. Utah was skeptical but relented, and Konopka took Idaho to the title.
Earlier this year, Konopka asked that the full extent of the injury to his broken left hand be kept quiet. He was concerned that if the Blue Jackets considered him a depth player they would make him get surgery and miss a large chunk of the Crunch season in order to be ready for a possible callup later.
He preferred playing hurt on a competitive Syracuse team rather than putting himself in position to take some meaningless shifts as a fourth-liner with struggling Columbus.
“Well, it sounds ludicrous,” he said. “I respect our team. As captain, it’s so tough in a critical game to leave the team. It doesn’t seem right to me.”
Just as he bleeds and bleeds like everyone else, Konopka has the same aspirations as other players. He’s skated in 29 career NHL games including six with the Blue Jackets last year and would love a handful more with Columbus. He said his friends give him the business all the time, wondering why the Blue Jackets have called up every significant chunk of the Crunch’s offense but him this season.
Chris MacFarland, assistant to Columbus GM Scott Howson, said Konopka was hurt at a point when the team might have called him up earlier, and that his name has come up as a possible late-season emergency recall. Konopka is oblivious to this, the fire in his game raging like never before. Syracuse’s season was saved by its current streak of 20 points in 21 games, and in that stretch Konopka has seven goals and 14 assists.
After Wednesday’s 3-2 win over Toronto, both his hands were wrapped in ice packs the size of melons. A large gash from a previous deep skate cut on his left leg was still raw, looking as if it were just run over by a motorcycle.
“Maybe when I was younger, you have a different thought about it. Playing a few games in the NHL would be nice,” he said. “My father worked at GM eight hours every day and worked on the farm four hours when he got home. It’s a pretty good living playing hockey.”
Konopka makes sure the community shares in that appreciation. Thursday, he was named the team’s man of the year for his charity work that included more than 30 appearances this season, including multiple visits to children’s hospitals and Ronald McDonald House.
Crunch owner Howard Dolgon has insisted the organization will do everything it can to keep Syracuse as Konopka’s winter address. Konopka maintains that if he decides that playing in the AHL is his best route next season, he wouldn’t play anywhere but Syracuse.
If only the equation were that simple, the continuation of the marriage would be a formality. The twist for the Crunch is that the better Konopka plays, and the farther he helps push the team, the more complex his options become.
“I feel if we win the Calder Cup here, I can write my own ticket next year to play somewhere,” he said. “I couldn’t be more proud of our team. I’m having a lot of fun here in Syracuse. Next year will take care of itself.”