By Chadd Cripe
The Idaho Statesman
Zenon Konopka decided before he even walked into the Anaheim Mighty Ducks’ locker room that he wasn’t going to become a wallflower.
So what if he was a rookie. So what if he was the guy not even one of his biggest fans — former Idaho Steelheads coach John Olver — thought would make it to the major leagues of hockey because of his subpar skating.
Konopka got this far with energy, passion and vocal leadership — and that wasn’t going to change when he joined the Mighty Ducks in late October.
He used those same traits to lead the Steelheads to the ECHL’s Kelly Cup championship two years ago.
“He’s a loud, vocal guy — and he’s very popular in the locker room as a result,” said Anaheim assistant coach Dave Farrish, who coached Pensacola in 2004-05 and Louisiana from 2000-05, earning ECHL Coach of the Year honors in 2002. “He’s found his niche and understands what he needs to do.”
Konopka (6-foot-1, 213 pounds) has played 23 games with the Mighty Ducks this season in three separate stints, although he is currently sidelined with an ankle injury. He lasted five games the first time, but has been with the Ducks for the past 91/2 weeks with the exception of a three-day demotion.
He’s the first Steelheads player ever to score an NHL goal after playing in Idaho. The previous four ex-Steelheads who suited up in the NHL — goalies Dan Ellis and Chad Alban, and forwards Gavin Morgan and Jeremy Yablonski — combined for eight games played.
And the way Konopka has performed, the 25-year-old forward might become a regular on the Ducks’ roster.”Probably the biggest surprise is how great the guys are,” Konopka said. “They made me feel so comfortable right off the bat. They were all for me getting the troops rallied up, being a voice on the bench and in the (dressing) room. It gets a little spark going.”
That spark comes from the passion for hockey and winning thatfuels Konopka. Olver calls him the “fiercest competitor” he has coached.
“There’s very few players that make it to the NHL that don’t have NHL skating ability,” said Olver, now an assistant coach at Northern Michigan. “He overcomes his athletic deficiencies with his competitiveness.”
Konopka has made a similar impression on the Ducks coaching staff. He’s a fourth-line forward who plays mostly a defensive, physical role, but he also gets time on the power play and the penalty kill.He has scored four goals and has seven points while racking up 48 penalty minutes.
“His role here is mostly that of a checker and of a physical presence and a disturber,” Farrish said. “And he has also come up with some big goals for us. His offensive skills are not lost on us. We realize he’s had offensive success at other levels.”
Konopka led the Steelheads in the 2004 playoffs with 17 points in 17 games. He had a breakout year in the American Hockey League last year — while the NHL was shut down — by scoring 46 points with Cincinnati.
He has spent just 15 games with Portland (Maine) of the AHL this year, contributing seven goals and 10 assists.
His rapid rise surprises even Konopka, who was a bit player for Utah of the AHL two seasons ago, when he split time between Utah and Idaho.
“I was pretty far away from the NHL two years ago,” Konopka said. “… I didn’t shut the door on making the NHL, but I didn’t think it would happen that quickly. Hopefully I keep improving.
“My goal was to be a regular player in (the AHL). … That goal was achieved pretty quickly, so it kind of opens your eyes to maybe you can improve at the NHL level as well.”
For now, he’s just living his lifelong dream. He makes the NHL minimum — $450,000 per year — and travels to games on charter airplanes.
If he gets sent back to Portland, his salary drops to $40,000 and he starts sleeping on buses again.
“We’re spoiled rotten up here,” he said. “… I always told myself if I could play one NHL game in my life, I could die a happy man.”
He knows his stay could end at any time. As a fourth-line forward and a rookie, he probably will spend the entire season on the bubble between Anaheim and Portland.
In fact, one day after his interview with The Idaho Statesman earlier this month, he was sent back to Portland for three days.
“That might be the worst part of being in the NHL,” Konopka said. “They don’t tell you a thing. You come and play and hopefully your stuff is there every day.”
The best part of his NHL experience?
“In Buffalo I had over 100 people come — friends and family,” said Konopka, an Ontario, Canada native. “All those people who showed up to the game had something to do with me getting there. It was nice for them to get to enjoy the moment, too.”
Konopka continues to share his success with strangers, too. He gained notoriety in Boise for his friendship with local gunshot victim Nick Harrington, and he won his team’s community service award last year.
Olver tells stories about Konopka buying $200 worth of stuffed toys to take to a Boise hospital in 2004, and donating an entire week’s paycheck to the Harrington family.
Konopka now visits hospitals in Anaheim.
“Everywhere he goes,” Olver said, “coaches and organizations and teams and communities have these stories to tell about him.”
And for the guy who has called seven cities home in four pro seasons, Anaheim might offer some stability.If nothing else, Konopka proved the first day with the Ducks that he has a major-league personality.
“His energy package that he brings to the table,” Farrish said. “… it’s just something all coaches like.”