By Paul White
The Virginian Pilot
© Oct. 10, 2008
NORFOLK, Va. – With veterans aplenty among the 2008-09 Norfolk Admirals, there seemed to be several worthy candidates for team captain.
But according to John Brophy, there’s really only one.
“If you’ve got Zenon Konopka, you couldn’t have a better captain if you tried to make one,” said the legendary former Admirals coach for whom the ECHL’s Coach of the Year award is named. “He’s the best guy you could ever have on a hockey club.”
He would know. As coach of the Wheeling Nailers during the 2002-03 season, the ultra-intense Brophy quickly learned that Konopka was his kind of guy.
“We had this one game where I took a shot off my face, and my nose just shattered,” said Konopka, who will lead the Admirals into Friday’s season opener against Hershey. “The doctor said I’d be out six weeks. But the next game, I showed up ready to play.”
Brophy refused to let Konopka on the ice. Insurance wouldn’t cover him if he got hurt again, the coach said.
Then the game started, and the undermanned Nailers struggled. And the guy with the busted beak pleaded again.
“All right, Konopka; get in there!” Brophy roared.
“I played every other shift,” Konopka said with a laugh. “Scored a goal, too.”
This near-maniacal toughness, along with a quality scoring touch, has carried Konopka through several pro hockey stops, including a 23-game stint with Anaheim in the NHL.
Still, the center’s leadership reputation wasn’t cemented until he landed with the AHL’s Syracuse Crunch and began setting the sort of brassy, all-out style that would become the team’s trademark.
After the Crunch ended last season on a 15-game winning streak – second-longest in AHL history – he persuaded the players to adopt Mohawk-haircuts for the postseason. He even did some of the shearing himself.
He was the unquestioned face of the franchise.
And then he left.
“One of the toughest decisions of my life,” Konopka said of spurning a contract offer with Syracuse to sign with Admirals parent club Tampa Bay. “They were pretty much willing to give me a lifetime contract (in Syracuse). But you really have to look at what’s the best opportunity to play in the NHL.”
Konopka’s two-year contract calls for him to receive a lower salary if he’s in the AHL this season, but the same money next season whether he’s in the NHL or AHL. So he signed the deal understanding there was a strong chance he would spend his first year in Norfolk.
Still, he determined he wasn’t going to be re-assigned to the minors without a fight. Five fights, actually – in just three exhibition games. Not to mention a succession of other practice skirmishes with his teammates.
The Lightning brass loved it, but demoted him anyway. Vice president of hockey operations Brian Lawton called it “probably the worst day I’ve had in this business.”
Konopka didn’t take it as hard. In fact, he insisted the talent assembled in Norfolk actually has him excited about being with the Admirals.
“I know this is going to sound crazy, but I would trade 50 games on the fourth line in Tampa for a Calder Cup,” Konopka said, referring to the AHL’s version of the Stanley Cup.
For several days, Admirals coach Darren Rumble declined to reveal his choice for captain. But it was hard not to notice the 27-year-old Konopka counseling teammates or to overhear him barking out instructions in the locker room.
Konopka has injected himself into just about everything. The Admirals’ administrative staff, for example, typically approaches the players about doing off-ice/promotional work. This year, Konopka approached the staff.
Thursday, Rumble made it official, calling Konopka a consummate “get-out-of-my-way player, with talent.” Center Wyatt Smith will be a permanent alternate captain, while winger Brandon Bochenski (home games) and defenseman Andrew Hutchinson (away) will share the other “A.”
For Konopka’s part, he hopes to encourage his teammates to venture out of comfort zones for the good of the team. Skill players, for example, can get more physical. Those who don’t block shots should lay out once in a while.
In other words, do as I say and as I do.
“I’m excited about trying to light a fire under these guys and seeing what happens,” Konopka said.
Brophy, certainly, would approve.