Konopka is Lightning’s gladiator
There are days, Zenon Konopka acknowledged — like the one in
Detroit when his neck and wrist were packed in ice and he could not
speak clearly because of the stitches in his mouth — that he
wonders what his body will feel like at age 50.
It is bad enough, he said, at 28.
“It’s a concern,” Konopka said. “But life’s too short.
Everything in your life is in the now.”
And for now, his body is his most reliable tool and one of
the Lightning’s most important weapons.
Tampa Bay does not have a heavyweight enforcer. Instead, it
relies on Konopka, a middleweight, really, but who is willing to
take on anyone.
It is a role Konopka embraces. How else, the center asked,
could he have gotten to the NHL?
“The best way to describe it is, seven or eight years ago, I
was making 360 bucks a week, and I was doing the same thing in the
East Coast Hockey League,” said Konopka, whose 15 fights led the
league entering the weekend and whose 135 penalty minutes lead
“The love of the game, the passion, the competitiveness, same
thing, I had ice bags and played with broken bones. It’s a world I
live in and the world, as an athlete, you grow up in. You don’t
know much more than that.”
Konopka, in the locker room after Wednesday’s practice at Joe
Louis Arena in Detroit, moved his head with difficulty, something
he said had worsened the past few weeks.
His wrist was sore from a check into the boards Dec. 13 in
Chicago, and the inside of his left cheek was held together with
five stitches needed after a fight in the same game with Ben Eager.
Konopka said he is considering getting the jagged edges of
his teeth filed down so they are less likely to cut when he is hit.
“He’s like Russell Crowe in the
Gladiator,” captain Vinny Lecavalier said. “I love playing
with the guy. He’s inspiring. Guys look up to him. He’s a great
leader, a leader by example.”
“The mental toughness of him is something I really respect,”
coach Rick Tocchet said. “He lives on the edge. He doesn’t take
anything for granted because he knows it can be taken away from
him. He knows his role.”
And that is to take the body, stir it up if the Lightning are
flat and fight to defend teammates. No surprise, then, that despite
his injuries, the 6-foot-1, 213-pound native of Niagara on the
Lake, Ontario, fought Detroit’s Brad May on Thursday night.
“I still got a job to do,” said Konopka, whose 35 games this
season are four fewer than he previously played in the NHL. “You
have to answer the bell.”
Painkillers help, he said:
“But, really, the intensity of the game is the best medicine.
There’s nothing like adrenaline, and that’s what I feed off of. On
these days, you feel like your body is falling apart, but once you
get into the game, your competitiveness takes over. It’s
unbelievable how you can heal injuries pretty quick.”
“He’s a warrior,” said forward Paul Szczechura, who played
with Konopka at AHL Norfolk. “He knows his role, and he’s figured
out how to make a career out of it. You look at him and you know
it’s a tough way, but he loves to play, and he wants to do what’s
best for the team.”
So, Konopka endures the mornings in which, he said, “I’m not
breaking any world records getting out of bed,” knowing it is how
he stays in the show.
That said, “It’ll be a nice Olympic break (in February),
that’s for sure.”