Honoring His Father's War-Torn Life, Zenon Konopka Fights For Every Shift
"I play hockey and I scrap, and I guess people say I'm tough," said Konopka, who led the NHL last season with 33 fighting majors while a member of the Tampa Bay Lightning. "But my dad ... now, he was tough. There isn't any comparison between what I do as a hockey player and what his life was all about."
Konopka's Polish-born father was three years old when Germany and later Russia invaded Poland at the start of World War II. Russian soldiers came to his family's home and said they would be placed in a concentration camp in Siberia.
"The way I understand the story," said the Islander, "my father's family was left on a train to Siberia for two straight weeks before it moved an inch. People got sick. People died all around them before they even left Poland."
His family was not spared; Konopka had relatives who died of starvation.
His grandfather and uncle were given a choice after Germany split from Russia: if they joined the battle against the Nazis, the Konopka family would be relocated to a safe location in Africa. They went to war while Zenon Konopka's father and aunts lived in Africa.
"Two of my aunts are still alive," said Konopka. "They follow my hockey career and they'll always be an inspiration to me."
Sadly, his father did not live to see Konopka play with the Lightning -- or even his four years as a teenager with the Ottawa 67s of the Ontario Hockey League.
"I was 13 years old," remembers Konopka, who was raised by his mother and father in Niagara-on-the-Lake. "I was supposed to go on a school trip to Quebec, but for some reason I couldn't understand, Dad insisted that I didn't go.
"He worked in a GM plant for 10 hours a day, but in the morning and at night, he worked on our family farm. One morning while I was sleeping, he was out on his tractor. He went to make a left turn on the road at the same time a car tried to pass him on the left. They crashed. My father fell out of the tractor, but the tractor landed on him and he passed away instantly."
Zenon Konopka Sr. was 58 years old. His son says it took him more than a decade before he could bring himself to discuss his death.
"It's still so hard," he says today. "My father was indestructible in my eyes. To me, he was the invincible man."
Zenon Konopka can talk about tragedy today because time has allowed him to see that his own story of a climb from the depths of the minors to the NHL is, in large part, a tale about his parents.
With his father gone, his mother Arlene ran the family farm with Zenon and his sisters before selling it when he left to play junior hockey. Through it all, Arlene still found time -- like most Canadian parents -- to drive Zenon to his hockey games and practices. The few lessons the young boy was unable to learn from his dad about work ethic, he saw every day in the actions of his mom. It's easy to see why Konopka never gave up on his NHL dream, a goal his father told everyone in Niagara-on-the-Lake was his destiny.
Those good years with the 67s did not earn Konopka an NHL or American League contract. He played for $300 a week in East Coast League in Wheeling, W.Va. He never stopped trying to reach the NHL. He won faceoffs and blocked shots, and if taking on every fighter who challenged or took liberties with a teammate in Wheeling or Scranton or Idaho or Cincinnati would also get the attention of scouts, it was a small price to pay.
"Courage is my grandfather and uncle fighting the Nazis, you know what I mean?" he says.
Six years into his pro career, Konopka finally started to get noticed and taken seriously. He played his first 23 NHL games with the Anaheim Mighty Ducks in the 2005-06 season. The next year, he got an earnest look in the Columbus Blue Jackets organization, got in six NHL games and played for the aptly-named Syracuse Crunch of the AHL. On a team with a half-dozen guys willing to drop the gloves, Konopka could fight and play. After averaging 20 goals and 50 points over two full seasons in the AHL, the six-foot, 200-pound center got his first real chance in the NHL. In 74 games last season with Tampa Bay, Konopka had two goals, three assists and 265 penalty minutes.
The Islanders, admirers of his passion and grit for a while, gave him a one-way offer when he became an unrestricted free agent. More established in the NHL than he has ever been in his career, the 29-year-old Konopka isn't about to stop fighting and playing in memory of his father.
"I lost my dad when I was just 13 years old, but when I look back at those years, everything for him revolved around me," Konopka said the other day after an Islanders' practice. "I was talking to my older sisters about him a few years ago, asking them questions about dad. One of them joked, 'I think you knew him better than all of us. You were his life.' That really kind of blew me away.
"He was always there for me, taking me to hockey, taking me to baseball, being my biggest fan. He made incredible sacrifices for his family. I was lucky to have him in my life, and every time I'm about to play another game, I'm thinking of him."