6 minute read

Two Minutes in The Box

With Ex-NHL Tough Guy Zenon Konopka

By Martine Mackenzie

Which teams did you play for in the NHL?

I started with the Anaheim Mighty Ducks, then the Columbus Blue Jackets, the Tampa Bay Lightning, the New York Islanders, the Ottawa Senators, the Minnesota Wild and finished with the Buffalo Sabres.

What was it like playing in the NHL?

There are so many amazing things. Obviously, you’re playing at the highest level. It’s the dream of so many kids growing up. It’s surreal at times, but then you realize it’s a job and you have to get it done or you won’t have a job. (laughs)

The NHL has changed so much over the years. What do you think of the game today?

I enjoy it! There are so many great players to watch. But to be honest, I miss the physicality. There was always that physical aspect to hockey. I played an important part there. The role of “enforcer” doesn’t really exist like it used to.

What was your biggest accomplishment while you were playing in the NHL?

I think it was becoming a leader on the team and in the dressing room. I played with some players who are still in the game today – John Tavares, Erik Karlsson, Matt Dumba – it’s cool to continue to follow them and know that I had a positive influence on them as young players.

What is one of your favorite memories of your time in the NHL?

There’s a bunch! When we were playing in Madison Square Garden in the playoffs, it was Game 5 and we were up 2 to 1. There was a time-out called and I was on face-off. Jason Spezza was the second centre man out there. Our play was for me to win the draw and shoot it around to Spezza to get it out. It’s pretty intense in the playoffs. During that time-out, I took a step back, and the crowd was going nuts. There was less than a minute left and I looked at the linesman and I said, “This is pretty cool!" That’s the only time I’ve ever done that! I won the draw, the play worked perfectly, and we scored on the empty net which gave me an assist. I wish it was a better end to the story because we lost the series. (laughs)

Do you still follow the NHL?

I still do. It’s great for young kids to have these amazing role models in the NHL and the game is still great to watch.

Tell us about your nickname, “Zenon the Destroyer”. Who gave you that moniker and how on earth did they come up with it?

To be honest, I don’t really know! (laughs) When I played in Tampa Bay, I had 33 fights which is the most fights in the last 40 years, and when I played in Long Island, I had over 300 penalty minutes. I believe it was the fans in Tampa. They were making t-shirts! Tampa is one of my favorite cities. They are very passionate about sports in Tampa, and hockey, believe it or not. I had a pretty big following there! I was on a billboard on the way to the airport! I’m thinking, “How is this happening?” (laughs)

It’s one of those things where you almost have to be obsessed with what you do and have fun doing it.”

Your career has taken you all over North America, back to your father’s homeland of Poland and even to the land down under, Australia. What made you return to Niagara in your retirement?

I love Niagara! I grew up here! A lot of guys in the NHL only go back to their hometowns in the summer to visit for a few weeks. I came back for the whole summer. I was always excited to get back here. I have a lot of family and friends here. It’s a great place to raise a family.

Any advice to the young men out there aspiring to hit the big time?

Anything you’re going to do in life, whether it’s hockey or anything else, you have to keep learning. You have to keep working at your trade. It’s one of those things where you almost have to be obsessed with what you do and have fun doing it. If you enjoy it, you’re going to work more at it. I still work with kids and I like giving back to the community through my charitable work. Hopefully, we can see more local Niagara kids in the NHL.

With Ex-NHL Forward Jarrod Skalde

By Martine Mackenzie

Which teams did you play for in the NHL?

I played for the New Jersey Devils, Anaheim Mighty Ducks, Calgary Flames, San Jose Sharks, Chicago Blackhawks, Dallas Stars, Atlanta Thrashers, and Philadelphia Flyers.

Wow! Those are a lot of roots to set down.

(laughing) You don’t set any roots down when you have a career like that!

What was it like playing in the NHL?

It was very exciting. I still remember when I found out I was playing in Pittsburgh for my first game with the New Jersey Devils at 19 years old. I got to play against some great players and with some great players. You remember the guys that you played with, the cities that you played in.

The NHL has changed so much over the years. What do you think of the game today?

I just think it’s a better product. The skill level, the speed…what’s on display now is absolutely terrific! To watch a guy like Mitch Marner play is sensational. It’s still fun to watch old games and look back on the physicality. I still think the physicality made the games exciting to watch. These young players are so talented and skilled and now that the rules allow all of that to be on display just makes for such a great product, from the goaltending out.

What was your biggest NHL accomplishment?

Your first NHL game and your first NHL goal have to be the greatest. Both of these happened with me at Madison Square Garden when I was with the New Jersey Devils. My first goal was the game-winning goal. It was so exciting to score on a big stage like MSG right in Manhattan. I also got the overtime winning goal when I was with the Anaheim Mighty Ducks which was in front of 19000 people at home in our first year as a franchise. There was so much excitement buzzing around that team. To be able to contribute to that was thrilling.

Photo courtesy of Haskell Photography. Location: White Oaks Conference Resort & Spa.

What is one of your favorite memories of your time in the NHL?

The short time that I was in Chicago, it was pretty amazing to put on that Original 6 jersey and represent the Chicago Blackhawks. Living in that city was fantastic. I was fortunate enough to play

with great players like Scott Stevens, Marty Brodeur, Mike Modano, Chris Chelios. You really form strong bonds and make strong friendships with these guys.

You played in Switzerland, Sweden and Japan. What was that like compared to hockey here in North America?

In Switzerland, we lived in Lausanne, the French part right off Lake Geneva. It’s such a beautiful place and country. The brand of hockey is different. They are very passionate! Every game, every building we went to it was a soccer-type crowd where they’re standing and chanting. In Sweden, the culture was a little bit more subdued but the talent level that these Swedish teams have is really incredible. My fondest memory of going over is definitely playing in Japan. We lived on the north island of Hokkaido, in a town called Tomakomai City. I’ve never felt like the biggest guy on the ice, but there I did! (laughs). It felt great to be able to dominate on the ice. I could never do that over here!

You have to have passion for the game. It’s so difficult to play at a higher level beyond minor hockey. The ones that are successful have that true passion to play.

After your retirement from the NHL, you turned to coaching. You are currently an assistant coach with the Pittsburgh Penguins AHL affiliate team, the Wilkes- Barre-Scranton Penguins. What is it like to be on the other side of the bench?

It takes adjusting. I’m in my 11th year. I played 17 years and I got a head coaching job right out of playing. Within 3 to 4 months, I was behind the bench. You think, as a player, that you have all the answers until you get behind the bench. I tried to draw off past experiences that I had in my time with Lou Lamoriello for 4 years in New Jersey. That’s how I built my foundation by drawing from my experiences. You continue to learn and grow. I look back even 4 years ago at how much better of a coach I am today. The game is always changing and you’re always trying to get better.

Any advice to the young men out there aspiring to hit the big time?

You have to have a passion for the game. It’s so difficult to play at a higher level beyond minor hockey. The ones that are successful have that true passion to play. That can’t come from another source, like parents or relatives. It has to come truly from within. There has to be that desire to play the game and improve. When we are evaluating talent at minor hockey games, we see speed and skill, but what you’re really drawn to is the kid that has that passion to play and has a high compete level. TM