Konopka’s return boosts Pirates’ hopes

by Christopher Roy || AHL On The Beat Archive

On the ice Zenon Konopka is a warrior.

Off the ice, he is a gentle, caring person who wants to do well.

If you were to look in the dictionary for the definition of character, Zenon Konopka would fit that description to the letter. Konopka is currently ranked second in scoring with the Pirates with two goals and nine assists and is currently a plus-five.

Last season, Konopka had a career year by most player standards; he was productive at the AHL level, scoring 44 points (18 goals, 26 assists) in just 34 games. He finished third in scoring during the Calder Cup Playoffs with 11 goals, 18 assists for 29 points in 19 games. Konopka also saw his first action in the NHL, contributing with seven points (4g, 3a) in 23 games with Anaheim.

Konopka made an impression on Pirates head coach Kevin Dineen, his teammates and most importantly the fans of Portland. Konopka played hurt in the series against Hershey, but he played for the logo on the front of the jersey, forgetting about the name on the back. He had a chipped bone on his shoulder (I am calling out of work just thinking about it), yet despite needing to have his shoulder frozen before each game and being on what he termed “potent drugs” he played with a certain swagger. He certainly was in pain, but it was his warrior mentality and perseverance that got him through the grueling seven-game series.

The East finals left Konopka emotionally drained. It was time to heal physically and emotionally as well as time to weigh in on his future within the Ducks organization. His contract was up and he didn’t see room to grow within Anaheim, leaving him to ponder his future on multiple levels. After being encouraged by fellow teammate and former Pirate Maxim Kondratiev, Konopka opted to sign a one-year deal with Lada Togliatti of the Russian Super League.

"There are a lot of factors involved (in going to Russia)," said Konopka. "One factor was financially, it was a move for my future that stabilized my future. Anaheim had four really good [centers] over here and to see the world, see a different side of the world. I’m young and single and that played a part of it."

Konopka, ready to explore the world, arrived in Togliatti full of energy and just like in Portland, built a loyal following who found themselves attracted to same qualities that Pirates fans were attracted to — hard work, sticking up for his teammates and not backing down to the opposing team. (In a pre-season game in Togliatti, he started a brawl after a player of the opposing team cross-checked a fellow teammate into the boards.)

There was one thing missing in Konopka’s life. Something was nagging him.

What if?

What if he stayed in Togliatti and the Ducks and Pirates were to win the Stanley Cup and Calder Cup, respectively. How could he live with himself? Both teams are poised to make a run and he wasn’t going to be a part of either one if he stayed in Russia.

“Anaheim and Portland are on the verge of championship seasons. I always had that in the back of my mind, if I was in Russia and I missed the championship season, it would come back to haunt me,” said Konopka.

“At the end of day, one factor brought me back. Growing up you dream of playing in the NHL, playing in North America, not the Russian Super League.”

It was that desire which would bring Konopka back to North America, but it wasn’t so easy. He needed to obtain a release from his Russian team before he could sign with Anaheim. Konopka also needed to sign before the start of the season because if he had signed after, he would have been exposed to waivers. Anaheim made it clear that was a risk they weren’t willing to take.

With the release from Togliatti and nine time zones later, Konopka was happy to be back on American soil and playing for the Portland Pirates again after signing a new two-year contract with the Ducks.

“It’s a special bond with a lot of the guys and that was a big part of my decision. I talked to Pierre [Parenteau] and [Trevor] Gillies about coming back, they swayed me to come back… It’s kind of like a brotherhood that was something that I missed,” said Konopka.

It didn’t take long for Konopka to adjust as he scored a goal and two assists in the opening weekend of the season. Konopka isn’t naive; he knows that despite the success of last year’s team, the 2006-07 Portland Pirates have to play a consistent brand of hockey if they want any success.

“We have a different team this year; we’re not going to have the same team as least year. We have to use the tools and assets in the dressing room,” said Konopka.

"We have a few new faces that bring a lot of assets, but we need to make sure we can get the best out of them and we really can’t be living in the past, we’ve got to work on the quest for the cup… we’ve got unfinished business.”

konopka1_200.jpgBesides the quest for the cup Konopka knows he has other responsibilities as well. Making sure he is in the community, visiting local hospitals and schools. Giving back to the community is very important to Konopka; it’s very important for all of the Pirates, but Konopka makes it a point to make it part of his day.

“We play hockey for a living, we’re lucky to be healthy and active. A lot of kids don’t get that opportunity and go through a lot of pain,” said Konopka. “If we can improve their day by coming over it really improves ours as well, sometimes I think we get more out of it then the kids. It’s nice to see the kids with a smile on their face.”

Konopka isn’t one to mince his words either as he strongly believes that society as a whole could do more community work to make the world a better place to live.

“I spoke to my sister and she goes to the children’s hospital too," he said. "Just because we’re athletes in the city — I am sure it does help to see a Portland Pirate — but anyone can go talk to somebody. A simple visit to a [retirement home] — it’s just not athletes — everybody should be trying to give back to less fortunate people."

Whether it’s in the community or on the ice the city of Portland knows they can count on Zenon Konopka.