"Zenon Konopka strode out of his locker room in the Sabresâ€™ HSBC Arena on Sunday afternoon with a clean-shaven face, a strikingly youthful look for a player who takes pride when his mug resembles ground beef.
The New York Islanders forward was just hours removed from a formal meeting with NHL discipline czar Colin Campbell and vice president Kris King. Konopka was one of several players called to the principalâ€™s office to explain his role in the 346 penalty-minute muckfest between the Islanders and Penguins two nights before.
â€œYou always want to look prim and proper when you meet with the big dogs in the league,â€ Konopka said.
Konopka earned a roughing misconduct in the rumble but escaped a suspension.
â€œObviously, they had some concerns. I had to explain my side of the story,â€ he said. â€œI think we all agreed I wasnâ€™t in the wrong. What I have to do is make sure all my players are protected. Iâ€™m more worried about the welfare of them.â€
Did he fret that Campbell and King might have a different perspective on the gallantry, and sit him down for a few games?
â€œI stopped being worried years ago,â€ said Konopka, 30. â€œRight around Syracuse.â€
Ah yes, Syracuse. Turns out that as much of a mark â€œZâ€ left on teammates and opponents while captaining the Crunch in 2007-08, the experience of sharpening his skates and game here made just as big an impact on him. Perhaps even to the point of turning his career around.
Konopka was the blood-and-guts leader on a team that now marks the glory era of the Crunch (Syracuse hasnâ€™t made the playoffs since). He was both a scorer and a fighter â€” 55 points and 194 penalty minutes â€” who grabbed opponents by the throat and lifted up his teammates with equal portions of menace.
Konopka already had a well-deserved reputation as a firecracker when he joined the Crunch in a trade during the 2006-07 season. Heâ€™s been asked whether heâ€™s ever seen anything like the Isles-Pens riot? Seen anything like it? Heck, back in the day, Konopka used to startâ€™em.
There was nothing that wild on the Crunch. But Konopka put the chirp and bite into the â€œNasty Boys,â€ giving backbone and a sense of accountability to a young group of admiring scrappers like Jon Mirasty, Derek Dorsett and Tom Sestito.
Konopka patrolled center ice during warmups, daring any opponent to cross the red line and going after anyone who did. He was the last one off after warmups, because he couldnâ€™t stomach a visitor owning the War Memorial ice unguarded for a second. He didnâ€™t fight a lot â€” he was too valuable a player to sit in the box â€” but any foe who dared to look at a teammate the wrong way had to answer to Konopka.
â€œInstead of worrying about things, you start doing things, relaxing, trusting your instincts,â€ Konopka said of his career evolution. â€œI was allowed to do that in Syracuse. There was a big chunk of my life in Syracuse.â€
Konopka left the next season, but he took along the mayhem-infused approach to the sport he groomed with the Crunch. He signed a two-year deal with the Tampa Bay organization, and his first season there he was the big dog on AHL affiliate Norfolk with 57 points and 186 PIM.
Last season he finally arrived in the NHL full-time, and made sure his entrance was a loud one. Although he was a top-6 forward in the AHL, those scoring skills didnâ€™t translate the same way at the top level. So he turned to his trump card â€” toughness â€” and paced the NHL in penalty minutes (265) and fighting majors (33).
That type of grit was worth $600,000 â€” the amount New York gave him in a one-year free-agent deal last summer. The 6-foot, 209-pound Konopka has returned that investment to the tune of an NHL-leading 193 PIM and 17 fighting majors, which ranks third in the league.
â€œWhat I love to do is make sure all my players are protected. Iâ€™m more concerned about the welfare of them,â€ Konopka said. â€œI think Iâ€™m a born competitor. You do what it takes to help your team win.â€
In Konopkaâ€™s case, that often involves a tough love approach. In the minors, he was known to physically threaten teammates whom he thought lacked effort. As one of the oldest players on a young Islanders squad, he said he takes a softer approach now.
â€œZ is very vocal, but he does it in the right way. I respect the message that he gives our team when he talks,â€ said Islanders coach Jack Capuano.
â€œI got a pretty good niche here. I do my leadership in different ways,â€ Konopka said. â€œWe have a lot of young guys here who need a pat on the back more than a kick in the rear end.â€
Konopka said he keeps in touch with Syracuse owner Howard Dolgon and checks the standings for Crunch updates. Konopka, like the Crunch fans themselves, laments the changing hockey climate when it comes to fighting.
â€œPart of me is sad that all of hockey isnâ€™t like that,â€ he said. â€œThereâ€™s a lot of stuff that hasnâ€™t been the same. I talk to (former AHL) players all the time. These guys were deathly afraid to go into Syracuse (as visitors). Everything goes in cycles. You have to have the personnel to play that style.â€
Konopkaâ€™s steely personality gives the Islanders their infrastructure for those tests of wills, someone who calls the shots on matters big and small. When the Crunch went on its tight-rope winning streak at the end of the 2007-08 season, Konopka toasted every win by playing Rihannaâ€™s poppy â€œPlease Donâ€™t Stop the Music.â€ Teammates rolled their eyes at the choice but dared not object because, well, Konopka is Konopka.
These days, the song has changed but the tune remains the same. After New Yorkâ€™s 7-6 win over Buffalo on Sunday, Mumford & Sons â€œLittle Lion Manâ€ blistered the locker room walls. The man pushing the musical buttons was Konopka, just like he did in Syracuse.
â€œHeâ€™s our best leader, thatâ€™s how it works,â€ explained teammate P.A. Parenteau, sitting in the stall next to Konopka.
Konopka, chewing on a piece of pizza like a lion gnaws a gazelle, had his final two cents ready, as usual.
â€œAnd the best looking,â€ he said. "