Konopka still in love with hockey
Zenon Konopka still has hockey in his blood.
The 40-year-old Niagara-on-the-Lake resident played 10 seasons in the National Hockey League with seven teams, wrapping up his career with the Buffalo Sabres in 2013-14.
But the former Thorold Blackhawks (1997-98) forward couldn’t get enough of the sport and stayed in touch with many of the contacts he made over the years while also running a couple of businesses and hockey schools.
One of those contacts, former NHL forward Adam Oates, proved to be vital in Konopka’s development as an instructor.
Oates, who was an assistant coach in Tampa Bay when Konopka played for the Lightning, had started a development program — he got the idea from basketball’s LeBron James who goes to a skills coach — and asked Konopka to help run a skills program out of Toronto in 2018.
“I got to be Oates’ right-hand man and help train (Steven) Stamkos, Max Domi, Mark Scheifele, Darnell Nurse and then we got (Connor) McDavid,” Konopka recalled. “It was pretty cool. It was me, Oates and McDavid for five practices before he put McDavid on with anyone else.”
Konopka learned a ton during those sessions but with four children under the age of 10 at home and Oates wanting him to move to New York to help run sessions there, Konopka had to look for something else.
Konopka then worked with the Oshawa Generals and the Ottawa 67’s of the Ontario Hockey League, but again, the positions kept him away from home too much of the time.
“I didn’t want to move out of Niagara but I had all this knowledge,” Konopka said. “I wanted a job where I could be home more.”
This summer, Konopka contacted Niagara IceDogs coach Billy Burke and IceDogs general manager Joey Burke about joining their organization.
“I thought I could learn from them about the business side of hockey and coaching and I thought I could really help them with development,” Konopka said.
Less than a month into the regular season, Konopka has already pronounced the arrangement a success, both on and off the ice.
“It’s been awesome,” said Konopka, who is also an assistant coach to Dave Burkholder with the Welland Junior Canadians.
Konopka is at most IceDogs practices and games and on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, pulls double duty going on the ice with both teams. He is also behind the bench for all Junior Canadians games.
“I like to work,” he said.
Konopka said one of the aspects he enjoys most about working with the IceDogs is the culture.
“It’s been fun,” Konopka said. “The Burkes are unbelievable people. They are great in the community and they are smart hockey guys.
“If one day I won the lottery and I bought the team, those guys are my guys. These guys know what they’re doing. They’re building something here and this is going in the right direction.”
Konopka said there are no egos in the IceDogs coaches room, which makes the process even more enjoyable.
“I’ve been around the block in this league. It’s just been a breath of fresh air where everyone checks their ego at the door,” Konopka said. “We just talk about it and come up with the best decision, which seems simple, but in all facets of life that doesn’t happen very often.”
Konopka employs many of the drills and concepts he learned from Oates with the IceDogs.
“The guy is the smartest hockey mind in the world,” Konopka said of Oates. “He’s like the guy in A Beautiful Mind, he just sees things.”
Konopka also got to sit in with Lightning coach Jon Cooper’s staff meetings for two days at training camp a couple of years ago.
Konopka has brought that knowledge to the IceDogs where he works on a variety of skills with the players, everything from face offs, to stick positioning, to where a player’s eyes should be focused to avoid getting hit.
Billy Burke can’t say enough about what Konopka has brought to the table.
“Zenon has been a great addition to our hockey staff,” Burke said. “Zee works well with our staff and other skill development coaches and it’s just been a really good fit so far.
“Zee has really taken the centres under his wing (among many other things) and is helping them with tricks, pre-drop reads and other tips to help them win more draws. He always has a positive energy at practice and the players trust him and want to work with him on things.”
Burke says Konopka’s legendary work ethic is apparent.
“As a player he was hard-nosed, earned everything he got and learned to be adaptable and he brings a similar approach to skill development.”
Konopka isn’t sure where this current path will lead.
“I feel like the more knowledge I can get, the better,” he said. “Where I go with it, I don’t know.”
Being back at the rink everyday has made Konopka realize how much he missed the day-to-day life of being involved with a team.
“I love the game. When I was done playing, I took some time to do some business stuff, but I just love being around the guys and the coaching staff,” he said. “I didn’t realize how much I missed it until I was back.”
Konopka has tried to pass on that love and appreciation of the sport.
“I try to instil in our players and the players in Welland that you’re blessed, don’t take things for granted. You have an unbelievable opportunity here and take advantage of it.”
Konopka says the reaction of the players has been gratifying.
“It’s been awesome,” he said. “It’s been unbelievable. It just takes me back and I connect with the guys just like that, which I didn’t know if it would happen.
“I chat with them about how they’re doing in life, because that’s important at this stage in life. Hockey has to be fun, especially with younger kids. It’s important to have that balance of intensity and fun.”
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