What's going on in the head of Wild's Konopka?

  • Article by: MICHAEL RUSSO , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 14, 2013 - 12:52 PM

The mischievous Zenon Konopka, a newcomer to the Wild, has few idle moments.

Just mention Zenon Konopka's name to Stephane Veilleux, and the red-headed Wild forward chuckles and rolls his eyes.

"He's a very, very funny, very different character," said Veilleux, Konopka's roommate three seasons ago in Tampa Bay.

Konopka is the Wild's fascinating new enforcer and fourth-line center. He is on his 14th team in 11 years as a pro, and there's a reason he instantly becomes popular with teammates and fans at every stop.

He has a pet rabbit named Hoppy. He's an entrepreneur who owns a piece of seven businesses, including his own wine label, ZK28. He's the ringleader for most team activities. He is not only one of the NHL's toughest fighters, but he is a dynamite penalty killer and a faceoff specialist.

And he admittedly loves to push the line as far as he can take it, whether it's a faceoff strategy that actually resulted in a rule change across the NHL this season, or a pregame antic during warmups.

Konopka, 31, jokes that half his minor league salary went to fines, and Jim Mill, the Wild executive who used to render discipline in the American Hockey League, can attest.

"He's one of few players I actually had face-to-face contact with on several occasions," Mill said, laughing. "He was big into the warmup dust-up."

As captain of the Syracuse Crunch in 2007-08, Konopka was reading the newspaper while having coffee at a Winnipeg hotel the morning between games with the Manitoba Moose. An article about Alexandre Bolduc caught Konopka's eye.

"That night in warmups, I brought the sports section onto the ice with me and laid it down at center ice," Konopka said. "I said to [Bolduc], 'It says here in print you'll fight anyone. You have five guys to pick from. You pick who you're going to fight first and we'll pick who you're going to fight second.' ... We won that game."

Last year in the playoffs for Ottawa, Konopka was fined $2,500 for warning the Rangers' Brian Boyle to "strap in."

"I thought I was being a good guy to warn him," Konopka said.

Konopka believes in old-time hockey. He says new Wild teammates Mikko Koivu, Zach Parise, Ryan Suter and Dany Heatley should feel comfortable on the ice "because if they're not our best players, we're not going anywhere."

"It starts in warmup," Konopka said. "I usually send a few messages out in warmup to make sure guys know our best players are off limits and they're going to have a long night if they want to come into their kitchen."

Wild moved quickly to get tougher

Coach Mike Yeo wanted the Wild to get tougher after missing the playoffs last year, so it wasn't shocking Konopka was the first free agent signed. Inked to a two-year, $1.85 million deal, Konopka has 92 career NHL fights and has led the league in penalty minutes twice. Since 2009-10, nobody has more (765).

But unlike many bruisers, he can play a regular shift and is especially strong in the faceoff circle, winning 58.8 percent of his draws. One strategy he used was to grab the opposing center's stick in the defensive zone and pass the puck with his hand to a teammate. That's now a minor penalty.

"They call it the 'Z Rule,'" Konopka said. "I knew they'd eventually catch on to it. It was an advantage. I'll find another one."

Konopka grew up in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, a town of 12,500 in what Konopka calls the Napa Valley of Ontario. His parents, Arlene and Zenon, raised him on a fruit farm. They had grapes, apples, plums, pears and peaches.

"My [father] was born in Poland and came here with nothing to his name," Konopka said. "We didn't have everything growing up, but we had everything we needed."

When Konopka was 13, his father died in a tractor accident at age 56.

"You grow up pretty quick. It was devastating," Konopka said. "I learned a lot of life lessons early on. My old man was a serious, no-nonsense person. I was always a scrappy kid, and I still remember wrestling with my dad at 11 and 12."

That filtered into his hockey career.

"Intimidation and physicality is a lost art," Konopka said. "It's a tool. But team always comes first, and winning comes before anything. I feel winning is the greatest thing in the world. It can't be duplicated by anything."

A wine and rabbit guy

Konopka was 19 when he took the money his parents set aside for college and bought into a pub in Ottawa. It was his first initiation into owning a business.

Eight years ago, he started a grape seed oil business (purepressoil.com). Then, he got into wine aerators (vin-aire.com). His passion is his wine label, ZK28 (zkwines.com). A dollar from every bottle sold is donated to Keith Primeau's charity, Stop Concussions. They've raised $50,000, Konopka says.

He has wines called "Power Play" and "4-on-4," and his newest, "The Wild One," is a blend of Vidal, Riesling and Gewurztraminer and pays homage to his new team. He's coming out with an Icewine, which Niagara-on-the-Lake is famous for.

There are border issues getting Canadian wine into Minnesota, but he has two wines about to come out from Napa that he is working at getting sold in Minnesota.

"Eight years ago, I was a different person," Konopka said. "I was super intense on the ice, but I was super intense off the ice to the point it almost got me into a little trouble. There'd be fights at softball games and ball hockey games.

"I just lived my life too intensely 24 hours a day. Once I got involved in the businesses, when I left the rink, I left hockey at the rink. It actually improved my hockey because I had a getaway."

Konopka is a character, that's for sure, and it's highlighted by his rabbit, Hoppy, who is adored by the children of his teammates. Hoppy is a little overweight, but he gets nothing but the best organic carrots, lettuce and kale to eat. He also likes trail mix.

Konopka is allergic to cats and has enough of a dog allergy that he somehow ended up with a rabbit.

"I looked at the thing and said, 'I don't want this rabbit in my house. I'm not a rabbit guy,'" he said. "It took maybe three hours before I fell in love with the little guy. He has his own litter box and does his business in there. He just chills out and hops around.

"My girlfriend loves him. At first, just like me, there's a little period in there where you have some uncertainty, but he can win you over pretty quickly."

  • 2013 WILD • Season opener: 8 p.m. Saturday vs. Colorado • Xcel Energy Center • TV: FSN (100.3-FM)

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