His head and callused knuckles show the evidence of a man that has absorbed and dished out his share of punches.
His nose has been broken 13 times. It has taken more than 600 stitches to close years’ worth of wounds to his face. He has broken bones to his fingers and hands 10 times and has secretly played much of the first month of this NHL season with a few cracked fingers taped and inside a splint under one of his gloves.
Wild center Zenon Konopka plays the role of hockey enforcer on the ice well. Off the ice, it doesn’t take much to peel back the onion and realize he’s a lot different from who you’d envision as the stereotypical fighter.
Since 2009-10, Konopka has gotten into 89 of his 105 career fights — a lot more than any other NHLer. He has accumulated 914 of his 1,026 career penalty minutes — well more than any other NHLer.
Yet he’s not some beer-guzzler with a pit bull away from the rink. He’s a business entrepreneur and wine connoisseur … with a bunny rabbit.
“Everything’s backwards,” Konopka said, laughing. “I’ve got ‘Hoppy.’ I drink wine. I have a wine label. I own a bunch of businesses. It’s the complete opposite of my on-ice persona.
“You open a lot of doors through playing hockey and then you have to walk through them. I love walking into a business meeting, sitting back and being underestimated because of my job. People get shocked during these meetings for the intellect or my knowledge of wine. It’s kind of a game I play with people.”
Konopka owns a grape seed drizzling oil business (purepressoil.com). He owns a piece of a wine aerator (vin-aire.com). And his biggest passion is his wine label, ZK28, which can be purchased at zkwines.com, at several Twin Cities-area liquor stores and more and more metro restaurants, such as Kincaids and Sakura in St. Paul.
For three years, Konopka has bottled blends, white wines and ice wine in Canada with hockey pun labels such as, “Power Play,’’ ‘‘4-on-4’’ and “The Wild.” His first vintage inside the United States is called, “The Wild One.” It’s a 2011 cabernet sauvignon that comes out of the Twenty Rows Winery in Napa, Calif.
“The name just popped in my head, not just because of the team I signed with, but it’s my type of playing and the way I live my life can be a little wild at times,” Konopka said.
Born to the vineyard
Konopka, 32, grew up on a fruit farm in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, a town of 12,000 near the Buffalo-Niagara Falls U.S.-Canada border crossing. It’s believed only one other NHL player ever hailed from the area — former North Star Willi Plett.
Konopka’s parents’ farm grew wine grapes, eating grapes, apples, peaches, pears and plums. He calls the region the Napa Valley of Ontario because it’s the world’s largest producer of ice wine, a sweet dessert wine that comes when grapes are left on the vine until the middle of winter.
“It’s the perfect storm because Niagara-on-the-Lake is on Lake Ontario and the lake doesn’t freeze over,” Konopka said. “So the warmth of the lake bounces off the escarpment making a cycle, which is the perfect environment for growing these grapes.”
As a teenager, Konopka would pick the grapes in the middle of the frigid night. When the grapes are pressed, a chunk of ice squeezes off and “all that comes out is the sugar,” he said.
Konopka’s ice wine should be available in the United States by Dec. 1, “and it’s fantastic,” he said.
When Konopka was 13, his father died in a tractor accident at age 56. Konopka had to grow up fast and learned the value of a dollar, selling fruit down at the Sunday farmers market or picking grapes and selling them to wineries.