In the last 20 years, there have been few, if any, athletes to pass through Ottawa possessing more character, grit and toughness than Zenon Konopka.
And yet this week he was able to repeatedly drive along the 417, right by the Senators' front door -- an unrestricted free agent who would have jumped at an invite inside --before finally leaving town as a member of the Tampa Bay Lightning.
What an absolute shame.
Concern that Konopka doesn't skate well enough to be an NHL regular had to be the primary reason Bryan Murray didn't make the former 67's captain an acceptable offer, as the Ottawa GM is quite familiar with the considerable attributes of a player he brought into the Anaheim organization four years ago.
Possibly the Senators are unaware of the strides Konopka has made working with Arnprior skating coach Paul Lawson, who was recently in Montreal helping out at the Habs' development camp.
Maybe Konopka still doesn't move well enough for their liking. Or perhaps the Senators simply gambled that Konopka would remain on the market longer, that they could take a run at him later. Either way, Ottawa blew a chance to significantly improve when the 27-year-old centre agreed to a two-year deal with the Bolts that will see him collect a $100,000 salary in 2008-09 if he doesn't crack their roster and nearly $500,000 if he does.
The clincher: In 2009-10, Konopka will make NHL money no matter where they use him, and the one-way contract almost guarantees he'll be in Tampa.
Meanwhile, it sounds like Lightning coach Barry Melrose expects Konopka to at least start the season on his fourth line, while veteran Jeff Halpern recovers from knee surgery. It was convincing calls from Melrose that finally had Konopka making a verbal commitment. Then the Islanders discovered when tendering a better offer that -- like the character Matt Cushman in Jerry McGuire -- Konopka's word is stronger than oak.
Bemoaning the loss of Konopka most are the fans of the AHL's Syracuse Crunch, where he was captain and one of the most popular players in the team's 14-year history. The Columbus Blue Jackets recognized his value to their farm club and offered Konopka a virtually unheard of $275,000 minor-league stipend. But thinking he had a better chance of making it as an NHL regular through Florida than Ohio, Konopka declined.
What makes Konopka so valuable? Along with his 212 points in 280 AHL games, he has 837 penalty minutes. Along with being strong on faceoffs and a good penalty killer, he will fight anybody, anytime. Since turning pro in 2003, he's had 54 scraps in the AHL and 13 more in 32 NHL games. On his list of opponents is Derek Boogard -- the Minnesota Wild enforcer who is seven inches taller and 55 lbs. heavier than Konopka.
NOT JUST FISTS
In getting rid of Brian McGrattan, the Sens wanted players who can contribute in other areas as well as with their fists. Like Konopka.
One former scout tells of watching a Binghamton-Syracuse game in which Konopka scored a hat trick and broke his hand fighting Jamie Allison. Presumably, the goals came first, but with Konopka, you can't be sure. Another time, with his nose splattered from blocking a shot and against doctors orders, Konopka convinced coach John Brophy to let him sit on the bench and, as the game went on, eventually get back on the ice.
When the Crunch were struggling last year, Konopka was intent on turning the team around. One night, while leading 6-3 with 11 seconds left, he was challenged by a goon. Konopka, who had earlier been in a fight and scored a goal, readily accepted. Not wanting his second-leading scorer in that situation, Crunch coach Ross Yates sent out another player to take the draw. Witnesses say when Konopka returned to the bench, he was not happy.
"Don't ever embarrass me like that again," he told Yates. "We're going to change things here, and that means playing a full 60 minutes every night. If that's fighting with 11 seconds left and the game in hand, we fight."
Konopka is surely excited about the chance he's getting in Tampa. He's from Niagara on the Lake, but Ottawa is his adopted home. Along with friend Greg Pollock, he still gives back to this community by running the Zenon Konopka Hockey Academy at Walkley Arena on his way to workouts with Lawson. He has a lot of friends and fans here.
Konopka would have jumped at the chance to sign with the Senators, who desperately could use more players of his ilk, with his heart and determination. That he was able to slip by them on his way to Tampa is wrong. And an absolute shame.