In this off-season of the suicide wake-up call, Zenon Konopka’s phone has rung off the hook.
It started when New York Rangers enforcer Derek Boogaard was found dead with a dangerous combination of drugs and booze in his system on May 13. Then again, when Winnipeg Jets brawler Rick Rypien took his own life Aug. 15. And one more time when recently retired tough guy Wade Belak, who like Rypien suffered from depression, killed himself in Toronto on Wednesday.
Like them, Konopka has made a mark in the NHL with his fists. The Senators centre has fought more than anyone else — 58 times — since entering the league two years ago. The calls were from people who wanted to make sure he was okay.
“It’s very interesting how things happen,” Konopka said Friday. “I got a lot of text messages, e-mails, phone calls, from not just family but friends. It’s nice that you have so many people that care about you, but it’s awkward at times, too. As much as I knew all three guys, I wasn’t that close with any of them ... but from the text messages and the calls, you would have thought that it was like it was my funeral, or I was on my deathbed.
“It’s nice to see that people care about you, but it was a little much at times, too, to be on the phone all day for two or three days after, about myself.”
For the record, other than “tweaking” his back in a recent workout, Konopka is fine. He doesn’t have time to be anything else. He has his power skating sessions with Arnprior’s Paul Lawson, his summer hockey camp in Ottawa and a list of businesses that include grape seed oil, a supplement line, a cooking oil line, a cosmetic line, neck bracelets that help improve injuries and as a wine maker in the Napa Valley.
Konopka said he’s “super busy,” and that’s a good thing.
“I really got involved in my businesses, I mean hands on, in the last year,” said Konopka, who was an Islander in 2010-11 and a Tampa Bay Lightning in 2009-10. “There was a little concern in New York that I was too hands on. I had my headset on after the games, before the games, and I pointed out to those guys that it’s a great outlet.
“For so many years I took hockey home with me. I mean I took losses hard. You’re not in a great state when you’re doing that. So now I kind of leave it at the rink. I put my headset on right after the game, and I talk about business, how we can improve our business and everything else. For me, I think it’s been a real positive. There’s certain games you just can’t let go, but for the most part, I do let go, I do leave it at the rink.”
Konopka can’t begin to understand what happened to Boogaard, Rypien and Belak. He was as shocked as anyone when they died. He fought only one of the three, Rypien, the former Vancouver Canuck he also knew better than the other two.
“I met the guy, had a couple of drinks with him a couple of times, but I just met Belak a few times,” said Konopka. “On the surface, (Belak) seemed like a guy that had his act together, a well-spoken, pretty knowledgeable guy that had a lot of humour that came with him.
“It’s kind of a lesson for everyone, that what’s on the surface sometimes isn’t what’s underneath. Obviously, there was some issues I don’t think most of the world is aware of. At the end of the day, it’s something where there has to be more awareness of the inside feelings I guess.”
That the three tragedies involved fighters may or may not be coincidence. Either way, Konopka figures there will be an investigation into the mindset of guys who drop their gloves.
“Mentally, it can sometimes be a challenging job,” he said. “No one has an easy job, by any means in professional hockey, or any kind of profession. Everyone has their ups and downs, and I think really, the lesson we like to bring out of all this is that we’ve got to make sure people have an outlet. Even if they’re one of the toughest guy in the NHL ... to make sure everyone realizes that you can’t bottle things up. You need to express your feelings.
“The whole retirement thing has to be looked at as well,” Konopka added. “The transition from playing to retirement is obviously a tough one, especially when you’re in your mid-30s, compared to most people who retire in their 60s or 70s.
“So it’s got to be a wake-up call for everyone involved, that there’s some issues here that need to be addressed.”