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Center Zenon Konopka is Tampa Bay Lightning's fighting warrior

There are days, Zenon Konopka admitted — like the one in Detroit when his neck and wrist were packed in ice and he could not speak clearly because of the stitches in his mouth — that he wonders what his body will feel like at age 50.

It is bad enough, he said, at 28.

"It's a concern," Konopka said. "But life's too short. Everything in your life is in the now."

And for now, his body is his most reliable tool and one of the Lightning's most important weapons.

Tampa Bay does not have a heavyweight enforcer. Instead, it relies on Konopka, a middleweight, really, but who is willing to take on anyone.

It is a role Konopka embraces. How else, the center asked, could he have gotten to the NHL?

"The best way to describe it is, seven or eight years ago, I was making 360 bucks a week, and I was doing the same thing in the East Coast Hockey League," said Konopka, whose 15 fights led the league entering Saturday and whose 135 penalty minutes lead Tampa Bay.

"The love of the game, the passion, the competitiveness, same thing, I had ice bags and played with broken bones. It's a world I live in and the world, as an athlete, you grow up in. You don't know much more than that."

Konopka, in the locker room after Wednesday's practice at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit, moved his head with difficulty, something he said had worsened the past few weeks.

His wrist was sore from a check into the boards Dec. 13 in Chicago, and the inside of his left cheek was held together with five stitches needed after a fight in the same game with Ben Eager.

Konopka said he is considering getting the jagged edges of his teeth filed down so they are less likely to cut when he is hit.

"He's like Russell Crowe in the Gladiator," captain Vinny Lecavalier said. "I love playing with the guy. He's inspiring. Guys look up to him. He's a great leader, a leader by example."

"The mental toughness of him is something I really respect," coach Rick Tocchet said. "He lives on the edge. He doesn't take anything for granted because he knows it can be taken away from him. He knows his role."

And that is to take the body, stir it up if the Lightning is flat and fight to defend teammates. No surprise, then, that despite his injuries, the 6-foot-1, 213-pound native of Niagara on the Lake, Ontario, fought Detroit's Brad May on Thursday night.

"I still got a job to do," said Konopka, whose 35 games this season are four fewer than he previously played in the NHL. "You have to answer the bell."

Painkillers help, he said:

"But, really, the intensity of the game is the best medicine. There's nothing like adrenaline, and that's what I feed off of. On these days, you feel like your body is falling apart, but once you get into the game, your competitiveness takes over. It's unbelievable how you can heal injuries pretty quick."

"He's a warrior," said forward Paul Szczechura, who played with Konopka at AHL Norfolk. "He knows his role, and he's figured out how to make a career out of it. You look at him and you know it's a tough way, but he loves to play, and he wants to do what's best for the team."

So, Konopka endures the mornings in which, he said, "I'm not breaking any world records getting out of bed," knowing it is how he stays in the show.

That said, "It'll be a nice Olympic break (in February), that's for sure."

LONG TRIP: Because of an expected blizzard in the New York metropolitan area, the Lightning on Saturday flew from St. Louis to Newburgh, N.Y., about 85 miles north of Long Island.

A 21/2-hour bus ride later, the team pulled up to its Uniondale hotel to wait for Monday's game with the Islanders.

Center Zenon Konopka is Tampa Bay Lightning's fighting warrior 12/19/09 [Last modified: Sunday, December 20, 2009 12:19pm]
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