Zenon Konopka is a fruit snob. But that's what happens when you grow up on a fruit farm in Niagara-On-The-Lake, Ontario, picking the best-tasting stuff right off a tree. "It's tough getting good fresh fruit," he said. "It's nice in the summer going back home and eating fresh peaches and pears and plums. There's nothing like it." Lightning fans probably haven't seen anything like Konopka, 28, who for the first time made an NHL team out of training camp. He is, in his own words, "intense," and has been involved, by his count, in about 30 pregame fights or incidents. The 360 stitches he has taken in his face? Notches on his journey to The Show. But the 6-foot, 215-pound center, with 112 penalty minutes in 39 NHL games, has a softer side. He has a rabbit and loves kids and talking about his parents — Zenon Sr., who died in a tractor accident when his son was 13, and Arlene — who Konopka said made him what he is today.
Tell me about your dad.
He thought sleep was really important to being tall and big for hockey. The school bus would pick me up at 7 a.m., but it would take about an hour to pick up all the kids to get to school. So he would let me sleep in to about 8:30, and then he or my mom would drive me to school.
Same with farm work. Everybody would get up early to pick apples, peaches, pears, plums, whatever the season was. But no one could wake me till I woke up, so I slept in quite a bit.
He was the hardest-working guy I ever met. He worked at GM full time, plus we had the farm. He never missed taking me to a game or practice. Just really didn't appreciate it until it was too late.
Are you like him?
He was a very intense person.
My mom likes to say I'm a carbon copy of him. If you played, you played to win. Didn't matter what it was. Dad's going to let you win? Not a chance.
And your mom?
Put it this way: I had a big decision to make when I was 16 years old to go to junior hockey. I was drafted to Ottawa, which is almost six hours from my house. I wasn't going to go because I was going to leave my mom by herself. My sisters (Cynthia and Celeste) were at the university.
She made it 100 percent clear I was going. She'll worry about everything else with the farm and the other details.
Sure enough, I made the team. If she doesn't make that sacrifice and pushed me in that direction, who knows where my career goes.
What was it like being the man of the house at 13?
It was tough, but you have to find a way to get it done, and we found a way to run the farm for four years before we sold it. When your back's against the wall, the sky's the limit as to how much you can get done.
The game has done a number on your face, hasn't it?
It doesn't look bad for 360 stitches. … The worst one was when I was in Wheeling (of the East Coast League). I took a slap shot off my face, off my nose. It was so bad, they did some minor surgery that night. I was supposed to be out four to six weeks, but I played the next day.
So everything from sticks to pucks to glass boards to fights, you name it, I've been whacked by it. That's the nature of my game.
Is it worth it?
Love it. I love playing hockey. Wouldn't change it for the world. Too many guys forget about that. Right now, I'm in fantasy land. This is unbelievable. I enjoy every day and enjoy every mark on my face. It kind of made me who I am.
What's it like making an NHL team out of camp?
When you come from the East Coast League and work your way up to the AHL and the NHL, you remember what it's like getting your face kicked in for $320 after taxes, so you put it in perspective A lot of people were complaining about the (five-game) road trip we were on. I had a blast.
We were flying everywhere, we're seeing places. It's a lot better than being on a bus playing three games in three nights.
You've had more than 180 penalty minutes in five different minor-league seasons. Are you just a brawler?
As much as I play with a good recklessness, I like to think of myself as pretty calculating when I do things. It just depends on what the team needs. I'm a student of the game, and I really try to do things for a purpose.
Everything from warmup incidents to fights to penalties, I think everything has to be in the back of your mind as to how this will help the team win.
Have you had a pregame incident in the NHL?
My first fight in the NHL (for the Blue Jackets) was against (Matthew) Barnaby, and it started in warmup. I slashed him. He slashed me. The teams came to center ice, pushing and shoving. I think the refs came out.
The first shift we were on the ice, me and Barnaby went at it. We had a good little tussle.
Do you like fighting?
I don't mind it. I like the competitive nature of anything.
Do you have a softer side?
I love people. I love kids. I have a rabbit. Most people never see that coming.
I try to do a lot of charity work, give back. There's definitely a softer side, but not a lot of people see it.
Does your girlfriend, Charlotte Hides, see it?
She sees me intense in everyday life. But she's a good (complement) for me because she's a very laid-back person, which probably helps me in the big picture.