AMHERST – In January, when the NHL lifted Zenon Konopka’s shocking 20-game performance-enhancing drug suspension, the former Buffalo Sabres center briefly went to Poland, where his father was born, to see if he could still play.
For months, Konopka, a free agent, had shut hockey out of his life. The 34-year-old instead buried himself in his ZK28 wine line and other businesses. But by the winter, he began to understand how much he missed the sport he had fought so hard to play professionally for 12 seasons.
“You love the game,” Konopka told the Times Herald on Wednesday after instructing a youth clinic at the Northtown Center.
So unable to find work here, Konopka spent a few weeks with a team named KH Sanok. He loved the experience. The country warmly welcomed him. He discovered hockey’s a “way bigger deal” there than he had thought.
“I kind of got enough out it that I said, ‘Maybe there’s a little bit left in the tank,’” Konopka said about his 11-game run, his only action last season.
After amassing nearly 200 fights and 2,500 penalty minutes during a rugged career that began in the ECHL, Konopka understands he should consider retiring.
“There’s a lot of miles on this body,” he said.
Still, Konopka’s motivated to finish on his own terms. He’s too proud to let the May 2014 suspension – he said he took DHEA (Dehydroepiandrosterone), an over-the-counter supplement he bought at CVS – essentially end his career.
“I think that’s probably the only thing that’s bringing me back,” said Konopka, who grew up in nearby Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.
If Konopka’s body can hold up after six weeks of training, he wants to play.
Konopka prides himself in doing things “the proper way.” His word, he said, “is my honor.” That’s why becoming the second player suspended under NHL/NHLPA Performance Enhancing Substances Program was so embarrassing. No one had been suspended since Sean Hill in 2007.
“I pride myself on being an upstanding hockey player,” Konopka said. “As … intense as I get on the ice sometimes, you look and I don’t think I’ve ever been suspended in the NHL. You always keep it within the rules. Sometimes you push the rules, but to have something like that happen was frustrating.
“All you have to do is turn on the TV. That was the same time a lot of stuff was going on in the NFL off the field. We’re talking about wives, girlfriends getting beat up. I’m looking and thinking I’m down for 45 games for something I took at CVS.”
Konopka said 45 games had passed when the league finally ended the suspension, which would’ve started when a team signed him.
“Once we got into January, I guess common sense finally came to the forefront,” said Konopka, who joked he got “time served.”
Konopka, who was claimed on waivers by the Sabres from the Minnesota Wild in January 2014, said his naturopath doctor recommended DHEA to help his stress levels and rebuild his adrenals.
“It’s my responsibility because I should’ve taken it to the team doctor,” he said. “But at the same time, you don’t think that.”
Konopka said league officials told him they knew he wasn’t trying to beat the system or get an edge. Nonetheless, his reputation was damaged a bit.
He handled the news better than some of his family members and friends, who couldn’t believe he had been suspended. He told them he was frustrated and didn’t think the ban was right. But he also told them he never thought he’d play 20 NHL games, let alone get suspended for 20.
“The sun’s going to come up tomorrow,” Konopka said. “Life could be worse. Nobody died. No one’s sick. It was a mistake. It was, whatever, a technicality. That’s the rules. You got to live by that.’”
He added: “Everything happens for a reason. You grow and you learn lessons from everything you do. Lesson learned.”
Konopka’s unique skill set could be an intriguing option for some teams. In addition to fighting regularly in the NHL, he was also one of the best faceoff men. In the AHL, a league he’s willing to return to, he was also top playmaker.
“I had a good time in that league,” Konopka said. “It’s a lot different being put in big situations. So you kind of miss that. It’s a closer league down there. Guys are younger. You’re on the road, on the bus. You kind of miss that as hockey players.”