BUFFALO – Zenon Konopka’s travel ordeal began Friday night shortly after his flight from Minnesota landed in New York. First, the center’s short flight here was delayed four hours. Then the airline canceled it.
“The tough part was they said they could get me in Sunday,” Konopka, a waiver acquisition, said Saturday prior to his Sabres a debut, a 2-1 win against the New Jersey Devils inside the First Niagara Center. “I said, ‘That’s not going to work.’”
Konopka eventually switched airports, moving from LaGuardia to JFK.
But the airline had lost his luggage. It wasn’t found until 3 a.m.
The 33-year-old eventually grabbed a one-hour nap at a nearby hotel before returning to the airport early Saturday morning, where he sat on the tarmac for two hours and slept a little more.
Konopka made it to Buffalo, though, arriving at the FNC as many of his teammates skated. He got on the ice late, and was still shaking hands and saying hello as he entered the dressing room following the morning skate.
“I feel pretty good, actually, all being said,” said an excited Konopka, who grew up rooting for the Sabres in nearby Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont. “I think it’s just a lot of adrenaline going.”
Clearly, Konopka considers himself a local and is ecstatic about playing for the Sabres.
“Growing up here and watching the Sabres in the Auditorium, it’s just amazing,” Konopka said. “You always kind of dreamt of being a Buffalo Sabre. My mom was born in Buffalo. I still have my aunts here. My grandparents were here. It was a pretty special time to get claimed by Buffalo, just looking forward to being part of the community and team and be part of the solution.”
When the Minnesota Wild waived him Thursday, his birthday, Konopka immediately thought about Buffalo, which had the first claim.
“That was the first thing that went through my mind,” he said. “Obviously, I was a little surprised. It’s something that everything happens for a reason in life. I’m super excited. As much as travel was pretty tough yesterday and today, I had a smile on my face the whole time. I’m just really excited and super motivated to be here.”
Konopka said he attended games at Memorial Auditorium as a youngster and Gilbert Perreault – “I’m kind of dating myself now,” he joked – was his favorite player.
“In the Auditorium, I remember watching Pittsburgh, (Mario) Lemieux when he was on his points streak,” Konopka said. “My dad went. They were orange seats. But first row there was pretty cool. Just the atmosphere was pretty amazing.”
Konopka said “a lot of people” would be coming to watch Saturday. The joke, someone told him, is he’ll be playing for free because of the ticket demand from family and friends.
Did his pet rabbit, “Hoppy,” make it to Buffalo?
“Hoppy’s not a huge flier,” Konopka joked. “So he wanted to drive. So my buddy who was down in Minnesota, he’s going to chauffeur Hoppy up to Buffalo the next couple days. He’s excited as well.”
Wearing No. 24, Konopka pivoted Matt Ellis and John Scott against New Jersey.
Konopka, a fighter who also kills penalties and ranks among the NHL’s best faceoff men, said he’s “hard to play against.”
“It’s one of those things I pride myself on other players not wanting to play against me, not just because of the fighting and hitting, but just overall strength,” he said.
The Sabres made one change on the blue line, inserting rookie defenseman Brayden McNabb for Alexander Sulzer.
Center Ville Leino (lower body) skated Saturday morning and feels better but missed his second straight game. The Finn said he could play Tuesday.
“I didn’t want to push it too much,” Leino said. “But it was good.”