When Zenon Konopka was 12 his hockey world changed.
A.J. Boone, the Lightning center’s coach with the Niagara Falls Jr. Canucks, put together extensive statistics for the team to see. He kept track of every hit, every shot, giveaways, takeaways, face offs, blocked shots -- close to what the NHL does today.
Boone, who passed away a year ago, took a lot of time to explain the details of the game and Konopka took a special liking to the battles in the face-off circle.
“He harped on face offs a lot for the centers,” Konopka said. “For a young kid, when you see a sheet of paper on the wall and your buddies’ names are on it and you’re on it, you want to be the best. There was a lot of competition. That’s when it started for me. I took pride in it.”
Konopka, 29, and the Jr. Canucks won the Ontario Championship when he was 12 and the Lightning tough guy said his success in the face-off circle helped him work his way onto the Ottawa 67s of the Ontario Hockey League as a long shot. He was later named the top face-off man in the OHL and won the 2001 Memorial Cup with the 67s.
The versatile Konopka, who leads the NHL in penalty minutes and has scored two goals, hasn’t stopped studying and working on the art of winning draws. Midway through the season, Konopka has won 62.5 percent of his draws. Unfortunately, he has not taken enough to be listed on top of the league rankings.
“He’s been a nice surprise for us there,” Lightning Head Coach Rick Tocchet said.
Konopka said there are many different ways to win draws, with quickness or power. He keeps a mental book in his head on the tendencies of other centers he faces.
“It’s a mini-chess match of trying to figure out what your opponents’ next move and what move you can do to counteract it,” Konopka said. “It really gets pretty intense, especially late in games. It’s big.
“For a fourth-line guy, it’s just as important. When we have puck possession, we’re going to be much more effective.”
Tocchet said he doesn’t look at overall statistics for face offs. He focuses on those taken in key situations, especially on the power play, on penalty kills, holding onto a one-goal lead, can be the difference between winning and losing some nights.
There are different philosophies and variables. Lightning Assistant Coach Adam Oates said he wishes there was a magic formula, but there is not.
Oates, who played 1,337 NHL games, said he tried to keep things simple. If he started thinking too much, he was in trouble.
“The one thing that was always on my mind was balance,” Oates said. “I made sure I was in there with enough time to get my composure and I was balanced. I just did the same thing every time, and tried to win by six inches.”
Oates said Doug Gilmour, Bryan Trottier, Ron Francis and Rod Brind’Amour were some of the toughest to beat in the face-off circle. Tocchet said Oates and fellow assistant Wes Walz are two of the best in the business working on draws.
Lightning captain Vincent Lecavalier said strength and technique are keys, but teamwork is big. Wingers have to be quick to the puck and strong on their sticks to make it a clean win. Konopka said sometimes plays are called off of face offs.
“You have to be focused at every draw,” Lecavalier said. “You’re thinking each time, if we win the draw, we get possession. You realize as you get older that if you lose a few more draws it could turn into a goal against and if you win a few in the offensive zone, you can score a goal. It’s knowing how important it is, getting in the circle and battling for it.”
It takes time. Paul Szczechura, Blair Jones and James Wright are still cutting their teeth in the NHL face-off circle. Each day is a learning experience, making minor adjustments, gaining confidence and adapting to situations.
“I think the biggest difference is that every draw is so important,” Szczechura said. “Some guys make a living off of taking face offs. There are none you can take in your sleep here. It’s a game within the game.”