|Even when he was buried deep in the minors, Senators centre Zenon Konopka never lost sight of his dream to play in the NHL. He'll suit up for his 200th game on Saturday night, when Ottawa faces off against the Columbus Blue Jackets (Jana Chytilova/Freestyle Photography/Getty Images).
For Zenon Konopka, the journey from there to here has been lengthy in itself.
What's one more day, the gritty Ottawa Senators centre believes, to wait for a milestone number that barely begins to tell his tale of determination.
When the 30-year-old native hits the ice at Scotiabank Place on Saturday night, it'll mark his 200th appearance in a National Hockey League career that some scouts and critics once suggested would never make it this far. Perhaps that's part of the satisfaction Konopka enjoys each and every time he laces 'em up in the bigs. Surely, it's a long way from some of his old East Coast Hockey League haunts in places like Boise, Idaho, and Wheeling, West Va.
"I remember sitting in Boise, Idaho, with a high-ankle sprain," the former Ottawa 67's captain said in recalling his days with the ECHL's Steelheads nearly a decade ago. "When you're in Idaho and you're not in the lineup, you're a long way from the NHL. But I never stopped believing ... I just didn't want to give up on the dream.
"It was too much fun getting here and proving people wrong, so it does feel pretty rewarding that I went the hard road and got there."
Konopka has friends and family in town to help him celebrate the moment. It could have happened Thursday night against the Winnipeg Jets, but he was a healthy scratch. However, with Peter Regin sidelined by a shoulder injury, it is a certainly that Konopka will bring his hard-nosed style and faceoff proficiency to the mix against the Columbus Blue Jackets on Saturday evening (7 p.m., CBC, Team 1200).
That he had to wait an extra two days to make a milestone ... Konopka, as always, keeps rolling with whatever the hockey life deals him. Then again, it wasn't until the last two seasons, when he played a combined 156 games with the Tampa Bay Lightning and New York Islanders — including a full 82 with the latter last year — that he earned full-time employment in the NHL. He doesn't take any of it for granted.
"With Petey, it was a tough (break) yesterday and we all feel for him," said Konopka, who had previous brief stints with the Blue Jackets and Anaheim Ducks. "It helps to get a day off here or there. It's no secret that I've been a big banged up early on, so I'll use it as a positive and try to get some therapy and get ready for tomorrow.
"I've enjoyed the whole run. Two hundred games in this league and hard games in the East Coast (league) and something like 400 in the AHL ... I enjoyed every one. I enjoy every day. We've got a great job that we do. Happy players and positive players are good players, so we're trying to keep it positive around here as well."
And there's one quality, he'll tell you, that allows a man to keep smiling when the road gets tough.
"It's character," said Konopka, the NHL's penalty-minute leader the previous two seasons. "It built a lot of character, playing in so many different cities. Going from Killer (67's Hall of Fame coach Brian Kilrea) to John Brophy my first year of pro ... you grow up in a hurry. And you never forget where you came from and the people that helped you get where you are. (The milestone) is special. I've got a bunch of my friends and family up here and they're enjoying it as well. It's great for them to be up here and enjoy it with me."
Senators head coach Paul MacLean agreed with that sentiment, saying Konopka's mere presence in the NHL today is a testament to the determination it took to keep him there.
"It's one thing to get here, it's another thing to stay here," said MacLean. "If you get to play 200 (NHL) games, that means you worked real hard at your game to become someone who's good enough to play in this league for that long. Sometimes getting to the NHL, a lot of people think, is hard. But the reality is, it's often harder to stay here. And he's proven that he can stay here."