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Konopka, Senators find 'the right fit' together

by Rob Brodie / Ottawa Senators
After a season with the New York Islanders, former Ottawa 67's star Zenon Konopka has decided to return to his hockey roots by signing a one-year contract with the Senators (Photo by Paul Bereswill/Getty Images).

Zenon Konopka's hockey career is about to come full circle.

And he couldn't be more thrilled about it.

The former Ottawa 67's captain inked a one-year contract with the Senators today, bringing him back to a city that supplied Konopka with some of his fondest hockey memories. Today's signing only adds to the special bond the 30-year-old native of Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., has with the nation's capital.

His fifth annual Zenon Konopka Hockey Academy is currently underway at the Jim Durrell Recreation Centre — he took a break from that instructional school to sign his Senators contract at Scotiabank Place this afternoon — and he works closely with Paul Lawson, a skating coach based in nearby Braeside.

"A lot of factors came into this decision and one big one was having a history of playing junior here and having a hockey camp in town," said Konopka, who still resides in Niagara-on-the-Lake. "You come back and you realize how nice the city is and how great the people are. I have my skating coach close (to Ottawa), and I credit a lot my improvement to the level I'm at now to him.

"I've spent about four weeks up here with (Lawson) already, so it definitely reiterates how nice the area is and how great the people are. I'm pretty excited to be back and part of the community again."

Konopka's reputation definitely precedes him in his return to Ottawa. He led the National Hockey League in penalty minutes the last two seasons, racking up 307 with the New York Islanders in 2010-11 — many of them of the fighting major variety. But Konopka is also an accompished faceoff man, ranking fourth in the NHL in that category a year ago, and he's eager to bring that combination to the Senators lineup.

"It's something that I like to do," Konopka said about his scrapping ability. "It's going to be nice to have a few other guys on the same page. I think it's going to be entertaining for the fans as well. It's going to be an exciting year all around for the fans, for the organization and for me.

"I take pride in faceoffs and penalty killing, and I'm excited to bring that aspect to the Sens."

In general manager Bryan Murray's mind, he's exactly what's needed by a team that figures to be much younger in the season to come. Nobody agreed with that more than Paul MacLean, the Senators' new head coach.

"Paul and I had talked earlier about adding this kind of player," said Murray. "No. 1, he competes every night. No. 2, he can provide some leadership on the ice and some competitiveness on the ice, and No. 3, he wins faceoffs and brings that dimension to our hockey club. We like to have the puck and Paul was adamant that we be strong in that area. I hope we’ve addressed part of that, at least, in adding Zenon.

"We hope he’ll bring, with another couple of guys on his line, a real feistiness to our lineup. We believe that he can kill penalties. A number of people will get that opportunity and he’ll certainly be one of them."

With Konopka added to the likes of Chris Neil, Matt Carkner and Zack Smith, the Senators figure they've got the necessary dose of grit to go along with the skill on the roster.

"You have to give young players — in particular, skill players — some protection or some opportunity to play without being pushed around totally," said Murray. "We’ve got a good combination of people now that will help the youth but also be able to play and contribute."

Konopka was a member of the 67's team that won the Memorial Cup on home ice in Ottawa in 1999. But he's even more proud of what happened two years later, when the 67's won a surprising Ontario Hockey League title to make it back to the Memorial Cup in Regina.

"It was supposed to be a rebuilding year for the 67’s," said Konopka. "But we upset all the teams and won the OHL title. It was a real special time. (Former teammate) Lance Galbraith works at my hockey camp and Jon Zion works at the hockey camp. There’s a lot of guys on that time that I stay in touch with, so it’s pretty special to still have that bond and have it in this city."

Now he feels "all the key pieces are in place" to bring his career back to Ottawa.

"At the end of the day, it just was a good fit and it felt right," said Konopka. "It’s a great organization. We’ve done our homework and it’s a first-class organization. That was another big factor in coming here ...  You’ve got a great young crop of guys. You have a great leader and captain (Daniel Alfredsson). You have one of the best playmakers in the game (Jason Spezza).

"You have maybe the toughest guy in the league in Carkner, along with two guys like Neil and Smith. It all just seemed to work out, so it’s exciting."


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