While growing up just over the border, Zenon Konopka dreamed of playing for the Sabres. The wish is about to come true.
Buffalo claimed the hard-working veteran off waivers Friday, and the center will debut tonight against New Jersey in First Niagara Center. Beating the Devils is one of the things on Konopka’s immediate to-do list.
The 33-year-old from Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., tweeted that he also wants to get a Sabres jersey for his pet bunny, Hoppy; give a high-five to television analyst Rob Ray; and eat chicken wings and pizza.
The Sabres want him to help in the faceoff circle and provide leadership.
“He’ll do anything for the team,” said left wing Matt Moulson, who was teammates with Konopka on the New York Islanders. “He’s a great team guy. He always has your back.”
Konopka has played 323 NHL games with Anaheim, Columbus, Tampa Bay, the Islanders, Ottawa and Minnesota. The Wild waived him prior to Thursday’s 4-1 win over the visiting Sabres.
The 6-foot, 213-pounder has one goal and two points in 36 games this season. He has 12 goals, 29 points and 1,049 penalty minutes in his career, which began when the undrafted player worked his way up through the minors.
“Everybody probably knows he’s more of a gritty type of competitive guy,” Sabres coach Ted Nolan said. “Those type of guys are really good role models for the younger players. They last that long because they have that special ingredient to work and compete.”
While toughness is Konopka’s specialty – he has seven fights this season and 108 in his career – of more importance to Buffalo is his ability to win draws. He’s won 65.7 percent, which would lead the NHL if he’d taken enough faceoffs to qualify.
He’s definitely an atypical enforcer. Konopka has his own wine label, ZK28. He has a business that produces grape seed oil. He supports StopConcussions.com. He also has Hoppy, a 7-year-old black rabbit that is the star of Konopka’s Twitter account.
Konopka is finishing a two-year contract and will be an unrestricted free agent following the season.
He has a cap hit of $925,000 and a salary of $1 million. Some of that cash will go toward tickets.
“He’s a local guy,” his agent, Kevin Epp, said by phone. “I said, ‘It might cost you a little more than you make to play back there now. You’ve got too many family and friends. I’m sure you’re going to have an extra 50 fans a night there now.’
“He was growing up with the Sabres, so it’s pretty exciting for him.”
The Sabres practiced without the injured sextet of defenseman Henrik Tallinder and forwards Cody Hodgson, Ville Leino, Drew Stafford, Cody McCormick and Kevin Porter. Only Leino has a chance to play tonight.
Steve Ott and Marcus Foligno made up a two-man line, so either Konopka or Leino could slide in to join them.
The Devils have waived former first-round pick Mattias Tedenby. The 5-9, 175-pound winger hasn’t found a spot since being taken 24th overall by New Jersey in 2008. The speedy Swede has one goal in 15 games.
Five Sabres will have their heads shaved Jan. 20 to support cancer patients as part of the “Bald for Bucks” fundraiser. Hodgson, Mike Weber, Mark Pysyk, Alexander Sulzer and Brayden McNabb will be part of the group shave in the Sabres’ arena. Donations can be made at BaldForBucks.org.
“Many of our fans have been touched by cancer,” Weber said. “It is nearly impossible to find someone who has not been impacted by it. The Bald for Bucks program is a fun way for us to get involved and is a visual reminder for people battling cancer that we are in their corner.”