By Mike Harrington
Zenon Konopka is going on mostly adrenalin and little sleep after a travel nightmare from Minnesota through both New York City airports but that's OK. This is a homecoming of sorts for the newest Sabre, who grew up in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont. Tonight's game against the New Jersey Devils in First Niagara Center will take him back to his childhood days watching the Sabres in the Aud.
"Growing up here watching the Sabres in the Auditorium was just amazing," Konopka said today. "You always kind of dreamt of being a Buffalo Sabre. My mom was born in Buffalo. My aunt's here, grandparents were here. I'm looking forward to being part of the community and team and being part of the solution."
In case you missed John Vogl's post this morning, Konopka made it to LaGuardia Airport but the only flight left to Buffalo Friday night was delayed four hours and then canceled -- and he was told the next available flight here was Sunday. So another flight was found at JFK Airport and Konopka went through a comical search for his bags that stretched until 3 a.m., slept an hour at a nearby hotel, went back to the airport and slept on a plane stuck on the tarmac for two hours before landing here.
Konopka arrived during the Sabres' optional morning skate and came on the ice for a few minutes near the end to simply loosen up. Coach Ted Nolan said Konopka will center John Scott and Matt Ellis tonight. Konopka was waived by Minnesota on Thursday while the Sabres were in town because Wild goalie Josh Harding, who is battling multiple sclerosis, was ill and the team needed to call up backup Darcy Kuemper. Konopka instantly thought a claim by the last-place Sabres could happen.
"That was the first thing that went through my mind," he said. "Obviously I was a little surprised. 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. Just really excited and super motivated to be here."
Konopka said his favorite Sabre to watch was Gilbert Perreault. And he rattled off names of others from his Aud days like Lindy Ruff, Mike Foligno, Dave Andreychuk and Donald Audette.
"It was pretty cool," he said. "Just the atmosphere there was amazing."
Konopka said he prides himself on being tough to play against, and not because of his long fighting record either. He said he hopes to help the Sabres on the penalty kill as well as in faceoffs -- where he leads all active players with at least 2,000 draws at 59.6 percent.
The biggest question: What's the status of his pet rabbit, Hoppy, who is a frequent subject on social media?
Konopka turned 33 on Thursday and Instagrammed (is that really a verb?) a picture of Hoppy with -- what else? -- a carrot cake.
"I should have listened to Hoppy. Hoppy is not a huge flier," Konopka said. "He wanted to drive. So my buddy was down in MInnesota. He's gonna chauffer Hoppy up to Buffalo in the next couple of days and he's pretty excited as well."
In other lineup news, the skate was optional so we'll have to see the lines tonight in warmup. Brayden McNabb will play and Alex Sulzer will scratch. Ryan Miller will meet Cory Schneider in goal. Ville Leino skated hard, and said he hopes to play Tuesday when Carolina comes to town.
Click below to hear today's media sessions with Konopka and Nolan, with the coach talking about topics such as his team's continued offensive struggles and the growth of Tyler Myers, who is serving as an alternate captain in the absence of the injured Henrik Tallinder.
taggedSabres game day | Zenon Konopka