Type the name Zenon Konopka into Google’s search box, and you’ll be confronted with a photo of two hockey players tussling -- one with right arm cocked back, hand clenched into a fist, eyes darting down over a nose that has been pummeled into unnatural zigs and zags on 13 separate occasions over the years.
And that's the image that most hockey fans associate with the New York Islanders center, known for his hustle as well as a penchant for fisticuffs. Konopka led the league in penalty minutes last year. And halfway through this season, he’s leading the league again.
But over the last decade, Konopka’s violent on-ice role as an enforcer has been juxtaposed with his quiet, off-ice business pursuits as an entrepreneur. Konopka knows what you’re thinking: there are plenty of professional athletes involved in some business or another and, more often than not, they're just names on the front of a restaurant or a signature on a check.
“Most businesspeople just look at professional athletes as dollar signs,” Konopka says.
But in talking to Konopka’s business partners, you think -- maybe, just maybe -- this athlete has more to offer.
“He hounds me all the time to get things done,” says Sean O’Cuinneagain, a partner with Konopka in a Tampa Bay-based company called Prime Wine Products, maker of the Vin-Aire wine aerator that launched in the fall. “He calls before his pregame naps to talk business and he texts me at two in the morning with ideas. If he didn’t put money in, I would have paid him to be a part of this.”
“Back home in Ottawa, people have always known that Z had an entrepreneurial mind,” says Pat Smith, another business partner. “But here, people are just starting to see it.”
Because Konopka started playing hockey full-time as a teenager, he can’t trace the roots of his business acumen to any higher education degree. Instead, it was his family’s fruit farm in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario (population 15,000), where he first learned basic business skills. Each Sunday, Konopka accompanied his parents to the town market to sell the family’s produce. And, when he was old enough, he traveled to the market himself, turning apples into cash.
After his father died, Konopka, his sister, and his mother bought ownership in a local pub. Later, he invested in another. Those two ventures didn’t end well, but provided some valuable lessons along the way.
“Business is a lot more vicious than hockey,” Konopka says. “There are employees who try to steal from you and distributors and suppliers killing each other to get your business. That was my business degree.”
Next, Konopka turned his business eye toward grape seed oil, an ointment that has therapeutic qualities and could be sourced from wineries in his hometown. But when Konopka approached a local businessman launching a business around the product to say he wanted to get involved, he was turned away.
“Who wants to listen to a kid in his early 20s about how to build a business?” Konopka asks rhetorically. “He didn’t want me involved so I went out and built my own business from the ground up.”
Over the last six years, Konopka has grown that business, Pure Press Oil, slowly, steadily, and profitably, jumping on conference calls between practices and games, and spending most of the off-seasons strategizing and meeting with potential partners and customers. Some know who they are dealing with; others do not.
"I'll show up in conference room with a suit and tie and talk for hours about the details of a business," he says. "And then it's brought up that I'm a hockey player and that I've led the NHL in penalty minutes. It throws people for a loop, but you see that they respect the versatility."
Konopka can be a charismatic salesman, but he is not an organized day-to-day operator. So he hired Smith, a friend from junior hockey who has an MBA, to run his daily operations and streamline and scale Pure Press Oil's production process. With the back-end of the businesses in place, this year will be an important one to judge whether Prime Wine Products and Pure Press Oil can be more than just bit players in crowded markets. Both are expected to invest heavily in expanded distribution and new product lines.
Konopka, for his part, says he's determined to continue scrapping until greater business accomplishments are achieved.
“My long-term goal is simple,” he says. “I want to build a business big enough and profitable enough that I have the luxury to have my friends and family involved in the business, working in the business, and able to grow with the business. At the end of the day, it’s about so much more than business and sports. Nothing is more important than family and great friends.”