The PHL started to take a lot of strides in terms of skill growth. Import rules started to become laxer. Polish clubs began to regain a lot of credibility lost during a poor run in the 2000s. While this brought in players with more experience in top European leagues, it also saw the rise of players from the North American minor league system. This resulted in more players who reached the NHL for a handful of games signing in Poland.
The first player did not take that path at all. Mike Danton was a standout in the OHL for his fast and aggressive play. This led to him being drafted in the fifth round of the 2000 NHL draft by the New Jersey Devils. His first NHL taste would come after his final junior season when he jumped up to the NHL for a couple of games after a 34 point 195 penalty minute AHL rookie season. Despite that on-ice success, Danton reportedly faced many demons relating to alcohol abuse and behavior issues. He would sit out the entire 2002 season and only played 17 games in 2003 due to injuries and team suspensions, including refusing to go down to the minors. He would also change his last name to Danton from Jefferson during the 2002 year due to an undisclosed issue with his family that left them estranged.
He would find himself traded to the St Louis Blues during the 2003 NHL draft, with a third-round pick (Konstantin Zakharov), in exchange for a third-round pick (Ivan Khomutov) 8 slots higher in the draft. His career seemingly got back on track with the Blues. Two days after the Blue’s season had come to an end though, Mike Danton was arrested. Danton was arrested and charged with conspiracy to commit murder. The Blues’ player was in contact with whom he thought was a hitman but was a police dispatcher. The target reportedly was his agent David Frost, though it has been disrupted that target was Danton’s father. The full story of his arrest is very long and something I’m not fully qualified to cover. He pleaded guilty and received a seven and a half year sentence.
The former professional hockey player would transfer to a Canadian prison toward the end of his sentence and begin to take college classes. At the end of his prison release, he would apply to get into Saint Mary’s University. Once getting accepted, he joined their varsity hockey team. Later being named an Academic All-Canadian. Danton would resume his professional hockey career in Europe after two years with Saint Mary. This included stops in Czechia, Kazakhstan, Romania, Slovakia, and Sweden before signing in Poland to end the 2014 season.
Danton had signed with STS Sanok, one of the top Polish clubs. In that 2014 season with Sanok, he posted five goals and eighteen assists in twenty-five games, helping them to a PHL championship. The Ontario native would return to Poland for two more seasons. He would even attempt to gain Polish citizenship to represent the Polish national team. He would represent Poland at two Euro Ice Hockey Challenges. Danton became well known among Polish fans for his physical and aggressive style of play. He recorded 133 PHL games, 38 goals, 93 assists, and 266 penalty minutes. He also led the PHL in penalty minutes with 166 during the 2015 season. His 133 PHL games are the most by any former NHL player in Poland.
After the 2016 season, Danton would leave Poland. He signed in Canada in the semi-pro Ligue Nord-Américaine de Hockey. After one season back in Canada, he would retire. Danton currently coaches junior hockey and is working on a master’s degree.
Roman Tvrdon would also join Poland halfway through the 2014 season. Tvrdon was a rare case being drafted out of the Slovak U20 league, with zero professional games under his belt. After representing Slovakia at the 1999 U18s, the 6’2 winger was drafted in the fifth round of the 1999 NHL draft by the Washington Capitals. He would jump to the Western Hockey League for the next few years before signing his three-year entry league deal with the Capitals. The Trencin native would spend most of the next three years with the Portland Pirates in the AHL. Although he did play nine games with the Capitals during the 2004 season, posting one assist. He would return to Europe the following year, playing mostly in Belarus and Slovakia. He joined Unia Oswiecim halfway through the 2014 season and posted a point per game regular season and ten points in fourteen playoff games. Tvrdon would leave Poland after one season and would play a few more years in lower European leagues. He retired in 2017.
The defensive-minded Anton Klementyev was the next player to arrive in Poland. The stay-at-home defenseman was never the most significant prospect, but after a few strong years in the Russian third league, he was drafted in the fifth round of the 2009 NHL draft. After being drafted, he signed his entry league deal and made the jump to North American professional hockey. He would represent Russia at the World Juniors, winning bronze, and play his only NHL game during the 2010 season. Halfway through the 2012 season, the Islanders placed him on waivers for the purpose of a buyout. He would return to Russia and play in the Russian lower leagues. In 2015 he moved to Poland to play for Naprzod Janow. He was one of Janow’s top players and posted his professional career-high of 20 points. He left Janow late in the year to join Sanok for their playoff push. In Sanok, he recorded four more assists in fourteen games. After one year, he left Poland to play six games back in the VHL before spending his final two years in Belarus. He retired in 2017 at 27-years-old.
Zenon Konopka has a journey that not many on the list can match. Konopka was born to a Polish father and an American mother in Ontario, Canada. During his junior career, he played the enforcer role but showed some decent offensive skills. He would go undrafted after four years with the Ottawa 67s. In 2002, Konopka went to the minors and lit up the ECHL posting 70 points and 231 penalty minutes in his rookie year. He would make the jump to the AHL for the following two years. His minors’ success led to him signing an entry deal with the Anaheim Ducks. He would make his NHL debut in 2005. He would bounce around NHL teams serving as their enforcer. In 2014, after the Wild placed him on waivers, he was claimed by the Buffalo Sabres and spent the rest of the year in blue and yellow. In the offseason, now a free agent, the NHL suspended Konopka for 20 games after testing positive for performance-enhancing drug dehydroepiandrosterone. He played 354 NHL games, recording 12 goals, 20 assists, and 1,084 penalty minutes.
With his 20-game suspension, the decline of enforcers, and Konopka almost out of his mid-thirties, there were not many offers waiting for him. Towards the end of the 2015 season, Konokpa would join the Polska hockej Liga playing in his father’s old home country. The signing was one of the first few times Polish hockey got coverage from mainstream North American outlets. Konopka would play eleven games in Sanok, posting two goals and one assist, along with 39 penalty minutes. He took the chance in Poland to see if he could still play, not wanting his suspension to be the final note of his hockey career. While he never made it back to a higher league and retired following the short stint in Poland. Playing playoff games in the country of your heritage is a nice way to end your hockey career.
Poland saw a couple of former NHL tough guys try their hands in the PHL, both making quite the impact in attention for the league. Danton is no doubt one of the most impactful imports to play in Poland this century. He was the most long term player of any former NHL player in Poland. Klementyev and Tvrdon were among the best players on their team for their lone season. That is a different change from the past imports, which would leave shortly after arriving, or where way too past their prime to make a sizable impact. The next part will see a continued trend of former NHL players providing teams a proper top-line veteran.