Team Canada’s Wojtek Wolski has come a long a way since he found himself in a hospital bed recovering from a broken neck suffered in 2016. Photo by Martin Cloutier

Fire on ice: Wojtek Wolski's faith helps keep his Olympic dream alive

By  Tim Warnsby, A Catholic Register Special
  • February 8, 2018
Wojtek Wolski has gone from being a can’t-miss prospect from St. Michael’s College to a disillusioned young man who wanted to quit hockey, to a hospital patient facing a long comeback after shattering injury, and now to a person who has a shot at Olympic glory.


Every stage has been a physical and emotional trial for the 31-year-old left wing from Etobicoke, Ont., and he credits his hard-working parents, Zofia and Wes, as well as his Catholic faith for his perseverance.

“The only time you really fail at something is when you quit,” said Wolski, who joins Team Canada in its gold-medal quest starting Feb. 15 against Switzerland in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

“Some of the most successful people in the world and some inventors were people who were persistent and kept going. I believe my family and my faith is what has kept me going.”

Wolski likes to read about successful people and what makes them tick. He reads a little every evening. Then, he says his prayers before bed and enters dreamland.

Sixteen months ago, however, he went through a real-life nightmare. He broke his neck in two places and suffered a concussion when a harmless play turned into a scary incident in the 19th game of his season in Russia.

Four years before his frightening on-ice incident, Wolski’s hockey career had gone into the dumper due to inconsistent play and persistent groin problems.

He had played for five different NHL teams in three years after being traded four times — from the Colorado Avalanche to the Arizona Coyotes to the New York Rangers to the Florida Panthers — and signing with the Washington Capitals for his final stop in the NHL.

“I had scored 23 goals (in 2009-10) in a season split between Colorado and the Coyotes,” Wolski said. “I was excited. It was my best season. But the next year I started to suffer from groin problems and a bad back.

“I was engaged, but that fell apart, too. When I bounced around with all the trades, I wanted to quit. I was depressed. I started seeing a psychiatrist.

“My father talked me out of quitting. He said, ‘why would you give up something you love doing?’”

Wolski rediscovered his love for the game in Russia. He signed a two-year contract to play for Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod of the Kontinental Hockey League in 2013. He thought it would be his last contract in hockey.

But he found his game again. He played so well, one of the better teams in Russia, Metallurg Magnitogorsk, lured Wolski away and he won the 2015-16 Gagarin Cup championship.

“Somehow, I started playing well, liking the game again,” said Wolski.

He started a family while playing in Russia and now has two children, two-year-old Weston and 11-month-old Lennon, with his Canadian wife Jesse.

“I think it was because I had so much alone time in Russia that I started to work on myself as a person on my own and it just seemed to agree with me. I found happiness.”

His journey to that point in his life was rooted in a love for the game, but it did not have the usual Canadian backdrop.

Wolski was born in Zabrze, Poland, in 1986. When he was one, his parents fled the communist country with his brother Kordian, who is five years older. They landed in West Germany in a refugee camp and the Catholic Church helped the Wolskis find their way to Canada, where they had relatives.

Wolski used to follow his brother to an outdoor rink in their Toronto neighbourhood, but got fed up having to wear Kordian’s hand-me-down skates that were too big. So with his First Communion money, he went to a second-hand sporting goods store to buy a pair of used skates that he wore for two years.

“Those skates are still hanging on a wall in my parent’s house,” Wolski said.

He developed quickly and played junior B at St. Michael’s College in Toronto.

“We had a 15-minute Mass at lunchtime at St. Mike’s,” he said. “On game days, I would go with a teammate and say a prayer.

“I still go to Mass on holidays, but my Mom would like us to go more.”

In the fall of 2016, life was good for Wolski, on and off the ice. But, on Oct. 16, a “bizarre” turn of events threatened it all.

It happened during a game, with his team on the power play in the third period. Wolski slid to poke the puck back to his teammate Chris Lee, who is also part of Canada’s Olympic team.

“It was such a bizarre play because he was going sideways,” Lee said. “I was focused on the puck and didn’t think anything that bad would happen. But what happened is an opponent fell on him and they slid into the boards.

“I knew it was panic time. We were screaming for the doctors. It was a panicky situation. We didn’t know. You hope for the best.”

Wolski remembers everything about that incident. He remembers thinking he had been paralyzed, but then after “30 to 40 seconds” being able to move his arms and legs.

He remembers joking with the trainer in the ambulance ride to the hospital. He remembers not being strapped in properly and feeling every bump along the way, especially driving over train tracks.

He remembers having his equipment cut off, then his underwear and was lying naked on a gurney, feeling rather vulnerable.

He remembers a nurse coming over to him with what he thought was a form to sign for surgery. It turned out she wanted his autograph.

“(Magnitogorsk) is a small town,” Wolski said. “Here I was lying naked and everybody was walking by looking at me. I knew when she asked for my autograph I was going to be fine.”

But Wolski’s season was over. With the help of Toronto-based trainer Matt Nichol, Wolski worked himself back into shape and earned a spot on the Canadian Olympic roster.

“Wojtek is a great person,” Metallurg Magnitogorsk assistant coach Mike Pelino said. “He’s really deserving of representing Canada and he will make the Canadian fans proud with his efforts and with the passion he plays with.

“I am very happy for him to have earned this opportunity, and more so to have been able to come back after such a horrific incident. My immediate reaction was that I hoped it was nothing serious, just another play where the player would get up and get right back on the ice. But I must admit I had a real sick feeling in my stomach because you knew that it was something serious.

“From that very moment though, Wojtek had such a positive and upbeat attitude and I was confident that, God willing, he would return better than ever.”

Wolski still has more to experience in his hockey career.

Team Canada 2018 Olympics @hockeycanada @teamcanada #olympics #pyeongchang2018

A post shared by Wojtek Wolski (@wojtekwolski) on

He will no doubt garner plenty of attention for his story of perseverance at the Olympics, which for the first time in 20 years won’t have NHLers participating.

“There’s a lot of that with our team,” Wolski said.

“We’re a bunch of guys who never gave up. We’ve all found a way to keep our careers going because we haven’t given up on ourselves.”

(Wharnsby is a writer in Toronto, contributing twice weekly to cbc.ca/sports.)

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