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A year after breaking neck, ‘lucky’ Wojtek Wolski overwhelmed by Olympic chance

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The 10-hour wait was worth it for Wojtek Wolski.

Last month, as Sean Burke, the general manager for Canada’s men’s Olympic hockey team, finalized the roster for the 2018 Games, those in the player pool received a text message alerting them that they would be contacted later that day about whether they made the team. Inside his apartment in Magnitogorsk, Russia, Wojtek Wolski waited, hopeful, but unsure of his chances.

The day was Jan. 11, 2018, 15 months after a play that nearly ended Wolski’s hockey career and changed his life forever. So when Burke called hours later with good news, all the 31-year-old could do through his tears was look at a photo of himself from a year ago and reflect on the long journey that allowed him to earn this achievement.

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It wasn’t any sort of extraordinary play that Wolski made on Oct. 13, 2016. With his Metallurg Magnitogorsk KHL side on a power play with the score tied 1-1 against Barys Astana, the puck rebounded out towards the boards. He and Vladimir Markelov both chased after it, with Wolski swinging his stick to try and knock the puck back to the blue line where teammate Chris Lee was waiting.

As Wolski dove for the puck, Markelov collided with him and ended up driving the Magnitogorsk forward head first into the side boards. A hush quickly fell over the Arena Metallurg crowd as Wolski lay face first on the ice.

The diagnosis was a “fracture of the seventh and fourth cervical vertebrae injury of the cervical spinal cord, brain concussion, bruises and abrasions on the face.”

The immediate thought in Wolski’s head as he lay face down on the ice was that he was paralyzed. But then a short time later he experienced feeling in his hands and feet. When he arrived at the hospital, doctors told him he’d broken his neck in two place and the emotional rollercoaster continued.

What’s my life going to look like? Am I going to be OK?

The following week, his doctors in Russia told him his neck would heal naturally over the next four or five months. But then two months, after returning home to Canada, he was told the injury wasn’t healing at all and his medical team was puzzled.

Wolski didn’t know what to believe, but he tried to remain positive. He began meditating and watching various inspirational videos and sought out the work of author Tony Robbins.

On Jan. 10, 2017, Wolski underwent surgery in Toronto, which doctors told him would be his best bet if he wanted to have a chance to play again. The rollercoaster was now moving upwards yet again. It began to surge even higher once the NHL announced it wouldn’t be sending players to the 2018 Olympics.

“Once I thought that I could play again, that started being a motivating factor with my recovery and just saying I’m going to do everything I can to put myself in a position to make that team,” Wolski told Pro Hockey Talk earlier this week. “Every time it did get hard it was easy to look towards that moment and be like This is tough, but I’m going to be OK. A lot of people have suffered worse outcomes from similar injuries and I was lucky. That was the thing that I kept thinking of, that I was lucky. Any time that someone would say [the injury was] horrific, it was so terrible it happened, I would be like I got really lucky because there was other people that had the same thing happen and they didn’t walk away and they didn’t have a chance to play again. That’s how I felt.”

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Wolski’s NHL career started out strong as he scored 77 goals over his first four full seasons with the Colorado Avalanche and Phoenix Coyotes. Injuries would hamper his game and he would go from Phoenix to the New York Rangers to the Florida Panthers and finally to the Washington Capitals where his career in North America would come to a close.

He needed a change of scenery, and the KHL offered a drastic change. Wolski signed with Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod in 2013 and found his game again.

“I think I was just having a tough time in the NHL at that point. Injuries and not feeling like I was reaching my full potential on the ice,” he said. “I struggled with depression for over two years and the game just wasn’t fun anymore. It just seemed like there were so many things that I was struggling with at the time that going over to the KHL and being overseas just gave me time to find my game again but also find myself again and become a man and become the person that I am today.

“During all that time and over those years I became a father and a husband and it’s been a big eye-opener for myself as a hockey player, as a person. I’m grateful for the opportunity to play in the NHL, but I think I’m a much happier individual overall over the last couple of years playing overseas.”

Wolski found his scoring touch again in Russia, potting 60 goals in his first three seasons while captaining Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod during the 2014-15 season and then moving to Magnitogorsk where he would help them win the Gagarin Cup in 2016.

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During his recovery from the broken neck, Wolski began taking university courses, studying Entrepreneurship and Intro to Accounting to prepare himself for the next chapter of his life in case his hockey playing days were over. As he went back to school, he rehabbed with Toronto-based trainer Matt Nichol, who works with numerous players every year.

The rehab process was difficult at the start and there were days when Wolski pushed himself too hard. There was also frustration. Exercises that just a few months earlier he was able to accomplish easily and with more weight had to be scaled back.

“The more you go through it, the more you overcome obstacles, you realize the biggest thing is not giving up and there’s going to be tough days, but you’ve got to just bide your time and just keep looking forward,” he said.

The months of work paid off when Wolski returned to playing on Sept. 1, 2017 as a member of Kunlun Red Star. He scored what ended up standing as the game-winning goal in a 2-1 victory

Wolski has played 42 games with Kunlun and Magnitogorsk this season and still deals with a stiff neck from time to time. During his first few months back he wondered how his body would react from contact again. Over time, soreness from hits subsided and his confidence was back to normal.

“It took a long time to get to a place where it was easier for me to comeback game after game,” he said.

His play put him on Burke’s radar for the Canadian Olympic team and the motivation to be picked was coupled with a focus on staying healthy in order to be part of the final roster.

All that time the photo played huge role in keeping Wolski’s focus. So when his phone rang on Jan. 11, 2018 and he was informed he would be representing his country at the Olympics, he found himself speechless and overwhelmed with emotion, while remembering everyone who helped him on his road back to hockey.

“It came in waves and I just thought about everything that happened in the last year and what I’d overcome,” he said. “It just seems like the culmination of all the hard work and all the obstacles I’ve overcome in my career.”

For players like Wolski, being part of an Olympic team was never a thought. Even after the decision was made, he still believed there would be a last-minute agreement worked out that would see NHL players participate. That never happened, and now this opportunity has presented itself, which has proved to be the ultimate reward.

“Anyone that says that this is a dream come true, I think they’re probably lying,” he said. “I think a lot of us really thought that we’d never get the chance to do this. This is something that we believed for probably the last 10 years of our careers that it just wasn’t possible, it was just never going to happen.

“To be given this opportunity, it really is overwhelming.”

MORE: Full Olympic hockey schedule

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Trade: Capitals acquire defenseman Michal Kempny from Blackhawks

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Be sure to visit NBCOlympics.com and NBC Olympic Talk for full hockey coverage from PyeongChang.

The trade deadline is one week from today so buckle up for a busy week of transactions. It started on Monday with a deal involving the Chicago Blackhawks and Washington Capitals.

The Deal: The Blackhawks send defenseman Michal Kempny to the Washington Capitals in exchange for a conditional third-round draft pick.

The condition on the pick is that the Blackhawks will acquire the higher of Washington’s two third-round picks. The Capitals own their own pick, as well as the third-round pick that originally belonged to the Toronto Maple Leafs. The Capitals acquired that pick (via New Jersey) in the Marcus Johannson trade over the summer.

Why the Capitals are making this trade: They get a cheap, left-handed shot to add some depth to their blue line. Kempny isn’t going to steal trade deadline headlines the way the Kevin Shattenkirk deal did for the Capitals a year ago, but he definitely adds some depth to the blue line.

Along with the usual suspects on Washington’s blue line (John Carlson, Matt Niskanen, Dmitry Orlov, Brooks Orpik) the Capitals have also been using some younger players like Christian Djoos and Madison Bowey, as well as veteran Taylor Chorney to fill out their D pairings.

In 31 games this season Kempny has one goal and six assists while logging more than 15 minutes of ice-time per game.

Why the Blackhawks are making this trade: It is pretty simple, really. The Blackhawks are pretty much out of the playoff race at this point and this could be the start of them selling off some pieces over the next week. Kempny is an unrestricted free agent after this season and given the Blackhawks’ salary cap situation he may not be someone that figures into their long-term plans.

They are also short on draft picks this summer and do not currently own a second-or fourth-round pick.

They were able to get back a pick in this trade giving them two picks in the third-round (to go with two in the fifth-round and one each in the first, sixth, and seventh).

The other bonus for the Blackhawks: The draft pick carries no salary cap hit next season. Kind of a big deal for them.

Who won the trade: At the moment probably an edge to the Capitals because, well, they’re getting an NHL player to help for a playoff push and the Blackhawks are getting to what amounts to a scratch off lottery ticket. That third-round pick is almost certain to be in the bottom half of the third-round which means it probably only has a 10-20 percent chance of turning into a player that ever plays a single game in the NHL, let alone becomes any sort of an impact player.

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Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Slumping Blue Jackets lose Nick Foligno for 1-2 weeks

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Be sure to visit NBCOlympics.com and NBC Olympic Talk for full hockey coverage from PyeongChang.

Times are tough for the Columbus Blue Jackets right now.

After losing to the Pittsburgh Penguins on Sunday evening the Blue Jackets are now just 4-9-2 in their past 15 games and have fallen out of a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, sitting one point back of the New York Islanders entering play on Monday.

Now the team has announced that captain Nick Foligno will be sidelined for the next one-two weeks due to a lower body injury that he suffered in Sunday’s 5-2 loss to the Penguins.

Foligno, 30, is having a down year with just 13 goals and 13 assists in 59 games but he is still one of the Blue Jackets’ top forwards, and for a team that is struggling to score goals they really can not afford to lose anybody. Especially given the schedule they have coming up.

Over the next two weeks the Blue Jackets have games against the New Jersey Devils, Philadelphia Flyers, Chicago Blackhawks, Washington Capitals, Los Angeles Kings, Anaheim Ducks and San Jose Sharks.

That is a tough stretch that could end up making or breaking their season.

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Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Fantasy Adds & Drops: Time to lose Lucic

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This weekly column will aim to help you navigate through the rough waters of your fantasy league’s waiver wire. We’ll recommend players you should think of adding that are owned in 50 percent of Yahoo leagues and we’ll also make recommendations on players you should think of dropping. 

Here we go:

Adds:

Clayton Keller– C/LW/RW- Arizona Coyotes (44 percent)

After a terrific start to his rookie season, Keller’s play dropped off. He wasn’t putting up as many points and he wasn’t making as many headlines as he was in October and November. But it looks like now might be the right time to pick up in your fantasy leagues. He has eight points in his last six games, including a four-point night against Montreal last week.

Anthony Mantha– LW/RW- Detroit Red Wings (39 percent)

Mantha was owned in a lot more leagues earlier this season, but his production dropped off quite a bit. He appears to be back on now, as he’s picked up six points in his last six games. He’s versatile enough because he’s eligible to play both wing positions in Yahoo leagues. The Red Wings forward should be added in deeper leagues.

Nico Hischier– C- New Jersey Devils (30 percent)

Hischier and Taylor Hall have formed a remarkable duo over the last little while. After hitting a bit of a wall near the midway point of the season, the first overall pick from last June’s draft has managed to pick up the offensive part of his game. He’s now found the back of the net in four straight games and he’s riding a five-game point streak.

Be sure to visit NBCOlympics.com and NBC Olympic Talk for full hockey coverage from PyeongChang.

Derick Brassard– C- Ottawa Senators (25 percent)

It sure seems like trade winds have given Brassard an added boost of motivation. The Sens forward has racked up six points in his last four games and he’s coming off a three-point performance against the Rangers on Saturday afternoon.

Ondrej Kase– LW/RW- Anaheim Ducks (11 percent)

Kase isn’t a big name, but he’s been lighting it up for Anaheim lately. The 22-year-old has nine points in his last seven games. He’s on pace to hit the 25-goal mark in 2017-18. He could be an intriguing add in deeper fantasy leagues.

Drops:

Milan Lucic– LW- Edmonton Oilers (59 percent)

If your league doesn’t award points for penalty minutes, there’s absolutely no reason for Lucic to be on your roster. He hasn’t picked up a point in any of his last 11 games and he hasn’t scored in 22. And in his last 12 contests, he’s also managed to accumulate just four penalty minutes. Lucic needs to be dropped ASAP.

[More Fantasy: Check out the Rotoworld Hockey Podcast]

Ryan Kesler– C- Anaheim Ducks (47 percent)

The 2017-18 season hasn’t been kind to Kesler. He missed over two months of action because of a hip injury and he just hasn’t looked like himself since returning. The Ducks forward missed the last game because of a lower-body issue. It’s time to cut ties with him and add one of the other players mentioned above.

Robin Lehner– G- Buffalo Sabres (51 percent)

Not only are the Sabres struggling, but Lehner is now day-to-day with an injury. Don’t expect Buffalo to win many games down the stretch, so picking up someone like Petr Mrazek, who might get traded before the deadline, could be a worthwhile gamble.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Canada women beat Russia 5-0, will meet U.S. in hockey final

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Be sure to visit NBCOlympics.com and NBC Olympic Talk for full hockey coverage from PyeongChang.

GANGNEUNG, South Korea (AP) — It’s part of the routine now, as much a staple of the Winter Games as the medal ceremonies, the doping scandals or the sequins on the figure skating costumes.

The United States playing Canada for the Olympic women’s hockey gold medal.

Jennifer Wakefield scored twice and Shannon Szabados stopped 14 shots on Monday night to lead the Canadians to a 5-0 victory over Russia and earn the four-time defending Olympic champions a spot in another gold medal game.

It will be the fifth time in six Winter Games since women’s hockey was added to the program that the North American neighbors have met in the final. No one else has ever skated away with an Olympic gold medal.

Canada outshot Russia 47-14 but struggled to pull away, scoring just once in each of the first two periods before Wakefield bounced one in off goalie Valeria Tarakanova’s right arm just two minutes into the third and then Emily Clark made it 4-0 just 31 seconds later.

Russian coach Alexei Chistyakov swapped his goalies, but it was too late. The Russians still have a chance for their first Olympic women’s hockey medal ever when they play Finland in the bronze medal match on Wednesday.

Marie Philip-Poulin and Rebecca Johnston also scored for Canada, which has won 24 in a row at the Olympics since losing the gold medal game in Nagano in 1998.

The United States advanced to the gold medal game with a 5-0 victory over Finland earlier Monday.

The Americans won the Four Nations Cup, third only to the Olympics and world championships in importance, beating Canada in three of the first four games in a Pyeongchang tuneup tour. But Canada has won the last four, with a 2-1 victory in the pool play finale on Thursday.

None of it matters, really.

The gold medal match is the game these two have been looking forward to since Canada rallied from a two-goal deficit and beat the Americans in overtime in Sochi four years ago.

And it’s the only thing right now that can help the 10 American holdovers from that team ease the pain of their 2014 collapse.

More AP Olympic coverage: https://wintergames.ap.org