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.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FuBltcjYewg%5D

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.

***

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.

Stanley Cup champion Avalanche steadily returning to health

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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Had his coach been watching, this might have made for an anxious moment: Colorado Avalanche defenseman Cale Makar catching an edge and falling in the fastest skater contest.

Jared Bednar wasn’t tuned in, though, and had no idea what happened in the skills contest over All-Star weekend. Only that Makar emerged from his crash into the boards just fine.

These days, things are definitely looking up for the Stanley Cup champions on the injury front. Defenseman Bowen Byram returns to the lineup, along with forward Valeri Nichushkin. Defenseman Josh Manson is creeping closer to a return. Same for captain Gabriel Landeskog, who’s yet to play this season. Forward Darren Helm is progressing, too.

In spite of all their bumps and bruises, the Avalanche entered the All-Star break in a playoff spot. To weather the injury storm, Colorado has relied on 39 different skaters this season, a mark that’s tied for the most in a single season since the team relocated to Denver in 1995.

“Anybody we can get back right now is huge,” said Makar, whose team kicks off a three-game trip Tuesday night in Pittsburgh.

Byram returns after being sidelined with a lower-body injury since early November. He was an integral part of their Stanley Cup run a season ago, when he led all rookies with nine assists in the postseason. Byram was off to a fast start this season – two goals and three assists in 10 games – before his injury.

“He’s looking great. He’s buzzing out there,” Makar said of his fellow blue liner. “Hopefully it doesn’t take him too long to get back into game mode. But I think he’s a guy that can turn it on pretty quickly.”

Byram missed a chunk of games last season as he dealt with concussion symptoms. This time, he was able to be around the team as he worked his way back.

“I was just happy it wasn’t my head,” Byram said. “It was a lot easier to be out when you’re still feeling good and feel like yourself. … I’m just excited to get going again.”

Count on Byram for as many minutes as necessary, too.

“I’m 100%, so no reason to ease into it,” Byram said. “I’m confident with jumping back in.”

Manson will join the Avalanche on the trip so he can skate with the squad. He’s been out with a lower-body injury since the start of December.

“I do think it helps to get on the road, be around the guys,” Bednar said.

Landeskog could be back “fairly soon,” Bednar said, but didn’t have a definitive timeline quite yet. The longtime Avalanche captain has been sidelined since knee surgery in October.

The Avalanche entered the All-Star break on quite a roll, winning seven of their last eight. They’ve amassed 57 points, which trails Dallas (66 points at the All-Star break), Winnipeg (65) and Minnesota (58) in the Central Division.

One thing the Avalanche are guarding against is another slow start out off the break. It happened over Christmas when the team had a few days off and promptly went 0-4-1 upon their return.

“It’s just shifting the mentality back to game mode. No more vacation,” Makar said. “We still have a long way to go. We’re not where we want to be right now. But there’s a lot of time left.”

Kraken add some size, acquire Jaycob Megna from San Jose

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SEATTLE — The Seattle Kraken acquired defenseman Jaycob Megna from the San Jose Sharks in exchange for a 2023 fourth-round draft pick.

Megna is in the midst of his best season with 12 points in 48 games for the Sharks while averaging more than 19 minutes per game.

“Jaycob has shown with his play this season that he is a responsible defenseman that can be relied on in all situations,” Seattle general manager Ron Francis said. “He provides welcome depth to our defensive group and we are happy to have him join our organization.”

The 6-foot-6, 220-pound Megna will add some size and bulk to Seattle’s lineup. Megna ranked fifth for San Jose in both blocked shots and hits.

Megna previously played for Anaheim for parts of three seasons between 2016-19. The 48 games played this season is a career-high for the 30-year-old.

Seattle is tied for the lead in the Pacific Division and will return from the All-Star break beginning against the New York Islanders.

Islanders sign Bo Horvat to 8-year deal after trading for him

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The New York Islanders signed center Bo Horvat to an eight-year contract less than a week after acquiring him in a trade with the Vancouver Canucks.

The team announced the contract after their first practice following the All-Star break. Horvat’s deal is worth $68 million and carries a $8.5 million salary cap hit through the 2030-31 season.

General manager Lou Lamoriello joked to reporters at practice on Long Island that Horvat’s contract was “too long and it’s too much money.”

The Islanders sent forward Anthony Beauvillier, prospect Aatu Raty and a protected first-round pick to the Canucks for Horvat . He was set to be an unrestricted free agent after the season, and the trade was a result of Vancouver and Horvat’s camp being unable to reach a deal last summer.

Lamoriello and Horvat expressed confidence about getting a deal done after the trade. The 27-year-old has scored more than 30 goals for a second consecutive season.

Horvat was chosen as an All-Star and played for the Pacific Division despite the trade. He played with longtime Canucks teammate Elias Pettersson and combined on one last goal together before parting ways.

“I want to get going,” Horvat said after the All-Star 3-on-3 tournament. “That’s enough. Let’s start playing some games and getting to know the guys. I just want to start playing hockey again.”

Horvat was on vacation with his family in Orlando when he was traded. He said coach Lane Lambert wanted him to enjoy All-Star festivities before getting rolling with the Islanders, who play at the Philadelphia Flyers.

“Obviously getting my legs under me is going to be No. 1 and getting systems down and obviously chemistry with the new linemates and stuff like that,” Horvat said.

After facing the Flyers and Seattle, Horvat will play against his former team when Vancouver visits UBS Arena.

Bruins rolling, rest of NHL making final push for playoffs

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SUNRISE, Fla. — Bruce Cassidy’s Vegas Golden Knights lost eight of 10 games going into the All-Star break after leading the Pacific Division at the midway point of the NHL season.

They’re still safely in a playoff spot in the Western Conference, but they can’t keep it up.

“We’re still in a good position – that’s the way we look at it,” Cassidy said. “There’s not too many teams that can cruise home the last 30 games in this league, and we’re certainly not one of them.”

Cassidy’s old team, the Boston Bruins, probably could. They’re atop the NHL and running away with the Atlantic Division.

With 39 wins and 83 points through 51 games, Boston is on pace to break the record for the best regular season in NHL history. The Carolina Hurricanes, who beat Boston in seven games in the first round last year, are next in the standings at 76 points.

“Top to bottom, there’s no weaknesses,” Carolina coach Rod Brind’Amour said.

The Bruins are in a class of their own, but the playoff races behind them in the East and West should be hot down the stretch with roughly 30 games to go before the chase for the Stanley Cup begins.

METROPOLITAN DIVISION

The Hurricanes rode a seven-game winning streak into the break, putting some fear into the Bruins in the race for the Presidents’ Trophy and home-ice advantage through the postseason. Winger Max Pacioretty re-tearing his right Achilles tendon five games into his return didn’t slow them down, and if their goaltending holds up, Carolina stands a good chance of reaching the East final.

“This team, it’s a special group of guys,” said Brind’Amour, who captained Carolina to the Cup in 2006 and is in his fifth year as coach. “We kind of show that nightly. It’s just very consistent, and they take their job real serious. They do it right.”

The second-place New Jersey Devils are contending for the first time since 2018. Bottoming out the next season helped them win the lottery for No. 1 pick Jack Hughes, a two-time All-Star who has them winning ahead of schedule.

“Much better than being out of the mix,” Hughes said. “We’re really excited because it’s going to be a lot of important hockey, and it’s going to be really competitive and we’re really pumped to be where we are.”

They’re followed by the New York Rangers, Washington Capitals, Pittsburgh Penguins and New York Islanders. All three New York-area teams could make it, which was the expectation for the Rangers after reaching the East final last year.

“I think the run last year really taught us a few things and stuff that we obviously could build on for the rest of this year,” 2021 Norris-Trophy winning defenseman Adam Fox said.

ATLANTIC

The Rangers lost to the Lightning in six games last spring, when two-time champion Tampa Bay reached the Stanley Cup Final for the third consecutive season before getting beat by the Colorado Avalanche.

The Lightning are almost certain to face the Toronto Maple Leafs – who haven’t won a playoff series since the NHL salary cap era began in 2005 – in the first round and remain a threat to the Bruins.

But Boston has separated itself despite starting the season without top left winger Brad Marchand and No. 1 defenseman Charlie McAvoy. The Bruins have lost only 12 games under new coach Jim Montgomery.

“You just keep winning,” said All-Star right winger David Pastrnak, who’s tied for third in the league in scoring. “Every single line and every single guy is going and it obviously builds our confidence. It’s funny sometimes what confidence can do in hockey.”

The Islanders should have some more confidence after acquiring 30-goal scorer Bo Horvat from Vancouver, but still need to make up ground to get in.

CENTRAL

Defending champion Colorado climbed in the standings – winning seven of eight going into the break despite an injury-riddled first half of the season. Captain Gabriel Landeskog still has not made his season debut since undergoing knee surgery. It would be foolish to bet against the Avs coming out of the West again.

“It’s up to us: We control our own fate,” All-Star center Nathan MacKinnon said. “We need to definitely keep playing the way we were before the break. No matter who’s in the lineup we were playing well, playing hard, so it would definitely help with healthy bodies.”

They still trail the Dallas Stars, Winnipeg Jets and Minnesota Wild in the Central, and the Nashville Predators are on their heels. Only the Stars and Jets are essentially guaranteed a spot.

“Every point, you grind for it,” Stars leading scorer Jason Robertson said. “Every point’s going to be a dog fight, so it’s going to be a fun 30 games down the stretch.”

PACIFIC

Undisputed MVP favorite Connor McDavid and the Edmonton Oilers, who were swept by Colorado in the West final, have a little bit of catching up to do in the Pacific Division.

The top spot is held by the Seattle Kraken, who surprisingly are on pace to make the playoffs in their second season but still need to fend off the Los Angeles Kings and the Vegas Golden Knights.

Edmonton – and the Battle of Alberta rival Calgary Flames – have the talent to not only get in but make a run. McDavid leads the league with 41 goals and 92 points, 16 more than No. 2 scorer and teammate Leon Draisaitl, and is producing unlike anyone since Hall of Famer Mario Lemieux in the mid-1990s.

Now he’ll try to carry the Oilers into the playoffs and beyond.

“It hasn’t been easy at all for our group. We’ve kind of had to battle for everything that we’ve got,” McDavid said. “We’ve always been a second-half team for whatever reason. Even since my first year, we’ve always been better in the second half, so we’ll definitely look to continue that. That being said, we’re not going to hang our hat on that and expect that to carry us to the playoffs. There’s a lot of work to be done.”