Wojtek Wolski, Instagram / Getty Images

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.

***

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.

Goaltending remains biggest question for much-improved Blues

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Sometimes it feels like the St. Louis Blues have faced questions in net for about as long as water’s been wet.

In signing Jake Allen to a four-year, $17.4 million contract a little more than two years ago, the Blues hoped that they might finally have a true No. 1 goalie after bouncing around from Jaroslav Halak to Ryan Miller to Brian Elliott. They even gave Martin Brodeur a brief shot during the twilight games of his career.

(No, you weren’t hallucinating. Brodeur really did play for the Blues.)

Instead, Allen’s been a liability, to the point that he briefly more-or-less lost the 2017-18 starting job to Carter Hutton.

Interestingly, both of the Blues goalies cross their fingers for a rebound next season. The transition from Hutton to Chad Johnson is disastrous on paper if you only judge the netminders by their 2017-18 numbers, yet the bigger picture argues that Johnson can be one of the more reliable backups. Despite a horrendous .891 save percentage from last season, Johnson still has a career average save percentage of .910.

You can’t ask for much better than that from your No. 2, but the Blues still missed the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs even after Hutton played like a great starter for chunks of the past season. Simply put, the Blues need more from Allen.

Let’s consider some of the factors that might impact Allen.

  • To some extent, the 27-year-old (who turns 28 on Aug. 7) is who he is. Allen already has 219 regular-season and 22 playoff games under his belt. His career .913 save percentage is pretty mediocre, thus there’s a fear that the Blues will need to overcome Allen on more than a few occasions.
  • That said, he did generate a .920 save percentage over 47 games in 2015-16, and strong work during the 2016-17 postseason argues that Allen has a higher ceiling than many might assume.
  • No doubt, Allen’s 2017-18 was abysmal, as he went 27-25-3 with a backup-caliber .906 save percentage.

It’s frequently wise to dig a little deeper to try to figure out why a goalie might struggle. In Allen’s case last season, it came down to special teams situations. While he boasted a virtually identical even-strength save percentage in 2017-18 (.919) compared to 2016-17 (.918), his shorthanded save percentage plummeted from a career-high .901 to a career-low .834.

There’s a real worry with some goalies who simply can’t cut it in PK situations, whether that comes down to questionable lateral movement, struggles to see around screens, or any number of explanations. Even after considering those long-term concerns, it’s comforting to realize that last season might just be an aberration.

  • The Blues aren’t that far behind powers like the Maple Leafs when it comes to improving during the off-season. One of the delights of their bold moves to try to contend is that they landed a near-Selke-level two-way player in Ryan O'Reilly.
  • Some good and bad news is that the Blues generally carried on the tradition of playing strong defense and hogging the puck last season. At even-strength, they allowed the fifth-fewest “high-danger” chances, according to Natural Stat Trick.

The bright side is that the structure could very well give Allen a chance to enjoy a rejuvenation. The less optimistic take is that Allen has struggled at times even with a sturdy team in front of him.

  • Such digging doesn’t immediately dismiss Allen’s shorthanded struggles. Apparently the Blues allowed the fifth-fewest high-danger chances on the penalty kill, also according to Natural Stat Trick. It’s up to Allen more than anyone else to turn around those bad PK numbers, or at least it appears that way on paper.

***

Blues GM Doug Armstrong made quite a few moves that lead you to believe that St. Louis is swinging for the fences heading into 2018-19. If a letdown costs him his job, at least he’d be going out with a bang by making some attractive tweaks.

As wise as Armstrong often appears, so far, the organization making Allen “the guy” in net has really backfired.

Ultimately, his job and the Blues’ fate probably lands on Allen’s shoulders. Improvement seems plausible, yet we’ll need to wait and see if he’ll improve enough to allow the Blues to take advantage of all the weapons they added this summer.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Immediate jump unlikely to be best for Kotkaniemi, Habs

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The Montreal Canadiens shouldn’t ask “can Jesperi Kotkaniemi jump straight from the 2018 NHL Draft to the main roster?” Instead, they’re better off wondering if he should.

Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin said that the 18-year-old will get a chance to impress in training camp after performing well at development camp, according to NHL.com’s Sean Farrell.

“He got better every day, so we’re going in with an open mind,” Bergevin said. “I don’t know, but just the fact that he’s signed and he’s coming to camp and he’s closer to the NHL. Where he’s going to be Oct. 1, I can’t tell you, but we see a lot of potential and growth in this young man.”

That’s fair, and the Canadiens would be justified in giving the third pick of the 2018 NHL Draft the nine-game audition before sending him to Finland or the AHL instead of burning the first year of Kotkaniemi’s entry-level contract.

Cautionary tale

But, big picture, this is probably one of those situations where both sides would be better off if Kotkaniemi dips his toes in the water rather than diving right in. If Montreal needs a quick example of a player whose rookie deal hasn’t been used in an optimal way, they might want to consider Jesse Puljujärvi, who went fourth overall in 2016.

Puljujärvi only played in 28 games in 2016-17, making a minimal impact while pushing himself that much closer to ending his rookie deal. Things didn’t get that much better last season, as he only generated 20 points in 65 games. A breakthrough is quite possible in 2018-19, but the downside would be that the Oilers would then need to give him a raise, and would only really enjoy one high-value season from his entry-level contracts.

That’s the sort of poor asset management Montreal should be concerned about, especially if they’re being realistic about their chances next season.

Tension in the air

Now, it’s plausible – maybe probable – that things could go a little better in 2018-19. For the most obvious example, the Habs could conceivably be viable if Carey Price returns to elite form (and good health).

In all honesty, the Lightning and Maple Leafs seem slated to be light years ahead of Montreal. The Panthers and especially the Bruins head into the season with higher hopes, too. The Habs run the risk of falling short of the postseason even if they improve considerably, so why not just push Kotkaniemi’s contract back a year instead of possibly wasting it?

The Finnish forward only turned 18 on July 6, so you’d expect him to be a bit less polished compared to an older prospect like, say, Brady Tkachuk. The worst-case scenario might be if Kotkaniemi plays well enough to hit double digits in games played, yet generally struggles and ends up stunting his growth while wasting a year of that ELC.

It might not be the healthiest environment for Kotkaniemi to debut, either.

Bergevin and head coach Claude Julien must be at least a touch concerned about job security, and the atmosphere has a chance to be pretty toxic. Critics blast Julien for how he handles young players at the best of times, but how ugly might the scene be if fans are calling for Bergevin and Julien to be replaced?

Montreal seems pretty locked-in to its forward group this season, too, and that’s possibly accurate even if they actually pull the trigger on a Max Pacioretty trade. The return could be pretty modest if Kotkaniemi’s is merely a minor upgrade over a replacement-level player.

***

The Habs already made a divisive choice in selecting Kotkaniemi after lucking into the third pick in 2018. Many believe that Montreal aimed at need first and foremost, with the expectation being that Kotkaniemi will develop into the first-line center, a piece that’s eluded Montreal for ages. The pressure’s eventually going to be pretty fierce for the prospect to deliver, so the Canadiens would be wise to wait until he’s truly ready.

And, again, the decision need not be based on altruism alone. Instead, by doing what’s most likely best for Kotkaniemi, the Canadiens stand a better chance to take advantage of his cheap contract when they’d ideally be better prepared to contend.

There are worse problems to have, yet Montreal really needs to start getting these decisions right if they want to turn things around.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

PHT Morning Skate: Jagr still holds NHL hope?; Islanders turning the page

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Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• Jaromir Jagr hasn’t given up on the NHL, but he’s in no rush to return either. (Sportsnet)

• The New York Islanders are looking to turn the page after the departure of captain John Tavares. (NHL.com)

Artemi Panarin has given the Columbus Blue Jackets a contract deadline. (The Athletic)

• Would Tyler Seguin want to play with the Montreal Canadiens? (Montreal Gazette)

• Ranking each NHL team based on their locked-in, young core. (ESPN)

• With the thrill of the 2018 NHL Draft already worn off, we might as well take a look ahead to the 2019 rendition and all that it has to offer. (Last Word on Hockey)

• From wives’ room fights to brotherly competition, St. Louis molded Brady Tkachuk. (The Sporting News)

• Do the Vancouver Canucks have an asset on defense that they can work into a trade that would benefit the club? (The Province)

• If you don’t want to read and would rather take two minutes to watch a video, here’s some possible reasons why a trade for Erik Karlsson hasn’t happened yet, here’s your chance. (Sportsnet)

• Where does the line of Filip Forsberg, Ryan Johansen, and Viktor Arvidsson — the JoFA line — fit in the pantheon of the league’s top lines? (Pred Lines)

• You want offseason grades for all 31 NHL teams? Here you go. (The Athletic)

• And here’s a list of the best player to ever wear each number in the NHL. (Puck Prose)

• The Class of Canada: Toronto Maple Leafs vs. Winnipeg Jets. (The Hockey Writers)

• Help is on the way for the Chicago Blackhawks aging defense. (Chicago Mag)

Mike Hoffman‘s fiancée files for disclosure of information in harassment allegations. (Ottawa Citizen)


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Vegas Golden Knights, U.S. Army agree to end trademark dispute

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The Vegas Golden Knights and the U.S. Army have called an end to their trademark battle regarding the usage of the ‘Golden Knights’ mark and name.

Owner Bill Foley announced on Thursday that the two sides have entered into a trademark coexistence agreement where the U.S. Army will continue using the ‘Golden Knights’ marks and names with its parachute exhibition team. The Golden Knights will continue to use ‘Vegas Golden Knights’ and ‘Golden Knights’ in regards to the hockey team.

“We are pleased that we have agreed to coexist regarding the use of the ‘Golden Knights’ mark and name,” said Foley in a statement. “Our discussions with the Army were collaborative and productive throughout this entire process. We are appreciative of their efforts and commitment to reaching an amicable resolution.”

The U.S. Army filed a notice of opposition in January against against Black Knight Sports and Entertainment over the use of the name ‘Golden Knights.’ Foley is a graduate of West Point and originally wanted to name the team the Black Knights (after the Army sports teams) but decided against it.

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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.