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

Wojtek Wolski, Instagram / Getty Images
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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.

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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.