Wojtek Wolski's dark days in hockey now illuminated by Olympic light
31-year-old winger credits parents for strength to overcome broken neck and suicidal thoughts
By Tim Wharnsby, CBC Sports
Before he made his remarkable return from two fractured vertebrae in his neck 16 months ago, Wojtek Wolski found a way to dig himself out of a deep depression.
A few years ago, the Canadian Olympian's career was at crossroads. Being one of the game's hot prospects seemed so long ago as he bounced around the NHL from team to team, watching his playing time dwindle.
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He not only wanted to quit the game he was so passionate about, he had suicidal thoughts.
"I don't know what happened, but I fell into a depression," said Wolski, who along with his Canadian teammates take on Finland, 3-0-1, in the quarter-finals (Wednesday, 7:10 a.m. ET.) The Finns defeated South Korea 5-2 in the qualification round on Tuesday.
"I had to start seeing some doctors, a psychiatrist," Wolski continued. "Hockey was the last thing I wanted to do. I was struggling to find a place where I was happy with myself and life."
There were no easy solutions for Wolski. He was only a couple of years removed from his most productive NHL season, but chronic groin problems hindered his movement. His desire to play was no longer there.
So how did he find his way out of these dark days?
"Probably my parents," the 31-year-old left wing said. "Whenever I had thoughts of suicide – yeah, it was bad – my parents were there for me."
His parents, Zofia and Wes, have been his role models. They made a bold move to flee communist Poland in order to make a better life for Wojtek and his brother Kordian, who is five years older.
The younger Wolski swiftly developed a love for hockey, once spending his first communion money to buy his own pair of skates from a second-hand sporting goods store in West Toronto. Those skates still hang on the wall at the Wolski home.
His first hockey hero was Joe Sakic, a 2002 Canadian Olympic gold-medal winner, because the first NHL game Wolski saw as a kid at Maple Leaf Gardens was between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Colorado Avalanche.
After a brilliant junior career with the Brampton Battalion, Wolski was over the moon when the Avalanche selected him 21st overall in the 2004 draft and became a teammate of Sakic's.
Wolski was finding his way in the NHL. In his fourth season, he scored 17 goals and 47 points in 62 games before he was traded to the Arizona Coyotes. He kept up his strong pace with the Coyotes to finish with 23 goals and 65 points in 80 games.
He was excited about the next season, but after a slow start the groin problems began to affect his play and led to a back ailment.
Wolski was engaged at the time, but that relationship fell apart, too. The Coyotes traded him to the New York Rangers, then the Rangers dealt him to the Florida Panthers and he later signed with the Washington Capitals, making them his fifth team in 28 months.
"It was a wave of things," Wolski said. "My father talked me out of quitting. He said, 'Why would you give up something you love doing?'
"He's overcome so much. Whenever things have gone bad, he's taught me to be persistent and not give up."
After the lockout-shortened 2013 NHL season, in which Wolski was scratched for 20 of the 25 final regular-season games and didn't play a shift of the Capitals' playoff run, he was offered a two-year contract to play for Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod in Russia.
Wolski figured this would be his last contract. But all of a sudden he rediscovered his game. He played so well that one of the KHL's better teams, Metallurg Magnitogorsk, lured him away. All of sudden he was a 2015-16 Gagarin Cup champion.
"Somehow, I started playing well. I liked the game again," said Wolski, who also found happiness in the offseason back home. He married and he and his wife, Jesse, now have two young children.
"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."
The happiness was briefly halted in a game on Oct. 13, 2016. With his team on the power play, he slid to poke the puck back to his teammate and defenceman Chris Lee, who also plays on the Canadian Olympic team, and went into the boards head-first.
"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."
Canada didn't win but this Wolski goal was still 🔥🔥 pic.twitter.com/cc3GUIJZtc
Wolski has an amazing recall of the incident. First, he thought he had been paralyzed, but 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, in which he wasn't strapped properly into the stretcher and felt every bump and hump along the way, especially driving over train tracks.
He remembers having his equipment cut off, then his underwear, until he was lying naked on a gurney, feeling vulnerable.
He remembers a nurse coming over to him with what he thought was a consent 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."
Wolski, however, was out for the rest of the year. But this time there was no thought of quitting. With the help of Toronto-based trainer Matt Nichol, Wolski worked himself back into shape last summer to earn a spot on the Canadian Olympic roster.
How’s your morning? Great one for @WojtekWolski86 !!! 13 months ago he had surgery for fractured vertebrae wondering if he would ever play again. This morning? His first goal for Canada at the Olympics! pic.twitter.com/QwK1Mk5vJK
He was so proud of his perseverance and being named to the Canadian team last month, he posted on Twitter a photo of himself lying in the hospital bed after his crash into the boards. "Exactly one year ago today I laid in a hospital bed after having surgery to fix a broken neck."
"There's a lot of that with our team," said Wolski, whose parents and brother are in Pyeongchang to share the Olympic experience. "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."