By Dhiren Mahiban – IIHF.com
On 25th October Wolski received a call from Hockey Canada to be a part of Team Canada at the Karjala Tournament – an opportunity for the 31-year-old to showcase his game with the hopes of making the Canadian roster for PyeongChang.
“I thought if I do come back, this is one of the things that’s going to be a goal of mine to try to make Team Canada and play in the Olympics so at this point to be named to the team for this upcoming tournament it’s just another opportunity to try and solidify a spot so I’m really excited about it,” said Wolski. “It’s definitely something I’ve been thinking about and something that’s been keeping me motivated.”
Wolski, who was born in Poland but moved to Toronto at the age of four, has never played in an IIHF-sanctioned event before.
“For many years it’s something that eluded me that I couldn’t seem to grasp,” he said. “It was always just something I wanted to do, but couldn’t and wasn’t good enough or wasn’t invited to (participate).
“To be playing well now and to be given the chance is special.”
Wolski is one of 26 players on Canada’s roster for the Karjala Tournament, which begins today with a match-up against Switzerland. Representing the Canadians are 11 players who didn’t participate in either the Sochi Hockey Open or the Tournament of Nikolai Puchkov in Russia over the summer.
With NHL players not being available for the Olympics, Hockey Canada is using events such as the Karjala Tournament to audition eligible players in an effort to put together a strong roster for the February Olympics.
“If you had asked me even last year, I wouldn’t think I would be in this position, all the players would be in this position,” said Wolski. “We have a really tremendous opportunity to play in the Olympics and that’s very special for any player, any athlete. Anyone playing a sport, to be able to be given a chance to play in the Olympics is an incredible thing.”
Wolski’s hockey career nearly ended last October during a KHL game. While playing for Metallurg Magnitogorsk, Wolski was chasing down a loose puck and decided to dive in an attempt to knock the puck away from Barys Astana’s Vladimir Markelov, but caused Markelov to fall on top of him.
The impact of Markelov falling on Wolski, who collided headfirst into the boards on the play, caused him to break his neck.
Wolski was stretchered off the ice thinking he was paralyzed. He spent 10 weeks in a neck brace and required surgery for one of the damaged vertebrae wiping out any chance of a return for the 2016/17 season.
In June, Wolski signed a two-year contract with Chinese KHL team Kunlun Red Star, despite doctors recommending that he perhaps put an end to his hockey career.
“I wasn’t sure after the surgery how things would go,” he said. “Also, if I should play. Some of the doctors I’m close with and friends with, that I really rely on and have really relied on over the years, suggested that it was maybe better to retire.
“It was tough to hear that from them knowing that they were coming from a place of wanting to help me and give me the best advice possible. They’ve been there for many, many years and they’ve always helped me so hearing from them that I should probably retire is pretty tough.”
Wolski not only returned to the ice, but is playing some of the best hockey of his career. The six-foot-three (190 cm), 220-pound (100 kg) forward has a team-leading 25 points in 25 games.
It’s been a nice change for Wolski, a veteran of 451 NHL games with the Colorado Avalanche, Phoenix Coyotes, New York Rangers, Florida Panthers and Washington Capitals. Originally a first-round pick (21st overall) by Colorado in 2004, Wolski netted 99 goals and 267 points over eight NHL seasons, but admitted the inconsistency issues on the ice caused him to deal with depression – something he saw a therapist for while playing in New York.
To be producing at a point a game pace in the KHL this season has helped put the fun back into hockey for Wolski.
“The last couple years I kind of found my game again, I won a (KHL) championship,” he said. “It’s definitely been a lot more fun and knowing that I’m in my 30s now and I have kids, at this point I’m just trying to enjoy the game as long as I can, as much as I can, knowing that I’m closer to the end now than to the beginning. It gives you perspective and things like last year really give me perspective on life and hockey and the significance of what I’m doing.”
After spending the first four years of his KHL career in Russia, Wolski is also enjoying the change of scenery off the ice in China.
“Shanghai is an incredible city. It really reminds me of New York a lot,” Wolski said. “There’s so many cool pockets in the city that you can go see and they’re so different from each other.
“One of the reasons that I signed here is to be able to live in a bigger city, have my family here and experience a little bit of normalcy away from the rink. That’s been pretty incredible.”
Beijing will play host to the 2022 Olympics. The NHL also scheduled a couple pres-eason games in China earlier this season in an effort to grow the game there, but hockey is still in its infancy in terms of popularity, according to Wolski.
“It’s definitely not one of the big sports,” said Wolski. “It’s breaking ground and we’re trying to attract as many people as we can to the sport, especially young kids. Trying to get them involved so they can further the program and advance it on the international level. It’s at the beginning, but for sure in a couple years it’ll catch on.”
Wolski has no plans for an NHL return. His focus now is on producing for Kunlun and having his kids watch him play a high level of hockey.
“I’ve got a family, I’ve got kids, I’m happy with where I’m at,” he said. “I enjoy the responsibilities I have within the team playing big minutes and to be able to live in Shanghai and experience what we have here is pretty outstanding so I think (the NHL is) something, at this point, I really don’t think about anymore.
“My son is almost three. I’d like to play 3-4 more years. I’d like to have him around the rink, I’d like to see him watch me play and the excitement on his face. I think I’m still playing well. I just battled back from a big injury so I want to enjoy it as much as I can.”