“I never thought I’d say I got lucky breaking my neck.”
Those were the words spoken by Wojtek Wolski shortly after a freak on-ice incident early in the 2016-17 KHL season left him suffering from a number of severe injuries. In particular, the Zabrze, Poland, native sustained two fractured cervical vertebrae, a concussion, and spinal cord trauma during what appeared to be a routine hockey play.
With his team in the midst of a man-advantage, Wolski had dove to secure a loose puck sliding dangerously close to exiting the defending team’s zone. In the process, Wolski inadvertently collided with an opposing Barys Astana forward who, subsequently, fell onto Wolski’s back. Unfortunately, the combined weight and momentum of the two players drove Wolski and his head directly into the boards.
Despite spending time in intensive care and having undergone surgery to correct the fractures in his neck, Wolski is, rather shockingly, set to return to the ice. In fact, the former NHL standout recently inked a two-year deal with Kunlun Red Star – a relatively new KHL franchise based in Beijing, China.
If Wolski’s name sounds familiar, it is likely because he is a very well known player within North America. As a four-year veteran of the Ontario Hockey League, Wolski’s ascension to stardom occurred through his days with the Brampton Battalion, where he was a lethal sniper and consistent offensive producer whose play improved substantially on a yearly basis.
Drafted third overall by Brampton in the 2002 OHL Priority Selection, Wolski was incredibly impressive with the Battalion – and so much so that the Colorado Avalanche selected him 21st overall in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft. As an insanely talented winger with size, skill, and the ability to capitalize on his opportunities, all signs pointed to a long and prosperous NHL career for Wolski.
Following a tantalizing final season with Brampton where he scored 47 goals and 128 points in just 56 games played, Wolski made the jump to the NHL. Skating in nine games with the Avalanche to close out the 2005-06 campaign, Wolski gathered six points and, as such, was provided with ample playing time during the team’s short playoff run.
This initial opportunity – and Wolski’s ability to seize it – ultimately resulted in a tremendous rookie season for the former OHL star. Skating with Colorado on a full-time basis in 2006-07, Wolski immediately proved himself as a legitimate first round selection. Amassing 50 points during his first NHL campaign including 22 goals, Wolski had quickly proven his ability to not only adapt to the professional game but to thrive within it.
In all, Wolski enjoyed four fantastic seasons with the Avalanche, during which he netted 71 goals and 187 points. Yet, despite his potency, Wolski found himself on a plane bound for Phoenix, as Colorado swung a trade with the Coyotes moments before the 2010 trade deadline. Although he would skate in a mere 48 games in Arizona, Wolski continued to display the elite skill and touch which had made him a first round choice six years prior.
Unfortunately, Wolski’s time in the NHL began to come to an end following the deal. While he would be shipped off to the New York Rangers late in the 2010-11 season for yet another postseason push, the injury bug caught up to and held onto Wolski for a considerable period of time. In fact, the budding star managed to skate in just nine NHL games during the following season, as well as another 22 contests with the Florida Panthers in the campaign of 2011-12.
By the time the 2012-13 NHL season had come to a close, Wolski was out of the league entirely. Choosing to sign with Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod of the KHL, Wolski opted for a team considerably closer to his home nation as well as one which would afford him a much greater opportunity to thrive.
So, following 451 career games in the NHL, Wolski moved on to the next stage of his professional hockey career.
Only 27 years-of-age at the time, Wolski quite obviously had a great deal of playing time ahead of himself and wasted no time before excelling within the KHL. Following a successful first season in the League, during which time he recorded 19 goals and 38 points in 54 contests, Wolski was named as team captain to begin his second campaign.
After yet another great year in 2014-15, Wolski inked a two-year deal with Metallurg Magnitogorsk. As one of the KHL’s most successful teams, potential prosperity with Magnitogorsk provided the distinct opportunity for Wolski to garner considerable NHL attention. So, after a career year with Metallurg in his first season with the team, Wolski appeared destined for a future NHL return – if he chose to do so.
Yet, fate had other ideas, as Wolski suffered his traumatic injury a mere 19 games into the 2016-17 campaign.
Does Risk Outweigh Reward?
While it is, without a doubt, absolutely sensational that Wolski is set to return to the ice to begin the 2017-18 KHL season, one has to wonder whether or not the potential risk outweighs the reward.
As a lifelong hockey player and individual whose passion for the game is surely second to none, hanging up his skates and putting the game aside would have been one of the most difficult decisions of Wolski’s life. As a professional athlete and an impressive one at that, retiring due to the injury would have been a substantial blow to Wolski’s overall well-being.
So, his decision to return to the ice is, in reality, not entirely shocking. Medically cleared to play, there is no clear-cut factor holding Wolski back from taking to the ice, so why not seize the opportunity to do so?
However, there is the fact that professional hockey is an extremely physical game. With grown men throwing their weight about with startling regularity, the odds of sustaining a substantial injury are already relatively high. Considering the fact that Wolski is recovering from a significant neck injury, there could be hesitation present within his game as well as the heightened potential to sustain additional damage.
At the end of the day, Wolski’s return to the ice will be a stunning moment in the history of the game. With the support of the entire hockey universe behind him, Wolski’s first strides with Kunlun Red Star will be not only highly anticipated but respected.
Having enjoyed a tremendously successful recovery, I, personally, wish Wolski all the best in the immediate and long-term future. As a native of Brampton, Ontario, I spent a considerable amount of time watching the Battalion and Wolski thrive in the early 2000’s, and can definitively say that he is one of the most respectful and genuine individuals in the game.
Brett Slawson is a four-year veteran of The Hockey Writers who covers the Toronto Maple Leafs, NHL prospects, and the OHL’s Mississauga Steelheads.
Contact Brett on Twitter @brettslawson92, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.