GANGNEUNG, South Korea (AP) — Wojtek Wolski feared the worst.
“I thought I was paralyzed,” Wolski said.
It was an innocent enough play in an early season Kontinental Hockey League game. Wolski dived to poke the puck away from Vladimir Markelov, who slid and inadvertently knocked him head-first into the boards, breaking his neck.
Wolski lay motionless on the ice for minutes with a broken neck and had to be lifted onto a stretcher. Sixteen months removed from the scariest moment of his life, Wolski is not only walking and functional but playing hockey at such a high level that he’s representing Canada at the Olympics.
He calls it a roller-coaster ride from the injury to surgery and through rehab. His trainer has another word for it.
“I wouldn’t throw around the term ‘miracle’ lightly, but it’s a miracle that he wasn’t hurt much worse than he was,” Matt Nichol said. “I think a real good positive outcome would’ve just been the fact that he’s able to get around again, do activities in his daily living and hang out with his kids and stuff like that. The fact that he could play hockey at all again was great. The fact that he could play at a professional level was incredible.
“And then the fact that he’s there at the Olympics, it’s mind-blowing.”
Wolski, 31, still gets emotional talking about the fear he had that night in Astana, Kazakhstan, and feels grateful and lucky to be back on the ice. It was a difficult process that included the decision to have and the rehab to recover from surgery, a step that allowed the Polish-born, Toronto-raised Wolski to get back to playing at the level he once did in the NHL.
“It kind of just grew from: ‘OK, I can feel my hands and feet? I’m going to be able to walk. Am I going to be able to play with my kids and normal life?’” Wolski said last week. “And once I knew that that would be possible, I started thinking, ‘OK, will I be able to play sports?’ From there: ‘Will I be able to play hockey? Will I be able to play professional hockey again?’”
Wolski took it week-by-week, telling doctors what hurt and asking them how to make it better. Sometimes he was sore after doing body squats or simple leg raises with no weight. He had his concerns about whether he’d ever be more than 80 or 90 percent, but he didn’t show them.
“There was a lot of talks about should he or shouldn’t he do it when thinking about his family and kids and stuff,” Nichol said by phone. “It certainly wasn’t likely, but I’ve been doing this for 20 years and we’ve had a few of these Hail Mary, last-chance rehab cases in our little gym here. I’ve seen some crazy stuff before, so I never would’ve counted him out.”
Injured in October 2016, Wolski was practicing again in June and playing in regular-season games in September. He has 39 points in 44 games for the Kunlun Red Star and Metallurg Magnitogorsk and impressed Hockey Canada.
Canada goaltender Ben Scrivens said if a player could win the Masterton Trophy for perseverance, sportsmanship, and dedication to hockey, Wolski would be automatic.
“He went from maybe not walking to certainly not playing to maybe not playing to we’ll see if he can play to back to where he is now on the Olympic team,” Scrivens said. “It’s a testament to him, who he is as a person ... (and) a testament to his skill, his ability to go from that, take as much time off as he did to come back and not only play but play well and play well enough to make this team.”
Wolski, who played parts of nine NHL seasons with the Colorado Avalanche, New York Rangers, then-Phoenix Coyotes, Florida Panthers and Washington Capitals, seems content to finish that segment of his career with 99 goals and 267 assists. Only the perfect opportunity would lure him back to North America, though the Olympic tournament is a pretty perfect chance to show that his quality of play his back to his old NHL level.
“Leading up to this tournament, I started feeling more like myself again,” Wolski said, “and just hoping that it continues to get better and that I’m peaking at the right moment.”