Eurolanche interview with Wojtek WolskiEurolanche talked with the former Avalanche player about his career in Denver.
Wojtek Wolski was born in Poland in 1986, but only lived there for three years, as his family escaped the so-called Eastern Bloc under dramatic circumstances to Germany before finally moving overseas to Canada, where they settled and where Wolski later went on to play for the OHL’s Brampton Battalion. He set 14 franchise records for them in all major stats.
Wolsi was drafted in the first round, 21st overall by the Colorado Avalanche in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft – the draft right before the following season was canceled due to a lockout.
Wolski made his NHL debut by the end of the 2005-06 season, showcasing his talent in the playoffs. He spent the next four years in Denver, mainly playing on the top two lines alongside Joe Sakic. He established himself as a smart player and a shootout expert, as nearly every attempt he took ended up in the opposing goalie’s net. His first season with the Avalanche was his best season in the NHL – he recorded 50 points in 76 games.
During the 2009-10 season, Wolski was traded to the Phoenix Coyotes, where he spent a single season before being traded to the New York Rangers. After only nine games, he was sent down to the AHL and was later traded to the Florida Panthers the very same season. It was his fifth team in just two years.
Wolski played a few games in Poland during the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season. After the lockout ended, he played 27 games for the Washington Capitals, which were his last games in the NHL to date. Ultimately, his four-year stint with the Avalanche proved to be his best in the NHL.
Since 2013, Wolski has been playing in the KHL. He spent the first two years following his move to Europe playing for Torpedo Nizhny Novgorod, where he also served as the team’s captain for one season. He then played the following two seasons for Metallurg Magnitogorsk, winning the Gagarin Cup once. He began the current season in China, signing for Kunlun Red Star, but was later traded back to Magnitogorsk.
Eurolanche spoke with Wolski after Magnitogorsk’s practice in Bratislava, Slovakia, where his team was scheduled to face Slovan Bratislava. Wolski remembered Eurolanche, as he met participants of the first three Eurolanche Invasions between 2008 and 2010 while still with the Avalanche.
Could you explain how you got to Canada when you were young?
First we moved to Germany, from where we moved to Toronto afterwards. I kind of grew up all over the city while playing hockey in Toronto. We left Poland for a better opportunity, as the country was still under communist rule at the time. We left in hopes of a better life.
Was it easy to move from Poland to West Germany?
No, we had to escape the country and had to stay in a refugee camp in West Germany for almost two years. From there, we got a sponsorship from a church in Canada and then moved to Toronto.
Do you remember anything from your childhood in Poland?
Not really. I was really young – I was two years old when we were still in Poland and then three and four when we were in Germany.
The first NHL game you’ve attended were the Avs against the Toronto Maple Leafs?
Yes, at Maple Leafs Garden. It was pretty cool. We were sitting behind the net. It was just exciting to be able to see a hockey game and to spend some time with my dad.
How did you feel when you were drafted by the Avalanche, the team that you saw play in person for the first time?
It was awesome! I thought I would be drafted higher at that point, but then when I got drafted by the Avalanche, it was exciting to be able to play with some of the players I admired while growing up and meeting Peter Forsberg and playing with Joe Sakic on a line at one point later on. It was pretty, pretty cool.
I guess that your best linemate was Joe Sakic then?
Yeah, I think that’s pretty accurate.
How do you look back at your time with the Avalanche?
I think it were some of my favorite years [of my career]. I really enjoyed the players I played with, especially my last year. The city was incredible as well.
You became famous for your shootout proficiency. Can you explain why you were so good in the shootouts back in Denver?
I think that it was something that I’ve worked on. I was young at the time and shootouts were just coming into the NHL. It was something that most goalies weren’t used to and for a young player, it was pretty exciting and something that I liked doing. I don’t like it as much anymore – I prefer the idea of a 3-on-3 overtime. I think that’s a better solution to decide games.
If you could pick a certain moment as the best of your career with the Avalanche, what would it be?
Probably my first game in the playoffs and getting a goal and an assist in that game. It was such an exciting moment. I was so young and it was my first time playing for a Stanley Cup. That was probably the most exciting moment of my career with the Avs.
How did you feel when you found out that you were traded to Phoenix?
You’re always disappointed when you get traded. I was having a great season in Colorado and I would’ve liked to have stayed there. I was settling down and really getting to know the city, the people and whatnot. I wish I could’ve stayed there longer, but that’s the business of hockey – you move around, you switch teams, you play in different places.
Later, you played for other NHL teams. Why do you think you had to change jerseys so many times?
Obviously, I thought about it a lot over the years. You switch teams, you don’t find a good fit, you don’t play as well and at that point, it just seems to go so quickly. You see it with so many players. For me personally, I had some injuries and that really slowed me down. I just didn’t seem to find my stride at that point and hockey just wasn’t as fun for me in those years, so coming over to Russia to the KHL, I started to enjoy the game again and play a lot better.
During the last lockout, you played 9 games in the Polish top-tier league. How was it?
It was fun. I went with my parents and we got to spend some time travelling around Poland, seeing family and spending time with family that I haven’t seen in a long time. It was special to do that, to be able to say that I’ve done it. I still try and go back to Poland when I can to work with younger players and to do hockey camps there.
Have you ever tried to play for the Polish national team?
Right now, I’m trying to play for the Canadian Olympic team, so I’m not really thinking too much about them. (laughs)
What do you think about ice hockey in Poland in general? Is it improving?
I think it’s improving. I was there in April doing a camp and working with kids. I think the biggest issue is that they don’t have the opportunity to learn from coaches with experience. Availability of ice-time is low as well. In Canada and other countries, you can just go on the ice whenever you want, there’s tons of outdoor rinks everywhere, lots of coaches, camps, practices and you don’t see that in Poland. I think that you can see the difference – all these countries are moving ahead of Poland in hockey. They don’t have more players, they don’t have more people living in the country. It’s upsetting to see that Poland isn’t getting better quicker, but I think that there will be big improvement in the next couple of years.
It sounds like you’re enjoying your time in the KHL. What do you like the most? Many North American players have said that they wouldn’t come back after they left the league.
It’s not for everyone. It’s definitely though and you have to get used to it. It’s a big adjustment. For myself, I found a good fit here in Magnitogorsk, I left and played in China for a couple of months and came back to Magnitogorsk [via trade]. I think the coaching staff here and the way we’re treated is great. We have a good, competitive team, we seem to always be in the game. I enjoy that part of it probably the most. We have a strong team that makes playing hockey fun.
What about your injury last season?
It was tough. I thought I was going to have to retire. I’m happy that I didn’t, that I can play hockey, play sports and live a normal life. I try not to think about it as much, but it’s something that did happen and it was a tough year, to come back and to recover from an injury like that.
Didn’t you receive offers from other European leagues?
Of course, but I don’t want to play anywhere else right now. I think that I’ll play a couple more years in the KHL and then I might go to Switzerland and retire after that, but for now, I want to focus on playing here in the KHL next year, the year after and maybe one more after that. We’ll see.
So you’re okay that you might not return to the NHL?
I don’t even think about it. I don’t want to go back to the NHL. I know it sounds weird, but I somehow found myself as a person in the KHL. I began to like hockey again, to enjoy the sport and to find passion for hockey again. I don’t know, I feel like myself and I’m happy to be here.
What’s your plan after you retire? Will you settle down overseas or in Europe?
I’m not sure yet. I talked about it with my wife. You know, I grew up in Toronto and I like to go back there during the summer for training purposes, like my coaches are there, but maybe California, maybe Florida, somewhere hotter. I also really like London. There are a couple of places I like a little more than Toronto, so we’ll see.
Final question – do you follow Joe Sakic’s career as the Avalanche’s GM?
No, not really.
Editor’s note – Wojtek Wolski was recently named to Team Canada’s team for the upcoming Olympic Games in Pyeonchang. Eurolanche would like to congratulate Wojtek to being named to his first Olympics despite his serious injury a year ago. His perseverance should serve as an example to many.
The interview was conducted by David Puchovsky and transcribed by Michal Hezely.
David Puchovsky, Slovakia, firstname.lastname@example.org
15/01/2018 - 16:00