wojtek wolski injury tease
From fear of paralysis to chasing Olympic Gold
03:22 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

Wojtek Wolski didn't expect to play ice hockey again after breaking his neck

Seven months after the crash, he was back on his skates

Wolski is playing for Canada at PyeongChang 2018

CNN  — 

In the 48th minute of a hockey game in October 2016, Wojtek Wolski crashed headfirst into the sideboards of an ice rink, breaking his neck.

It was unclear whether he would ever walk again, let alone skate.

“My first thought was that I was paralyzed,” he tells CNN. “I was just thinking, ‘okay, am I going to walk?’

“Once I could move, I thought ‘what’s my life going to be like from here?’”

His life, it turned out, would be pretty similar. The pinnacle of his career was still to come.

On Thursday, 16 months after the collision, he played his first game representing Canada at the Winter Olympics, scoring two of his team’s five goals in a win against Switzerland.

Wojtek Wolski celebrates scoring in Canada's first Olympic 2018 vs. Switzerland

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The comeback

His recovery has been extraordinary. Wolski had suffered “a fracture of the seventh and fourth cervical vertebrae, a bruise of the cervical spinal cord, brain concussion, bruises and abrasions of the face” playing for the Russian team Metallurg Magnitogorsk in a match against Barys Astana in Kazakhstan.

He moved from intensive care to the neurosurgery department, finally receiving successful surgery in January 2017.

At this point, ice hockey and the Winter Olympics were far from his thoughts. “At the beginning I was thinking of my kids,” he says, “just being able to play with them.”

Wolski has two children with his Canadian wife Jesse Jammers, aged three years and 10 months.

In an Instagram post following the surgery, he thanked his wife and his “strong and loving support system.” He also joked about getting back on the ice, writing that he was more likely to be “back on the golf course and tennis court since it’ll be perfect time for summer.”

However, as soon as he realized he would have no lasting nerve damage, hockey crept back into mind. “That was the next thought,” he says, “when can I get back? How quickly can I get back?”

By June, Wolski was practicing again, and he was playing regular season games by September. It was on January 11th, a year and a day after his surgery, that he was named in Canada’s Olympic team.

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Career break

For Wolski, this marks the peak of his career. “The Olympics is the culmination of everything I’ve ever done, it just seems like it makes it all worth it – all the trials and tribulations,” he says.

Of these there have been many. Wolski played in the NHL for nine seasons with five different teams (Colorado Avalanche, New York Rangers, Phoenix Coyotes, Florida Panthers, Washington Capitals), racking up 99 goals and 267 assists. But during this period he began to struggle with depression.

Wojtek Wolski playing for the New York Rangers in 2012

“There were times when I didn’t want to play hockey, but there were other times that I didn’t want to live anymore,” he says. In 2013, Wolski left the NHL and headed for Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League.

The 31-year-old owes his powers of perseverance to his father, who brought the family from Poland to Canada as refugees when Wolski was just one year old.

His father would tell him “you never fail until you quit” while he was growing up. “That was definitely a message that replayed in my head when things got hard and I was looking for the easy way out,” recalls Wolski.

Team Canada

And he’s not the only member of the Canadian team who’s come back from the brink.

Eric O’Dell underwent surgery in 2010 and spent months in recovery after a small hole was discovered in his heart.

Few expected him to play at an elite level again, yet he took to the ice alongside Wolski.

O’Dell was one beneficiary of the NHL’s decision to not release its players for the Games, meaning Canada had to look far and wide for players.

Like Wolski, O’Dell plays in Russia for HC Sochi.

It means this year’s Canada team has a different look to the one that clinched gold four years ago. But that doesn’t phase Wolski,

“I think this is our time,” he says. “I think we have to prove to ourselves and to Canadians and the world that this is a stage that we can play on and that we can win gold.”