Wolski's journey back to NHL almost fable-like

Updated: April 22, 2006, 2:41 AM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

When the Colorado Avalanche made the rather extraordinary move of calling up junior star Wojtek Wolski and installing him on the second line on the eve of the playoffs, they were no doubt looking for an offensive shot in the arm.

What GM Pierre Lacroix and coach Joel Quenneville might not know is they're getting a significant dose of maturity in the form of the fresh-faced Wolski.

Wojtek Wolski
Doug Pensinger/Getty ImagesWojtek Wolski has played in just nine NHL games this season.

In the relatively short span between the day the Avalanche made Wolski the 21st pick in the 2004 draft and Saturday afternoon, when it's expected the son of Polish immigrants will step on the ice for his first playoff game, Wolski has confronted a significant number of personal challenges.

After being charged with assault for an incident at a house party in Toronto shortly before the draft, Wolski had to wait more than a year to have his name cleared.

His brother, Kordian, was seriously injured in a car crash and has yet to fully recover.

Wolski did not perform particularly well at a national team training camp last summer and was left off the roster of the gold-medal winning Canadian team at the World Junior Championship in Vancouver.

But it is a measure of Wolski's considerable character that these issues did not derail him, but in fact appear to have helped him keep his hockey career in perspective.

After the World Junior snub, Wolski went on to be named the OHL's player of the month for four successive months from December through March. He finished with 128 points in 56 regular-season games and was a top playoff scorer before his Brampton Battalion were dispatched from the OHL playoffs in the second round.

It's believed no other OHL player has been summoned to the NHL expressly for playoff action and it is a move that will have significant financial ramifications for both the Avalanche and Wolski, who played nine games with Colorado at the start of the season.

When he steps on the ice in Game 1 for his 10th NHL game this season, it means the first year of Wolski's entry-level contract goes by the boards. How big a deal is it? It could cost the Avs literally millions of dollars as they'll have to negotiate his next contract one year earlier than had he not been called up.

Of course if the seventh-seeded Avs upset the Stars, it will all be worth it.

As though he knew this might happen, Wolski, who is expected to skate along Alex Tanguay and Ian Laperriere, kept the cell phone he had during training camp with the Denver number.

"I think I recognized there is a place for me in Colorado and in the NHL," Wolski told ESPN.com in a recent interview prior to his call-up.

The Wolski tale is almost fable-like.

Wolski's parents, Wes and Zofia, moved to a western suburb of Toronto from Poland via the former communist East Germany when Wolski was four years old. They saw their neighbors' children playing hockey on outdoor rinks near their apartment building and wanted the same for their boys. They couldn't afford two pairs of skates, so Kordian and Wojtek shared the first pair, taking turns going on and off the ice.

When Wolski started minor hockey, it was a watershed moment when his father outfitted him with his own hockey gear. It was second-hand, but it was his.

Wolski lived at home during his junior career and moved back home after his stay in Denver at the beginning of the season.

He said he's relieved that the court case that hung over him was resolved and that his older brother is recovering from his accident. Wolski was charged when he went to his girlfriend's aid at a house party and brouhaha ensued in which a party-goer was injured. Wolski was acquitted.

"I guess it's just something most kids my age don't have to deal with. I had to wait 1½ years for a decision [on the court case] to be made and it was a bit of a burden," Wolski said.

"There's always going to be ups and downs. Life's not always on the up-side," he added. "I'm thankful for the positive things in my life. Sweating the small stuff just doesn't make much sense because at the drop of a hat, something bad can happen."

Avalanche pro scout Craig Billington, a longtime backup to Patrick Roy in Colorado, said he's been impressed with Wolski's maturity as a hockey player and as a young man.

"He should be proud that he has the ability and the willingness to address areas where he needs to improve. That's exciting," he said. "If you want to play a long career, development doesn't stop. I'm excited for him."

Scott Burnside is an NHL writer for ESPN.com.

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