ZURICH – New York to Florida to Washington to... Sanok, Poland? This isn’t the route that NHL players typically take in their career. But that is the path of NHL forward Wojtek Wolski, who is rediscovering his Polish roots while playing for KH Sanok in the Polish Ice Hockey League.
Born in the football-crazed city of Zabrze in the south of the country, Wolski emigrated with his family at an early age, moving to West Germany and eventually Toronto, Canada, where he grew up and learned to skate.
He was drafted in the first round of the 2004 NHL Entry Draft by the Colorado Avalanche, and has played for Phoenix, New York, and Florida, before joining the Washington Capitals in the offseason.
But when the lockout forced a mass exodus of players to the NHL, Wolski found himself looking for a team once again. After getting accustomed to the Polish league after a month there, Wolski and KH Sanok are looking forward to the biggest international challenge this season, the third round of the IIHF Continental Cup.
In Stavanger, Norway, the Polish champion will face off against other national champions: Metallurg Zhlobin (Belarus), Stavanger Oilers (Norway), and Beibarys Atyrau (Kazakhstan).
“I have never had the chance to play in Poland because I grew up in Canada. I felt that this may be the only opportunity for me to play in Poland so I didn't want to pass it up,” he said.
It’s been an adjustment for the 26-year-old. Going from the capital of the U.S. to a Polish town of approximately 43,000 souls has been an interesting move to say the least.
“It’s a very big difference from living in any of the cities I have played in. It has taken some time to get used to but is very peaceful and reminds me of being up north somewhere in Ontario,” said Wolski.
Wolski’s arrival to Sanok caused quite a stir in a country not necessarily known for hockey. He landed at the airport to a gaggle of reporters and TV crews, but since then the buzz has died down and he has been able to focus on hockey and at the same time soak up some of the European lifestyle.
“It certainly is a different lifestyle across Europe compared to North America. Here people work to live, not live to work. Family is truly the most important thing.”
Wolski comes from a sporting family. His cousin is Polish international footballer and WKS Slask Wroclaw captain Sebastien Mila. Wolski is the only member of his family to pick up a hockey stick and play at a professional level, and now that he is playing in Poland, his family who stayed in the country has been able to see him take to the ice for the first time.
“For most of them it is the first time they have ever seen a hockey game. It has been really nice to share the experience with them.
“My grandmother came to a few games in Canada. She actually thought the crowd was too crazy and swore too much. She had to change seats half way through the game.”
As for Sanok, Wolski has been welcomed with open arms by the team and the fans, who have shown their support in unconventional ways.
“The last game we were in Hungary and I scored in a shootout to win it. The fans got pretty excited and started throwing me chocolate bars.”
In some ways it’s been a step back in time for Wolski, whose team transport doesn’t include private jets or five-star accommodations. A former member of the Ontario Hockey League’s Brampton Battalion, his current team has more in common with them than with an NHL squad.
“Yes it’s very much similar to OHL when it comes to travel and dressing rooms. We bus 5-6 hours to games and play that night. Not the easiest way to prepare for a game but it has been fine,” he said.
But while the NHL lockout has closed doors to top level hockey, it has opened up opportunities for Wolski to help share his love of hockey with the country of his birth.
“I am trying to get involved as much as I can. I am in the process of trying to arrange equipment for a lot of families in need with the help of the NHLPA,” he said. “I think it's a big part of the decision to come play in Poland, getting involved and trying to help Polish hockey as much as I can.”
“I do think there is potential. Kids are talented but don't have the coaching or opportunities that kids in other countries may have. I'd like to help change that.”
For now, Wojtek Wolski will have to see how good Polish club hockey matches up against opponents from Belarus, Norway and Kazakhstan in Group E. After arriving in Stavanger, his team will face Kazakhstan’s Beibarys Atyrau on Friday.
The other Group D will be played in Italy and includes host Bolzano Foxes, the Herning Blue Fox (Denmark), Toros Neftekamsk (Russia) and the Landshut Cannibals (Germany).
The tournament winners advance to the Super Final with Ukrainian host Donbass Donetsk and defending champion Rouen Dragons from France.