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Wolski starting to show why he was a first-round pick

Tuesday, 01.27.2009 / 10:30 AM / Columns

By Larry Wigge - NHL.com Columnist

It's a bottom-line, results-oriented sports world we follow so closely, where the development of highly regarded prospects can't be judged with a stopwatch, a calendar or even a timetable that sometimes seems to drag for years. It shouldn't be fish or cut bait. Teams have to trust that the player who shows you glimpses of greatness eventually will dazzle you with years of consistent production.

The story of Wojtek Wolski, who was a first-round pick (No. 21) in the 2004 Entry Draft by the Colorado Avalanche, has had more stops and starts than a season of reality TV -- his family fleeing from the communist invasion of Poland in the late-1980s, first to Berlin and then to Canada, where his family scrimped and saved to make a life as the Wolski boys shared a sofa bed and Wojtek aspired to fill his brother's five-sizes-too-large pair of skates.

The 6-foot-3, 200-pound forward, who was born in Zabrze, Poland, had 22 and 18 goals the past two seasons. He came in this season with more confidence, but it wasn't until the Avalanche lost captain Joe Sakic and Paul Stastny that Wolski began to find his role at the National Hockey League level.

"You see the skill, the size," said Avalanche coach Tony Granato. "You see how gifted he is. You see the offensive instincts. People want it all right now from a younger player, but that's not fair. You wait and wait and one day ..."

For Granato, the wait is over with Wolski.

"In the past two or three months, I've seen it in his eyes, his demeanor around the team and on the ice," Granato said. "When we lost Joe and Paul it all began to click in for Wojtek. It's like he stepped up and realized he was ready and said, 'It's my time and my club needs me.'

"I think he looked at truly fitting in on this team as a responsibility more than as a personal opportunity. That maturity is what you like to see with a young player."

The Avalanche set the bar higher for Wolski this season, according to GM Francois Giguere.

"With a lot of young players, you have to set the bar higher and then wait to see if they react in the positive," he said. "I remember (assistant GM) Greg Sherman telling me when the Avs drafted Wolski, they thought he was a better center than winger. But the team also had Joe Sakic and Paul Stastny and Peter Forsberg as the top two centers -- and there was no doubt Wojtek belonged in the mix as one of the team's top six forwards. So he was moved to the wing.

"When Tony moved him to center, it was like a light went on for Wojtek -- he's found he's more involved in the play, he's got the puck more now and the brightest thing we've seen from him is how imaginative he can be with the puck."

"Adjusting from the wing to center isn't easy. I tried it a couple of years ago," said Ryan Smyth, who is the left wing on the Avs' new No. 1 line, with Wolski and Milan Hejduk. "But Wolly has competed real hard. He's most effective when he can crash down low and he seems to have found more comfort in doing that as a center than he did on the wing. He's really developed this season, especially when it comes to the little things you have to do with and without the puck."

"When you first watch him he kind of looks awkward," said St. Louis Blues leading scorer Brad Boyes, who works out in the summer in Mississauga with Wolski. "That's probably more because he's got that lanky build. But it doesn't take long for you to say, 'Wow, he's got great hands.' Give him an opening and he'll quickly get off a great scoring chance."

At 22, Wojtek Wolski likes the idea of being a go-to guy on the Avs.

"I'm starting to feel more and more comfortable on the ice," Wolski said during a stretch in which he had 4 goals and 3 assists in five games in mid-January. "Since I was switched from left wing to center and I get the puck in the middle of the ice, I'm getting more opportunities. And the more I have the puck, the better I seem to play.

"The last three years have been a learning experience. The first thing you learn is that you get yelled at -- a lot -- when you make mistakes. But it's all a part of getting better as a player and getting stronger mentally."

If that sort of reasoning sounds like a player who is beyond his 22 years in smarts, well, he has faced a lot.

Unlike parents that move their children around trying to find a spot on the best athletic teams, hockey was not on the minds of Wes Wolski and his wife, Zofia, who just wanted to find a better life for Wojtek and his older brother, Kordian.

First, they fled Communist-controlled Poland to Berlin, knowing they could get to Canada easier by way of Germany. Wes (shortened from Wieslaw) got a job as a stonemason in Berlin. Two years later, they were headed for Winnipeg but settled in the Mississauga, just outside Toronto.

"When we lost Joe and Paul it all began to click in for Wojtek. It's like he stepped up and realized he was ready and said, 'It's my time and my club needs me."
-- Avs coach Tony Granato

"My parents didn't know the language, I didn't know the language, my brother didn't know the language, and for the first little while it was really hard," Wolski said. "We came to Canada with absolutely nothing. We lived with my aunt and uncle for months until my parents found jobs. I think we moved because my parents wanted a better opportunity for myself and my brother. Their brother and sister moved there and they said it was the land of opportunity. They thought it'd be better for us."

Wes and Zofia took English classes. The boys had sports and school to become more North American-ized.

In Poland the family sport was soccer. Wojtek has an uncle, Stefan, who was a professional soccer player, and a cousin, Sebastian Mila, who plays for Vienna in the Austrian league and represented Poland at the 2006 Olympics. While soccer is important to the Wolski family in Canada, his parents didn't mind that Wojtek and his brother chose hockey.

"My brother got into it through friends at school," Wolski said. "They used to play at the tennis courts they used to freeze over for winter. And as soon as he started doing something, I wanted to as well."

Wolski's parents did have their doubts about Wojtek as a hockey player at first.

"At the beginning, we didn't have much money," Wolski said. "So I just used my brother's stuff. He was five years older and his equipment was too big for me, but I didn't care. I'd put on five extra pairs of socks so that I could fit in my brother's skates so that I could play."

But this land-of-opportunity story has provided a few more bumps in the road. Like shortly before the 2004 Entry Draft, when Wolski was charged by Toronto police with assault causing bodily harm after a birthday party in which an 18-year-old was beaten and hospitalized. The case was dismissed when it was learned Wolski was defending the honor of his girlfriend, who had been pushed off a porch.

To this day, Wolski believes the incident cost him a chance to be picked among the top 10-15 players in the draft, instead of 21.

"I remember sitting in the stands in Raleigh wondering what was going on," he recalled. "I had interviewed with four or five teams who told me they'd take me if I was still there around 12, 13, 14. But those slots came and went.

 
 
"My dad said, 'Wouldn't it be cool if you went 21 to Colorado?' He knew that Peter Forsberg was one of my favorite players when I was growing up, along with Mario Lemieux."

Then-Avs GM Pierre Lacroix said they did a thorough background check and realized Wolski's incident was an out-of-character reaction by a teen.

Said Lacroix: "This is the same kid who moved to freedom, foreign to the language, nearly broke, with a precious few of their old belongings. And hungry to make good."

The feel-good part of this feel-good story is feeling better all the time. Wolski's first professional contract with the Avalanche helped his parents afford a new house and new life, one that also had his father owning his own contracting company, which specializes in installing marble.

For a moment, Wolski wondered what life would have been like if his parents had not fled Poland, then said the good things should not be confused with dreams and nightmares.

"I never forget the day I took my Communion money and bought new hockey equipment," he said with a smile. "No more hand-me-downs from my brother."

He also remembered the decision he had to make at 15 -- go to St. Mike's Academy to play junior hockey or wait and take a scholarship to Michigan State. The junior path meant more games, more experience and a quicker path to his dreams.

"I remember my dad saying, 'Life is filled with decisions. Make your decision and stick with it,'" Wolski said. "Even though we didn't always have a lot of money, my dad enrolled me in the SK8ON stickhandling school in Toronto and he drove me to the rink so that I could be there on time at about 5:30 each day. I'll never forget the sacrifices he made because he wanted to give me a chance to succeed in my dream."

It was at SK8ON that Wolski met Jari Byrski, an instructor he credits with honing the shooting skills his brother first taught him when he was 7, and making him a better all-round talent.

"Jari was like a second dad to me," Wolski said. "He'd spend hours and hours helping me improve my weaknesses and strengthen my strengths. He still watches my games and often texts me if he sees something that will help my game."

This isn't a story about Wolski becoming a center of attention. It's about a talented youngster growing into a pretty smart young man and imaginative hockey player.


Quote of the Day

The groove of being behind a bench is going to be interesting at first, but thank God we have a few exhibition games to get rid of those cobwebs. Overall the excitement of it all and the freshness and coming back refreshed, all those things are going to be assets. If [the players] come ready to give their best effort in practice and games, good things are going to happen. I'm always looking for results. It's not always on the scoreboard. It's winning and building something.

— Bryan Trottier on making his return to coaching as an assistant with the Sabres