MONTREAL – While it’s safe to assume James Wisniewski likely knows the meaning of the word “quit”, you wouldn’t able to tell from watching him play hockey.
Before arriving in Montreal via Long Island at the end of December, Wisniewski’s career had already been dealt its share of setbacks with the defenseman having undergone three knee surgeries heading into the 2010-11 season. None of them, however, proved enough to stop the tough-as-nails blueliner with the booming slap-shot. On February 17, 2011, Wiz took a puck to the face that opened up a sizable gash directly below his left-eye. Twenty-two stitches and three days later and the Wiz was back in action for the Habs’ very next game, sporting a full cage. If that’s still not enough to convince you of the 27-year-old’s dedication to his team and the sport, his performance in the 2011 playoffs should be.
In Game 2 of the Canadiens’ opening-round series against the Bruins, Wisniewski dropped the gloves to go toe-to-toe with Boston’s Shane Hnidy. In the process he severely injured several tendons in his hand.
“It was a pretty serious injury,” admitted Wisniewski. “I had to undergo a lot of treatment to help deal with it. They were doing a lot of work on the muscles in my neck and in my shoulder because I wasn’t even able to hold my stick. Eventually we realized that it was the muscles in my hand that were the causing the problem and then spent a long time working on those until I was able to grip my stick well enough to play.”
Wisniewski ultimately battled through the pain, going on to play in the next three consecutive games of the series – even making an unexpected return to action in overtime of Game 5 after leaving for the dressing room in the first period. While his injury may have forced him out of the Habs’ lineup for Game 6 in Montreal, there was nothing anyone could do to keep Wisniewski off the ice for the all-important Game 7 in Boston. The risk of aggravating the injury and hurting his chances of potentially signing the most lucrative contract of his young career was nothing more than an afterthought in the rearguard’s decision to suit up.
“The only thing that mattered to me was winning,” expressed the Habs’ No. 20 who is poised to be one of the most sought-after free agents set to hit the market on July 1st. “The team’s medical staff did an absolutely incredible job of getting me back to the point where I could play. They treated me for close to four hours the day of our last game and thanks to their help I was able to come back and play.”
While the outcome of the match wasn’t a happy one for the Habs as they fell 4-3 to the Bruins in overtime, the American defenseman will be taking some indelible memories away from his time with the Canadiens and their fans.
“It was incredible watching and hearing the atmosphere at the Bell Centre crank up a few notches from the regular season,” explained the six-season NHL veteran. “It was amazing to get to live that experience and to play for such a great organization with all the history that surrounds it. To have the entire city support us the way they did, even after we lost, telling us that we gave everything we had and that we left our heart and soul on the ice was something really special.”
But it was the relationship forged between him and his Montreal teammates that made for some of Wisniewski’s fondest memories in his five months with the Canadiens.
“The camaraderie in that room was incredible,” continued Wisniewski. “We were going to war together. There was a lot of adversity to deal with considering all the injuries we had over the course of the year, but we still stayed focused and didn’t let ourselves get off track down the stretch. It was a real pleasure to play in a market like Montreal with all the media attention the team gets.”
It was likely even more enjoyable for the defenseman with the now famous white stick since he also happened to be spending the 2010-11 season eclipsing every one of his personal records, registering 10 goals and 41 assists for 51 points in 75 games.
“I was speaking about it with my wife and family. Going from Anaheim to Long Island where I had the chance to get a lot more ice-time on the power-play was really helpful for me,” said Wisniewski whose 31 points in 43 games with the Habs was good enough to rank him fifth overall in points among NHL defensemen. “Then, around Christmas when Garth [Snow] traded me to Montreal, I had the chance to have the same opportunity but at a higher level, on a bigger stage, with a better team, and I was able to make the most of it. Everything synched up perfectly for me to be able to have the best season of my career.”
So with the year at an end, what’s the next step for the Wiz?
“Go home and get some rest – my hand is still in pretty rough shape – and take the opportunity to spend some time with my family, take a vacation with my wife and get back to training in July and August.”
And, of course, sign a long-term contract along the way.Alex Harvey is a writer for canadiens.com. Translated by Justin Fragapane.SEE ALSORaphael Diaz signed by the Canadiens Habby Birthday P.K.! Back in Quebec City Quebec Hockey Summit unveiling