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ROAD TO THE COLISEUM: JAMES WISNIEWSKI

by Andrew LeRay / New York Islanders
From the beginning, James Wisniewski was a hard-skating, tough-nosed player.  He has been tormenting offenses and devastating neutral-zone skaters since his youth.  The Canton, Michigan native has been in his share of fights, and carries his aggressive approach onto the ice.  Just ask Jamie Benn of the Dallas Stars, who was on the receiving end of a punishing hit from “Wiz” in the Islanders’ season opener.

   
Canton is a blue-collar, Midwestern town that sits between Detroit and Ann Arbor, MI.  For Wisniewski, hockey was a perfect fit.

“In Michigan, that’s kind of what happens,” said Wisniewski.  “In the wintertime, you just go skating on lakes and stuff like that.”

Wisniewski grew up in a hockey family, and was introduced to the game by his father, Jim, and uncle, Billy.  He taught himself how to skate at age five, and was soon thereafter placed into Bill Gadsby’s Hockey School. 


Wisniewski quickly began to garner a reputation as a talented, tough young player.

“I think I’ve always had a little edge to me,” said Wisniewski.  “I think it was my older sisters beating me up when I was growing up.”

His organized hockey career began at age seven with Westland Ya-Ya’s Chicken.  At 15, after completing his youth career with the Compuware Ambassadors of the North American Hockey League, Wisniewski made the decision to play Junior hockey in the Ontario Hockey League.

The Plymouth (MI) Whalers selected the 15-year-old defenseman with the 20th overall pick in the 2000 OHL Priority Selection Draft.  He soon thereafter blossomed into a star defenseman.

“I was the youngest kid in the league,” said Wisniewski.  “I think playing with such older guys – you know, 18-and 19-year-old guys – I thought I could probably make it to the next level.”

In his first season, Wisniewski and the Whalers lost in the OHL finals to fellow Islanders forward Zenon Konopka and the Ottawa 67s.  Despite the disappointing ending, Wisniewski was named to the OHL First Team All-Rookie Team, and the buzz surrounding the young star continued to increase.

With the 2002 NHL Entry Draft approaching, Wisniewski was high on many teams’ draft boards.  However, a torn right ACL sustained while playing for the United States in the U-18 World Championships in Slovakia dropped Wisniewski to a fifth round pick by the Chicago Blackhawks.

Only two years after suffering his first major injury, Wisniewski compiled the most impressive season of his career.  The Whalers’ captain was named OHL Defenseman of the Year, and was later honored as the top defenseman in the Canadian Hockey League.  But 2004 is most special to Wisniewski because of the gold medal he earned at the 2004 World Junior Championships in Helsinki, Finland.

After two full seasons with the Norfolk Admirals, the Blackhawks’ American Hockey League affiliate, Wisniewski appeared in his first NHL game in February 2006.  The following year, Wisniewski’s season ended early after tearing his right ACL for the second time.  Another six months of rehab and strength training should have led to a healthier Wisniewski.  But soon after the injury, the fickle ACL tore for a third time.

The knee problems never stopped Wisniewski from employing his diligent attitude during his rehab.

“I’ve spent 18 months of my life rehabbing my right knee,” said Wisniewski.  “I just kept putting my nose to the grindstone and just kind of said, ‘My goal is to become the best defenseman that I can be.  And I’m not going to let anything stop that.’”  

Since his last knee surgery, Wisniewski has been traded from Chicago, to Anaheim, to the Islanders.  Now 26, he is a veteran player with a deep understanding of the game and is an important piece to what the Islanders hope will be a championship puzzle. 

Whether Wisniewski is suiting up for Westland Ya-Ya’s Chicken, donning the red, white, and blue of Team USA, or skating for the Islanders, he will always give a maximum effort.  Because when you’re from Canton, “that’s kind of what happens.”
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