A DRAGON RETURNS
This article first appeared in the print edition of Sport-Express under the title, “Интервью канадского нападающего ‘Куньлуня’ Войтека Вольски – о переломе шеи, Олимпиаде в Пхенчхане и расставании с Магниткой.”
Former Metallurg forward Wojtek Wolski thought he was receiving a contract extension when his agent called with news of a buy-out. The Olympic bronze medalist returns to Kunlun Red Star one year after his departure, and caught up with Sport-Express in St. Petersburg ahead of the Dragons’ clash with SKA.
SPORT EXPRESS (GK): What was the main reason behind your departure from Magnitogorsk?
WOLSKI (WW): Truthfully, I still don’t know. I had a meeting with the coaches and asked what happened—they simply said it wasn’t performance-based, that it was financial, and that it came from the top (I am guessing from the top, they meant the owner). And then they signed two players. They said they needed a center, and I think they already had their eye on the Czech player who was leading the Extraliga.
I thought I was playing well at that point, and assumed they were happy as we hadn’t had a meeting to show otherwise. I had been getting a lot of points and we had just won six in a row against a couple of good teams.
It’s always tough—you want to be wanted. You want to do well, and I had just asked for an extension. I thought I’d be staying there maybe for the next year, the following year, and then leave the KHL at that point.
I’m happy that I got to come back to Shanghai. I’m somewhere I’ve been before and am familiar with the players. I really enjoy the city, and the culture of China.
GK: Who specifically delivered the news to you, and what was the tone?
WW: It was really weird. We had just beaten Omsk. I had a good game, and was at home playing the video game Call of Duty versus another guy on the team on a headset. Then my agent messaged me saying “hey, we need to talk on the phone.”
I said in the headset, “hey Max, I think I got an extension.” I was playing really well and told [my agent] a week ago that I was happy, and wanted to stay. Before that, I didn’t know if I wanted to stay or wait until the end of the year, and then made the decision. I was getting along with the coaches, getting a lot of ice time.
I said [to Max] that I’d come back on later, and picked up the phone. My agent told me, “hey, they’re going to buy you out tomorrow.” I thought maybe he was doing what my old agent used to do to me—come in with a downer, and then say “no, I got you a good deal.”
I waited a second and was like, “you’re joking.” He said, “no, I wouldn’t joke about this.” Even at that point I thought he was probably joking, but he wasn’t. The first thought obviously was panic—what am I going to do, where I am going to go, and where am I going to play?
But it was probably the best time ever to get bought-out because I’d been playing well, and I knew that I’d have some options. I think everyone’s pride gets a little bruised, but life goes on. And there are worse things in life. From my experience in being around the league for so many seasons, stuff happens. You have to move on and keep going.
GK: There’s speculation that head coach Josef Jandac didn’t count on you. Could that have been a motivation for the decision?
WW: I thought that at the beginning of the year. At the start, I wasn’t playing on the first powerplay and was floating around the second/third line. He was putting other, younger guys in and I didn’t know what was going on. I expressed to my agent before the season started that I was going to give this ten games and see how it went. We’d make a decision after that. But six games in, things fell back into place. I started to feel a lot better on the ice and started to play on the first line again. Some nights, I was playing over twenty minutes per game. At that point, I was thinking that this was good and we had figured it out. I guess I was way off!
GK: Your replacement at Metallurg is not really a known name the way that you are. You were a top import to the KHL. Do you feel some resentment in the aftermath of this scenario?
WW: I had a couple of good years in Magnitogorsk. I won a championship, and thought I was treated really well. It was such a great experience to be there with the coaches and the general manager. After my [neck injury] I came there, and had a good start to the season—then they wanted me back again. So I can’t really say there’s much resentment. We’ve been told that they’re planning on building up for next season, which I’d never heard before. But it is what it is—and there are a lot of guys on that team that I really enjoyed playing with. Overall, I thought the relationship was pretty strong and enjoyed my time in Magnitogorsk.
GK: When you returned to Metallurg for the second time, what was the motivation behind that — especially given how hard it was for your family?
WW: I think the biggest motivation was the Olympics. Our team (Kunlun) was really struggling at that time—we had won something like 2 in 19 games. I thought I would have a better opportunity to make the Canadian Olympic Team going to Magnitogorsk. [There would be] less travel, and I knew the coaches and players already, where I’d fit in. And it did work out that way: I jumped right into the lineup, had a good season, made the Olympics, and won a bronze medal.
I’m looking forward to hopefully making the playoffs this year and trying to make our impact there.
GK: Could you ever imagine doing this move back and forth again?
WW: No, [laughs] I don’t think I’m going anywhere! I have two kids and one on the way, and I know my wife really enjoys Shanghai. I think it’s much easier for her to get to Shanghai or Beijing than it is to get to Magnitogorsk. It took me twenty-four hours to get home from there. I don’t see her wanting to do that with two kids, let alone three next year.
GK: And maybe four in the future, you mentioned.
WW: Yeah, exactly.
GK: A source told us that you had offers from Traktor and Dynamo Moscow. Is this true?
WW: Both of them, along with a couple of other teams.
GK: Why not either of those?
WW: Some of the teams I turned down because I didn’t want to go back to a city that my family would not come to or enjoy. Dynamo Moscow was something that I really thought a lot about, and we did a lot of back and forth with them. In the end, we didn’t come to the terms that I wanted. Same with Traktor.
The terms [at Kunlun] I thought were better overall.
GK: Anything specific you can point to that sealed the deal?
WW: I think just the overall deal. How I’d fit into the teams, the weight against the contract, against term…some of the terms were one year, others were two. Some were higher, some were lower (financially). Being able to speak with the General Manager [Raitis Pilsetnieks] candidly and openly, and having a good relationship with him here, definitely helped.
GK: You mentioned on social media that there was an offer in Switzerland. Why did you stay in the KHL?
WW: There was a lot of thought about going to Switzerland because of my family wanting to live there. I still think I want to play in the KHL for a couple of seasons. I really enjoy the competitiveness of this league, and obviously financially it makes more sense to play in the KHL. The guys do have bigger contracts here, but I also think I seem to fit in well to this league. I’ve seen players go to Switzerland and not really enjoy it as much as they thought they would. Maybe in the future that could be an option.
GK: Metallurg VP Gennady Velichkin said that they were looking for a “young player,” which would imply that you’re a veteran. Do you think of yourself in those terms?
WW: That’s what I was told too, and that was a trend going into this season that the coaches even mentioned. They were told from upper management that they needed to bring in young players and get them ready for next year. It’s weird because at Magnitogorsk, they want to win pretty much every year—which is great and stressful at the same time. If you’re not at the top of the standings, it’s really stressful around the rink for some players and coaches. That was weird to hear that they wanted younger players.
Maybe I am getting old, I don’t know? I still feel good and am still playing well.
GK: Where do you feel like you are in your career, given that you have plans even beyond the KHL?
WW: So I’m 32, and have at least a couple of years. I think I take care of myself pretty well and am having a pretty good season this year. Hopefully it continues.
GK: You broke your neck before the Olympics. When you look back on that injury, where does it fit in to the trajectory of your career? What did it teach you?
WW: I think it taught me a lot—not only about hockey, but about life. You get so wrapped up in the moment and players are always thinking strictly about their success on the ice. When something like that happens, you see the bigger picture pretty quickly and wonder if you’re going to be able to live a normal life. Hockey seems really, really small at that point.
I got to spend months at home with my family. I hadn’t been home with my parents, my brother for an extended period of time in fourteen years. Being able to have a couple of months where I saw them every Sunday, have dinners together…that was pretty special. Being away from hockey and not knowing if I was going to play—that was hard on my family. I remember not being able to pick up my son in the middle of the night. He was crying but I couldn’t physically pick him up because he weighed over ten pounds. So those are things that were really tough. But I got to come back, experience the Olympics, and now I’m playing [again]. I feel like it made me think more about rehabilitation and taking care of my body.
GK: Does the subconscious fear of re-injuring your neck impact your game at all?
WW: At the beginning it did. For the first couple of months, I definitely thought about it a lot. The first big hits that I either gave or received, I could feel the pain in my neck and shoulders. It creeps into your mind—“will it get better?” Luckily it passed and it has been two years since the injury. Knock on wood, I don’t think about it anymore. I try to play as hard as I can and hope for the best. I think if you think about it too much, you can’t play…but I’ve gotten past that point.
GK: Not terribly long after that low-point in your career, you made the Canadian Olympic Team. What was that like?
WW: Emotional. When I found out, I remember being in tears and thinking about what could have been, and how it could have turned out. It was emotional, it was exciting, and I felt like it let me put everything behind me and just think about the future.
GK: You walked away from the Olympics with a bronze medal. After that tough loss to Germany in the semis, how do you look back on the performance of Team Canada? What would you have done differently?
WW: You obviously want to win gold—that’s always the goal. But the Olympics are a little different. When you do walk away with any hardware, you’ll look back and still have this bronze medal. Your kids will know about it and tell their kids about it one day. That’s something I’ll always cherish.
I remember being in that dressing room and listening to Germany cheer like they had won the gold—popping bottles, music on. That was a tough moment.
We had a friend of ours—a motivational speaker—call us the next day because we had the bronze medal game right away. One thing he mentioned was that it wasn’t the end of the world, and we were still playing for a medal. He reminded us that it was just a game—he had climbed Mt. Everest and his best friend died in his arms at the top. This was nothing; it was a game that we still had a chance to win. He said, “don’t look back afterwards and wish you had taken it more seriously.”
GK: I was looking at Instagram and was reminded of how much Kunlun has changed since you were last on the squad. I saw photos from your welcome dinner in Shanghai last year and the faces are now totally different.
WW: It really is a totally different team. I think this team is much better than the team that was here last year. From the top to the bottom, they’ve upgraded across the board. It seems like there’s a great atmosphere in the group and the guys really get along. I think they’re building something special here, and hopefully I can add to that.