This month’s 10th annual Tim Hortons Hockey Day in Canada on CBC will feature a profile of Wojtek Wolski of the Colorado Avalanche. It’s being produced by Bryan Gardner and Jennifer Haynes. In this story, Haynes gives us a behind-the-scenes peak at a special shooting day from the production.
"The shot worth taking"
Any way I looked at it, our Christmas Eve shoot seemed like a long shot to go off as planned.
First, we needed to get an ice pad. Then we had to assemble over twenty kids, aged nine to 11, to take part in a Christmas Eve practice. We needed their parents to get them to the arena and cheer them on. And we had to have five or six volunteer coaches transport the kids’ hockey bags the night before, and supervise the practice. If that wasn’t enough, I still haven’t mentioned the key ingredient: one NHL superstar, who was back home to celebrate the holidays with family for just 36 hours. We needed him to give a talk to the kids, run the practice and present them all with gifts. It’s the kind of visit the NHLer has wanted to do for a long time, but has never been able to pull off before due to the demands of his schedule
Did I mention we had to pull this all off on Christmas Eve, one of the most notoriously difficult days to accomplish just about anything on the Canadian calendar?
A Christmas miracle
It still feels like a small Christmas miracle that everything went off without a hitch. But then again, we weren’t dealing with your run-of-the-mill NHL superstar. Lucky for us, Colorado Avalanche left winger Wojtek Wolski is as impressive as a human being as he is a hockey player. And he knows a thing or two about long shots.
If you follow the NHL, then you’re familiar with his exploits for the Avs this season. If you’re not, here’s what you need to know. Wojtek has 38 points in 40 games played so far this season, including 15 goals, making him the Avs’ most prolific scorer. All season, he’s had a firmly-entrenched foothold in the number one line of one of the top teams in the league. But his biggest claim to fame is this: since the league implemented the shootout to decide tied games at the end of overtime, no other player has scored more goals than Wojtek. His creativity and finesse with the puck make him hands down the most feared player by goaltenders in shoot outs.
And at the tender age of 23, he’s only getting started in carving out his status as an NHL powerhouse.
So you can understand why I was a little skeptical that our event with Wojtek and a group of underprivileged kids would go off as envisioned. Would he show up on time? Would he really have wrapped presents for over twenty kids? Could an athlete of his stature connect with a group of children who haven’t grown up in a hockey culture (most of them call the Jane and Finch area of Toronto home), amped up in the excitement of having two weeks off of school and the narrowing countdown to Christmas morning?
As it turned out, the answer to all these questions was an emphatic yes, and with good reason. Wojtek’s connection to the police-run Jr. Blues hockey program goes back many months. More that just an impressed outside observer of the good work done by the program, Wojtek’s got a real stake in it. And relating to the kids? Piece of cake. You see, Wojtek’s own background more strongly resembles that of these kids than most of his NHL counterparts.
A chance conversation between Wojtek and a family friend last winter started his involvement. Naomi Strasser’s son, a triple ‘AAA’ hockey player, volunteered to help coach the Jr. Blues. Run by Toronto’s 32 division police, the Jr. Blues teaches underprivileged children life skills, as well as how to play hockey. Many of the kids are new immigrants who would not otherwise be exposed to Canada’s number one past time, nor have the financial means to take part.
Keeping a program like this going costs money. While they were well-served by the dedicated police volunteers both on and off the ice, the kids were dependent on hand-me-down equipment, wearing mismatched sweaters, banged up protective gear and ill-fitting skates.
No one knows how that can hold you back better than Wojtek. Born in communist Poland in 1986, he arrived with his family in Toronto almost 20 years ago with no prior exposure to hockey, and little disposable income to invest in the game. And yet through a combination of his mom and dad’s desire to develop the talent of their young son, the kindness of a few individuals who recognized his raw ability, and Wojtek’s own perseverance, he eventually became a star of the OHL, and then was drafted to the big league in the first round in 2004 (21st overall). He’s as big of a long shot as you can find in the NHL today.
When Naomi just happened to mention in passing that the kids’ gear was lacking, Wojtek simply said, ‘well I can fix that.’
And he did. Within about 15 minutes, a Reebok rep had arranged for Wojtek to donate sixty full sets of equipment. He went further, sending gifts and helping to support an end-of-the-season pizza party. And he pledged his continued support of the Jr. Blues, vowing to try to grow the program by recruiting other NHL players to get involved and starting more chapters.
Due to the heavy demands of playing on a top NHL team, Wojtek had never had the chance to meet his little protégés until last week. So when he heard there was a small window in his miniscule Christmas break to skate with these kids, he jumped at the chance.
And what did the kids think of meeting their benefactor? Their screams of excitement when he first walked into the dressing room, their chanting of "Wolski! Wolski!" as he passed around the presents, and the long line for autographs that wrapped its way outside the dressing room long after practice ended said it all.
Wolski making a difference
No doubt it was a fun few hours for all involved, but did the kids register the true impact of what happened that day? That’s another matter. As I mentioned, these kids are only nine – 11 years old, and they’re not from traditional hockey backgrounds. So the gesture of an elite hockey player giving of his time on Christmas Eve was probably a little lost on them. In fact, when told that Wojtek plays for the Avalanche, one boy demonstrated perhaps a little apathy for the game by asking, ‘hey, don’t they suck?’ (you don’t have to follow the NHL too closely to know that the 22-12-6 Avalanche most definitely DO NOT suck).
But you have to imagine that one day, the kids will look back fondly on Christmas Eve 2009, and it will mean something more than free presents and a hockey practice with some famous guy. They’ll realize that one of Canada’s sport heroes gave up his only day off to be with them, because he believes that their futures are worth his investment. That you don’t have to come from a well-off family to have opportunity; sometimes, it just finds you. And who knows what kind of lasting impact can come from a realization like that?
Luckily, many of the kids’ parents were there in the stands, carefully documenting the moment with cameras and video recorders, ensuring that the memories will not be forgotten.
If you really stretch your imagination, you could even hope that maybe one of these little guys will also grow into a fine young hockey player one day, possibly even making it to the NHL. And he’ll want to give back to other kids in the same way, ensuring that this valuable program and the cycle of giving continue.
There’s no doubt about it, to think that something like that could ever happen is definitely a long shot.
But you don’t have to convince Wojtek that even long shots are worth taking.
Jennifer Haynes and Bryan Gardner are producing a profile of Wojtek Wolski for the 10th annual Tim Hortons Hockey Day in Canada on CBC , coming this year from Stratford, Ont. Tune in on Saturday, Jan. 30 (CBC, CBCSports.ca, Noon ET) to watch their report, and find out more about the Wolski family’s incredible journey from Poland to the NHL.