It wasn’t immediately apparent at the time, but there was a silver lining for the Brampton Battalion after it missed the Ontario Hockey League playoffs in 2001-02.
Failing to qualify gave the Battalion the third overall choice in the 2002 Priority Selection and allowed it to choose a player who would be a cornerstone for four years, graduating as the leading scorer in Battalion history.
The Mississauga IceDogs, exercising the No. 1 pick for a fourth straight year, took centre Rob Schremp before the Kingston Frontenacs tabbed defenceman Wes O’Neill , who would never play an OHL game.
The Battalion then chose left winger Wojtek Wolski , a Mississauga resident playing with the junior A St. Michael’s Buzzers.
“It was great to be taken by the Battalion, and it’s the only reason I came to the OHL,” said Wolski, a 27-year-old in his eighth National Hockey League season and his first with the Washington Capitals.
“If I wasn’t drafted by a team like Brampton that was coached by a guy like Stan Butler, or a team where I had a great chance for success, I probably would have ended up at Michigan State University. I was happy to play in Brampton and stay at home.”
Wolski’s junior career got off to a roaring start. Skating on a line with veteran centre Jay McClement and overage right winger Scott Rozendal, he scored a goal and added two assists in a 6-0 win over the visiting London Knights in his debut Sept. 20. He added two points, including a goal, in his second game, a 7-4 home-ice win over Kingston two days later and was named the OHL’s player of the week.
“It was a great start for my career,” said Wolski, who finished the season with 25 goals and 32 assists for 57 points, earning a spot on the OHL’s first All-Rookie team with teammate Brent Burns.
“I was lucky. Stan was really good with me and gave me an opportunity. McClement and Rozendal were very good players who helped me out a lot. I don’t think I was an average 16-year-old. I was pretty mature physically.”
Wolski made an impact in his first postseason, providing the goal in a 1-0 road win in Game 4 of an Eastern Conference quarterfinal against the Barrie Colts. He became the first Battalion player to score three goals in a playoff game when the Troops beat the visiting Toronto St. Michael’s Majors 7-0 in the opening game of a conference semifinal which the Majors captured in five games.
“There were a lot of great players on our team that season. I wish we would have been able to do better in the playoffs, but Toronto was really strong that season and beat us.”
Wolski led the Battalion in scoring in his second year, contributing 29 goals and 41 assists for 70 points in 66 games. Named to the OHL’s first All-Star team, he scored four goals and added two assists for six points in a seven-game upset of the second-seeded Ottawa 67’s in a conference quarterfinal. Wolski had two points, including one goal, in a 4-2 road win in Game 5 and scored two goals, including the series clincher, in a 3-1 victory in Game 7 at Ottawa.
“I remember having a meeting with Stan before the fifth game, and he told me I really needed to play well because there were going to be a lot of scouts there and this was an opportunity for me to step up. I had a really good game.”
Wolski, who entered the 2004 NHL Draft ranked fifth among North American-based skaters by the league’s central scouting department, was selected 21st overall by the Colorado Avalanche. He returned to the Battalion in 2004-05 and again led the team in scoring, contributing 29 goals and 44 assists for 73 points. Wolski produced seven points, including two goals, as the Battalion bowed out in six games to the Sudbury Wolves in a conference quarterfinal.
“That’s what happens sometimes. You lose a couple of games in a season and you end up in a playoff position you might not want to be in. We had such a good team, and it just didn’t come together in the playoffs, and that’s what you play for. You want to win championships, and that didn’t happen. There’s no easy recipe. It’s all about timing. It can be a tough thing to get your head around.”
Wolski opened the 2005-06 campaign with Colorado, scoring his first NHL goal as part of a three-point effort in a 7-4 home-ice win Oct. 10 over the Calgary Flames. He picked up three points, including one goal, in six more games before being returned to the Battalion on Oct. 26.
“It was really tough to come back, and I don’t know if I was there mentally for the first 10 games,” admitted Wolski, who was named captain upon his return. He eventually received a visit from Michel Goulet, then Colorado’s director of player personnel.
“Michel came in and said my play to that point was unacceptable and I needed to dominate and play better for the team to be better. He told me I was a leader and needed to play like one. I knew I was back there and had to get ready to make that next step, and as soon as I figured that out it worked. ”
Wolski was dealt a blow in early December when he was left off the roster for the selection camp of the Canadian national junior team, to be coached by Brent Sutter. He had attended the summer development camp before scoring four goals in the two-game OHL segment of the Canada-Russia series.
He acknowledged that the slight still hurts.
“I thought about it a lot then, and I still think about it anytime I play any of the Sutters. It was a tough time. I didn’t get picked for that team, and I wanted to be a part of it. It helped motivate me.”
Moved to centre on a line with overage right winger Luch Aquino, who had returned from the pro ranks, and second-year left winger Aaron Snow, Wolski erupted offensively, recording 35 goals and 62 assists for 97 points in the last 34 games of the season. He finished with an 18-game points streak in which he scored 22 goals and added 34 assists for 56 points. Wolski, who manned the blue line on the power play with defenceman Michael Vernace, set a club record Jan. 22 with seven points in a 9-4 win over the visiting Erie Otters. His four goals in that game equaled a club record achieved twice previously.
The Battalion set a club record by winning its final 14 games to claim the Central Division title, one point ahead of Barrie. Wolski had 12 points, including four goals, in a fierce six-game conference quarterfinal against the Belleville Bulls and contributed three goals and three assists for six points in a five-game loss to the Colts in the second round. He also had an apparent goal disallowed early in the third period of a 4-1 loss at Barrie in Game 2.
“Our line still averaged something like two points a game. But teams adjust and change their game plans. I thought a tough series like we had against Belleville would help prepare us for the next series, but Barrie always had our number. We had our long winning streak at the end of the season and felt we’d be one of the real teams to beat in the playoffs. I had a goal disallowed, and the momentum seemed to shift and we just couldn’t find a way to get it done. As a leader you want to win, and I thought I did everything I could to do that.”
Said Butler: “That was a free-spirited team. Wojtek could run a group like that; he was kind of a free spirit himself. He didn’t stress about a whole lot of things. He was a good fit for that group. That was a group that, if everything was going well, things were good, but if things were going in the other direction it affected them.”
Wolski, the OHL’s player of the month for each of the final four months of the season, finished third in league scoring with 47 goals and 81 assists for 128 points, club records in each category, and set a club mark with 30 power-play goals. He won the Red Tilson Trophy as the OHL’s most outstanding player and the William Hanley Trophy as the most sportsmanlike player. He also was named to the OHL’s second All-Star team.
He completed his junior career with 130 goals and 198 assists for 328 points in 253 games and is the Battalion’s career leader in goals, assists and points. His 58 power-play goals and nine shorthanded goals are also club bests. Wolski produced 19 goals and 19 assists for 38 points in 40 playoff games, club records in all three categories at the time. He still holds the club record for playoff power-play goals with nine.
“It was the right time to make the jump to the NHL, and Aquino, Snow and Vernace really helped me.”
Wolski said Butler also provided a major influence.
“Stan isn’t afraid to kick anyone’s butt, and he does it the right way. He doesn’t apply the same methods to every guy, and he realizes that some guys can take it and some guys can’t. He’s a teacher and shows that he’ll kick your butt but also give you another opportunity to set the ship right.”
Wolski, who said he was disappointed to hear the Battalion will relocate to North Bay next season, said he has fond memories of his time with the Troops.
“I thought the team would be in Brampton forever. But ultimately it’s a business and, if they can’t stay in Brampton, I’m happy they’re going to a place like North Bay. I’m sure the city will be happy to get the team. You never want to see a team move, but you’re happy if fans will show up in the new city and fill the arena.
“My time with the Battalion was amazing. We had so much fun, both at the rink and away from it. We were just being teenagers, and that’s part of the OHL experience. You get the opportunity to become a better hockey player and you go to school, and at the same time you’re around your friends. It gets you ready for hockey and life.”
Wolski admitted his NHL career has had its ups and down. At the end of his junior career he joined Colorado for the playoffs and contributed four points, including one goal, in eight games. He played 293 games over the next four seasons with the Avalanche, producing 187 points, including 71 goals, before being traded to the Phoenix Coyotes on March 3, 2010. He had 12 goals and 22 assists for 34 points in 54 games with Phoenix before being dealt to the New York Rangers on Jan. 10, 2011. Wolski had 22 points, including six goals, in 46 games over two seasons with New York before being sent, in a trade involving Vernace, to the Florida Panthers on Feb. 25, 2012. Wolski had four goals and five assists for nine points in 22 games with Florida before signing with Washington as a free agent last July 11.
“I’m just maturing and figuring it out and realizing my potential and the things I need to do. I need to focus on the details to do well, and physically I feel good, and I think I’m in a good place mentally. The ups and downs are just part of the learning curve, and being in Brampton helped get me ready for that to some degree. The NHL is a whole new thing.”