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Fighter: Defying the NHL Odds
By Aaron Volpatti, AV Cognitive Performance Consulting, 326 pp, softcover
As inspirational sports stories go, Aaron Volpatti’s Fighter has more layers than most memoirs, that having everything to do with an opening that is nothing less than horrific. The former Vancouver Canuck wastes little time getting to what made his journey to the NHL unique in a memoir that, while ostensibly aimed at hockey fans, also has plenty of advice for anyone who’s ever doubted themselves. Which is to say basically all of us.
Fighter kicks off with a chapter titled Inferno, and—as would often be the case later during his professional career—Volpatti is at the centre of the chaos. When a stunt involving gasoline and a campfire goes wrong at a days-long B.C. bush party with his junior teammates, the Revelstoke-raised hockey player finds his body suddenly covered in flames.
And that’s where the book starts with the opening lines: “A loud rushing noise filled my ears. My whole body was engulfed in an intense warming sensation. Oddly, it wasn’t painful but it felt completely wrong, and my body reacted by telling me to run. As I bolted into the woods in a panic, I thought, Holy shit why isn’t this hurting?”
That would change seconds later, after his fellow partiers tackle him and then beat out the flames.
“My skin was still smouldering as they peeled off what little remained of my clothing. My breathing slowed, and when I looked up, all I could see was a crowd of horrified faces. Some of my friends had their hands covering their mouths and noses, some turned away in shock, and some were crying and shaking. I couldn’t make sense of what had happened, but as I follow their gaze down to my naked body, I saw piles of gnarled white skin lumped around certain areas, as if a giant candle had been, melted, and deliberately poured all over me. I grabbed the dangling skin around my right hand and pulled it. The skin kept coming and coming, continuing down my entire arm.”
And, impossibly, things get even more traumatizingly surreal from there after Volpatti, then a teenager, is loaded into a car and rushed to hospital by friends.
“As the car slowed, for some incomprehensible reason, I opened the door and dove out skidding, my skin sloughing off onto the payment as I hit. I rolled to a stop, and then found the energy somewhere to jump up and sprint into the emergency room, screaming for “Help” like I’d never screamed before. I wonder what all the people thought of the sight of my naked, bleeding, filthy, charred body careening into their space. I’ll never forget the horrified look on the first nurse’s face, as she registered the state of my situation and turned back and ran into the doors for help. Then everything went black.”
Captivating does not begin to describe things.
That opening chapter sets the table for Fighter on multiple fronts. First, it establishes Volpatti as a gifted storyteller—one who understands the power of great cliffhangers. Right after everything goes black, he rewinds right back to his early childhood in the next chapter, his upbringing a loving and supportive one despite being one step removed from “trailer-trash” in Revelstoke. The pages that follow alternate between his determined journey though the hockey ranks and the accident that leads to initial touch-and-go weeks in the hospital, and then months and months of skin grafts and rehab.
Local sports fans will remember Volpatti’s tenure with Vancouver Canucks during the team’s cup-contender years at the beginning of last decade. What fascinates in Fighter is his single-minded path to the best hockey league in the world. Never particularly skilled, a teenaged Volpatti eventually carved out a place in junior as an energy player—a forward who hit hard to intimidate the opposition, and who was more than willing to drop the gloves. That later—even while “burned to a crisp”—attracts the attention of Brown University, an Ivy League school in Rhode Island with an established hockey program.
While he hardly arrives at Brown being hailed at the second coming of Wayne Gretzky, Alexander Ovechkin, or Connor Bedard, Volpatti does have a couple of things that separate himself from the rest of the NCAA crowd: an insane work ethic combined with a competitiveness that makes him a lethal weapon on the ice. Some people get to the NHL by scoring goals. What paves Volpatti’s way are his opponents’ “collapsed lungs, broken ribs, broken collarbones, lacerated spleens and kidneys, concussions--you name it”.
Of his endless swath of destruction he writes “The really serious injuries were scary and were not what I wanted to see happen. I never set out to seriously hurt someone. But unfortunately, they happened to be collateral damage from the mission I was on. Whether anyone liked it nor, the reality was it brought the attention of the NHL scouts.”
As for his arrival with the Canucks, and later the Washington Capitals, there’s plenty of trivia for those fascinated by what goes on in the NHL behind the scenes. Volpatti talks glowingly of the Sedins and the late Rick Rypien, and provides plenty of insights on locker-room life, including everything from the psychology of fighting friends to one-time Caps' coach Adam Oates’ bizarre obsession with what kind of sticks his players needed to be using.
For a larger overview on the hockey side of things, consider this: Volpatti struggled to make his teams in junior hockey. And then factor in that stats show only around. .11 percent of youth hockey players in North America make it to the NHL. If he could do it, you can too. Except you probably can’t.
But then again maybe you can, because if there’s another message to Fighter, it’s that, with positive thinking you can pretty much do anything you set your mind to.
Volpatti spends his first days in the burn unit of Vancouver General Hospital after the accident wondering if he’ll every play hockey again, if he’ll be able to have a family, or ever recover from his burns to where people won’t be looking at him on the street. And then he decides that, rather than feeling sorry for himself, he’s going to put in his own recovery work, utilizing something that he comes to call Visualization (a technique he now teaches to others today).
Basically it goes something like this: if you can laser-focus on an outcome you want, you can make it happen.
Flashing back to his initial days in the VGH burn unit, when the pain is constant, grinding, and overwhelming, Volpatti writes:
“My prognosis would not define me. I believed visualization was my only hope to prove the doctors, and my old mind, wrong. One day, I actually got busted by the nurses for doing my pullups. I’m sure they’d never seen anyone do pull ups in the burn unit before. They though I was crazy. Maybe they were right “You need to let you hands heal and rest.” I would just smile and tell them I was going to walk out of that place before they knew it. “That’s not going to help you heal or walk!” they would say. I would simply smile again, “Yes it will.”
How successful if he? Um not to overstate thing, but Volpatti not only ending up making an eventual full recovery, but, almost miraculously, was back on the ice playing four-and-half months after being told his hockey career was over.
“I took my helmet off and soaked up the electric atmosphere,” he writes of his first game back in the junior ranks. “When my name was called on the loudspeaker, the crowd erupted, and the cheering didn’t stop. It felt like an eternity before the sound subsided. Most of the city knew what happened to me, and at that moment, I was flooded with emotion. I looked over to where my parents were sitting. They never missed a game and saw them hugging. I broke down, and the tears started streaming down my face.”
And if all that’s not a clinic is how to overcome adversity, wait until you get to what happens on the personal front after Volpatti has his career cut short by a serious neck injury.
Inspirational? That’s probably underselling Fighter. But it’s certainly one hell of a starting point.