For fans, hockey is a sport that makes you feel the highest highs and the lowest lows. The elation you fell when your team scores that overtime winner is often followed by the misery of a crushing defeat against your bitter rival.
For the athletes, those peaks and valleys are felt even more intensely.
Revelstoke native and former NHL player Aaron Volpatti’s career was full of those moments.
Now, seven years after his retirement from professional hockey, Volpatti is putting pen to paper and recounting his unique, turbulent, and inspiring road to the NHL.
Growing up a Grizzly
Like a lot of Canadian kids, Volpatti had a stick in his hand and skates on his feet for as long as he can remember. During his childhood, he said he considered himself an above-average player, but nothing special.
Even though the Revelstoke Forum has gone through some significant changes since he laced up there, Volpatti says he has fond memories at the old rink.
“It was a great place to grow up,” he said.
He said he can still remember the distinct smell, messing around in the dressing room with his teammates, tournaments, and eating popsicles and oranges.
Fast-forward a few years, a then-16-year-old Volpatti was paying Junior B hockey with the Revelstoke Grizzlies. The rough-and-tumble nature of the Kootenay International Junior Hockey League suited his style of play, which got him noticed by the Vernon Vipers where he snuck into the lineup as a fourth-line grinder.
It was during his second season with the Vipers when the incident that would change his whole outlook on life happened.
The Vipers team went camping after the end of his second season with the team as a sendoff for the players who were moving on.
Volpatti was messing around with some gas and fire when things took a turn for the worse.
He burned himself badly as 40 per cent of his body was covered in third and second degree burns.
Volpatti was airlifted to Vancouver mere hours after the incident to enter intensive care where he would remain for the better part of six weeks.
Following a few hazy days due to the sedation, Volpatti vividly recalls his first conversation with the doctors. Even lying in the hospital bed, his dreams of playing hockey and getting a scholarship were still at the front of his mind. He wanted to know when he could get back on skates, when he could get back to his team and chase his dream.
“I’ll never forget the look on his face,” said Volpatti. “It was ‘this poor kid thinks he’s gonna play hockey again’.”
Doctors told Volpatti that his goals would have to be sidelined, and that they would maybe be able to look at getting him on a pair of skates in a non-competitive way down the road. He recalls that moment as one of the low points of his life.
At that point, Volpatti thought he would have to give up on his hockey dream.
A couple of weeks into his stay at the burn unit, he received a call from his coach. Brown University were interested in a certain kind of player: a grinder. Volpatti fit the bill.
“He said ‘I got the perfect guy for you, but he’s burnt to a crisp in the hospital’,” recalled Volpatti.
He saw the opportunity which was in front of him. He thought of all the reasons he couldn’t play hockey that fall: skin grafts, intense pain, the risk of infection.
He made a decision that those reasons weren’t good enough to keep him from chasing his dream.
“If you’re telling me it’s going to hurt, well I’ve already been through that,” said Volpatti. “I was willing to die before giving up on that dream.”
Volpatti said that moment put him on the path to discovering what was truly possible through visualization and creating a deep sense of belief in ones-self.
He went on to attend Brown University, an Ivy League school, played 123 college games with the Brown Bears, captaining the team in his senior season where he put up 32 points in 37 games, and earned a bachelors degree in Human Biology. He set a school record for most penalty minutes in a season with 115 in 2009 to 2010.
Volpatti signed a multi-year contract with the Vancouver Canucks in 2010 when he was 24 years old. Not even a year later, he received his call-up.
After that it was a series of firsts: his first NHL game, his first goal on Dec. 20, 2010 against the St. Louis Blues, his first fight on Dec. 28 against Sean O’Donnell of the Philadelphia Flyers and his first assist in a 7-1 blowout against the Dallas Stars.
In total, Volpatti played 114 NHL games for the Canucks and the Washington Capitals before ending his career seven years ago following a neck injury.
Fans of the Capitals and Canucks remember Volpatti fondly for his grit and tenacity.
Following the end of his pro career, Volpatti experienced a loss of identity, and went through some spiritual adversity. When the COVID-19 pandemic began and he found himself locked inside, the next chapter of his life appeared before him.
From hard-hitter to hardcover
Volpatti traded in his shin-pads for a pen and paper when he decided to write his autobiography FIGHTER: Defying The NHL Odds, which recounts his entire journey from the burn unit to the NHL and beyond.
During the writing of the book, he began working as a cognitive performance coach for athletes, teaching his unique visualization techniques to help others cope with performance anxiety, lack of confidence, and self doubt.
With his book nearing completion, Volpatti is planning events in Revelstoke, Vernon, Vancouver and Washington in order to drum up excitement for the release of FIGHTER: Defying The NHL Odds, which he hopes will hit shelves in mid-October, 2022.