Photos by Andre Ringuette/Getty Images and Russell Hons Photography
Christian Wolanin got his first taste of the NHL this season and made a huge impact for the Ottawa Senators. The junior defenseman led North Dakota in points this season and he chats with us for an exclusive interview about making the jump from the college to pro game.
Christian Wolanin’s College Career
- 2016 NCAA Champion
- 2017-18 All-NCHC Second Team
- Two-time NCHC Academic All-Conference Team
Editor’s Note: This interview took place over the phone on April 5, while Wolanin and the Senators were in Pittsburgh.
Fighting Hawks Magazine: You performed well at Ottawa’s Prospect Camp last summer, according to reports. Is that when Ottawa started to pursue you to sign after your junior season?
Christian Wolanin: “I knew I did well enough my first two years at the development camp to pique their interest and get on their radar. With the season I had at North Dakota, I knew there was going to be pressure at the end of the year. That’s usually how it goes when you dominate at the college level; if you’re lucky enough you’ll get a shot at the professional level. I knew that there was going to be a chance.
“I didn’t choose to answer any phone calls or really communicate with them much during my time at North Dakota because I wanted to focus on getting as far as we could there and winning hockey games.
“Unfortunately, once we found out our season ended, the phone calls began with my agent who I hired — well, he was an advisor in college, but now he’s my agent. I heard from him about a week left in the college season, and right when the season finished, the phone calls started coming in and there was a bunch of rumors about me going to free agency, and blah, blah, blah. But, at the end of the day, my only thought-process was: come back for my senior year or leave and go play in Ottawa? Within those four days, it was about if I got a chance to play in the NHL, and do I think I’m ready, and here I am today.”
FHM: You becoming a free agent this summer was a possibility. Did you even know that was an option?
CW: “I don’t really remember (how I learned about it), but I knew it was an option. But Ottawa has been nothing but loyal to me, and treated me great as a prospect, even as a freshman when maybe I would’ve come in after that year or my sophomore year, and they were great to me. I think there’s something to be said about being loyal and being true to somebody who believes in you before things start going your way.”
FHM: Ultimately, what clinched your decision to sign your first professional contract?
CW: “When I found out I had a chance to play in the final games in the NHL, it kind of put my foot in the door for making the NHL team next year. I really thought it was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up on. I think these eight games so far have been great.”
FHM: Did you reach out to any of your former North Dakota teammates while you were going through the decision-making process?
CW: “Yeah, one of the guys I called right away was Troy Stecher. He’s one of the upperclassmen that took me in as a freshman and we talked a lot when he was a pro and I was still at North Dakota. He was kind of my older brother and he was actually the last phone call I made after my family. It went mom, dad, uncles, grandma and then Stech.
“I just said, ‘Hey man, what’s the League like? Can I make the jump? How did you feel about leaving?’ Just all the questions that you would assume, and he really gave me the confidence. I’m not going to say he was the deciding factor, but he definitely encouraged and supported me and that was something special to hear from a good friend like that.”
FHM: You sign your contract March 21, and your first game is the next night. What was the most emotional part of those two days?
CW: “I think the most nerve-wracking part was in the hotel the night before, and during my nap after the pregame skate. You’re just alone with your thoughts in your room, in a new city, and all the thoughts going through your head.
“Once the game started, it felt like a normal hockey game but the players were bigger and you start to recognize names like (Connor) McDavid and (Leon) Draisaitl, and you’re like holy crap, here I am, I’m actually in the NHL. But the more I played, the more I’m around the guys, the more I realize it’s just another hockey team. The level is higher, the intensity is higher, but again, it’s a game you grew up playing and this is what you grew up playing for.”
FHM: Your former teammate Drake Caggiula scored in the first period of your first game. Do you owe him a dinner now or how does this work with you North Dakota guys?
CW: “He was in the right spot at the right time so I’m not going to give him credit for that (laughs). No, I’m kidding. Obviously, I’d like to win against him, though.”
FHM: What’s it like to have Erik Karlsson be the first one to congratulate you after your first career goal?
CW: “I just got goosebumps thinking about it. You watch Ottawa, even prior to being drafted, and you watch him, and in every situation, he’s one of the greatest defensemen in the game today without a doubt. To get the opportunity to play shifts with him and get the opportunity to score my first goal and there’s really no words to describe it. It was the perfect situation, really.
“I wish we would’ve won that game, and that would have made it even cooler but just seeing a Norris Trophy winner and one of the best defensemen to ever play looking at you, smiling, is happy for you and congratulates you is a moment I’ll never forget, and I’m very thankful for.”
FHM: Where’s that puck going?
CW: “Ottawa took it. I think they make a plaque for everyone for their first goal. I don’t know, they took it right after the game, so I just let them take it. It’s better off in their hands than mine for now.”
FHM: What was that clichéd “Welcome to the NHL Moment” for you?
CW: “Scoring my first goal was for sure it. I haven’t been that happy in a long time. Even when I would score in college it was just a celebration, like, for the team, I scored for the team because we’re going to win this game…but when I scored in the NHL, I got butterflies and goosebumps, and on my way back to go through the line, I was looking around and hearing the crowd and they announced ‘Scoring his first NHL goal,’ and you hear the crowd erupt. It was just, I don’t want to say I’ve made it because I’m eight games in, but it was kind of that feeling a little bit.”
“It’s better off in their hands than mine now.” – Christian Wolanin
FHM: Has your nickname carried over to the NHL?
CW: “Yeah, I’m “Wooly” here. It doesn’t really change wherever I go. On the first day, they asked, ‘Do they call you Wooly?’ And I’m like, ‘Yup.’ That was it.”
FHM: Your college career is over, but you’ll always be a North Dakota hockey player. What does that mean to you?
CW: “It’s the greatest place on earth, for every reason. Whether you talk about the facilities, the fans, the coaching staff, the teammates, certain teachers, it’s just so special. Even after signing, I don’t want to say regret was in my head, but I immediately started missing it. I immediately started thinking about the fact that I won’t go to the Ralph every day of the week. I won’t be taking road trips with the guys. You just start missing it right away, even though you’re on your way to your lifelong dream.
“That is truly the most special place I ever played in with the most special people. Just the opportunity to play there was a blessing, and I’m willing to do whatever it takes to pay it forward, whether it be talking to recruits for the coaches or do whatever I can to add to that tradition to add to that program and add to that culture.
“The opportunity to play there was a blessing, and I’m willing to do whatever it takes to pay it forward.” – Christian Wolanin
“I don’t have enough words to explain how thankful I am for everything that I just mentioned. Specifically the coaching staff and the training staff, and everyone on staff there. Coach Berry, Coach Jackson, Coach Shaw were unbelievable father figures for me for three years, and I know that Coach Berry is looking for a new contract this year and I don’t think there’s a guy on earth who deserves it more than him.”