ARLINGTON, V.A. — In a strange way, former Washington Capitals forward Aaron Volpatti is thankful that he caught on fire.
“I don’t make it here without this burn injury. There’s no way. I know that for sure,” Volpatti said.
Volpatti was just a kid from Revelstoke, B.C., who was never supposed to go pro in the first place. He grew up living in a trailer park with his family and played Junior A hockey with the Vernon Vipers. The NHL path had never been on his radar. Instead, he wanted to accomplish one thing in hockey: to represent a U.S. college on the ice.
“I was never really supposed to play pro hockey in general. I was a scrapper who scored one goal my first year in Junior A and I was just trying to get to the NCAA. That was kind of my dream, my NHL.”
Then, in the early morning hours of April 20, 2005, his life changed forever. After his second year with the Vipers and suffering a loss to the Surrey Eagles in the BCHL Finals, Volpatti and his teammates were deep in the woods. They were 30 minutes away from any available cell phone service. Drunk while camping and partying, Volpatti and his teammates had a makeshift bonfire going. Volpatti felt on top of the world, and as he calls it, he was “that daredevil doing stupid shit.” That’s when he decided to put on a “pyro show,” where he’d fill bottles with gasoline and light them up. As he put a couple of the filled-up bottles in his sweater pocket, they broke, and the gasoline leaked onto his sweater and soaked him. For some reason he still can’t fully comprehend, he decided to toss the gasoline-drenched sweater into the fire.
In a flash, Volpatti was set alight.
“I basically blew myself up,” Volpatti said.
“It was very much an out-of-body experience for sure… the burn itself I just remember being very warm. I wasn’t in any pain because that shock sets in. And I remember that was still a sense of panic because like, I’m on fire,” he added. “That flight or fight reaction just took over and I just bolted, which was the worse thing I could have done because I was pretty fast and no one could catch me. And I’m trying to get this fire out and roll around, and it just wouldn’t go out.”
As Volpatti burned, things went from panic to peace; part of him, whether it be conscious or subconscious, had thought that he was going to die.
“It was this really weird sense of panic but then this eerie calmness and peacefulness to the whole thing; I think that’s what death probably feels like. I wasn’t in any pain, and all of a sudden just very eerie peacefulness… I think I kind of stared death in the face, and it wasn’t so bad in a creepy way.”
Then, a hit from behind sent him down. His friends had caught up to him and tackled him to the ground. There wasn’t any reception, so calling 911 for an ambulance and paramedics was out of the question. Instead, Volpatti’s teammates threw him in the back of the car, speeding to the hospital, throwing his right arm in a beer cooler as the pain got worse.
“I started blacking out when the shock wore off, and then the pain from a burn sets in… that car ride was really, really painful.”
From that point on, things get foggy for Volpatti, who remembers flashes between nightmare and reality and ultimately, bloodied, burnt and naked, jumping from the car and running into the emergency room and pleading for help. Then, everything went black. The next thing he remembered was waking up in a Vancouver hospital burn unit, his body covered in gauze.
“It was even more of a long shot and odds stacked against me… I was bedridden. I couldn’t move, I was wrapped up like a mummy, burnt to a crisp,” he recalled.
As he rested and recovered from the trauma, while also going through debridement and prepping for skin grafting surgeries, Volpatti also saw his dream starting to take off without him. In the hospital, he got a call from his assistant coach in Vernon, telling him Brown University, one of the top U.S. schools he’d worked his whole life to get to, was looking for a player just like Volpatti. It was a perfect fit, but there was just one hurdle: Volpatti had been told his career was over.
“I had this mindset was like, it’s over. I was kind of depressed and in a dark spot, like, what am I gonna do with my life? Got a call a couple of weeks in that really changed my life, and I made a decision that I was gonna go chase this dream,” Volpatti said. “I get this call from Brown, and they actually called my assistant coach and they’re like, ‘Hey, we’re after this type of player.’ His exact words were ‘They wanted a guy to put the fear of God in the defensemen of the Ivy League.’ He’s like, ‘I got the perfect guy, there’s just one problem: He’s in the burn unit in Vancouver and he’s in pretty rough shape.’
“[My assistant coach], he’s like, ‘just call the coach.’ So that’s how I ended up calling this coach from Brown and it was left very open-ended. Just sort of, ‘We sort of heard what happened. We wish you the best in recovery’ kind of thing. And I remember hanging up the phone and I just started asking myself why I couldn’t I play?”
That’s when the lightbulb went off in Volpatti’s head. Why couldn’t he? So, in that moment, he decided that he would defy what the doctors said, and unlocking the power of the mind and visualization, he saw himself making the NCAA, no matter what.
“There was a really long list of reasons why [I couldn’t play]. I mean, infection was probably the biggest. Skin grafts were going to be very limiting, very painful. I was going to be in a full bodysuit, couldn’t sweat from those third-degree areas. So, there’s a big list of reasons why, and I just made a choice that day. I’m like, ‘those aren’t good enough reasons.'”
So, in spite of everything, Volpatti left the hospital earlier than expected, staying just six weeks in the burn unit.
“My mindset had shifted a couple weeks into it where I had made a decision that, like, ‘I’m willing to die before I give up on that dream…’ that’s when the journey kind of started right when I left the hospital.”
His body was now 40 percent second and third-degree burns, but he got back on the ice in a few months’ time. That in itself wasn’t ideal, though, as Volpatti suffered severe trauma to his leg muscles. He had to walk to and from the rink on crutches and had to wear a full bodysuit under his gear. Basically, he was starting from scratch.
“The doctors were right. Like my burns, I dealt with some complications for a couple years. I had a lot of pelvis issues that first year coming back to junior that fall after the burn injury. Had a lot of complications with just pelvis issues and alignment,” he said, adding, “I could barely walk, let alone play hockey… I was trying to get by.
“It was very humbling, I guess you could say. I was very stiff and still in a lot of pain. The doctors were right; I shouldn’t have been playing, but I refused to give up. And it was so hard. It was a lot of pain, a lot of stiffness. My second-degree burn areas, they didn’t close for a really long time. So it was kind of like dealing with all of that and prepping and keeping it as clean as I could and dealing with the pain,” Volpatti said. “So it was a long grind until I ended up getting that scholarship. And then I finally gave myself permission to play healthy, and that’s why I only played 20-something games my last year in junior because I was holding on by a thread. I really was. And then once I got that scholarship I said, okay, it’s time to try and healthy here.”
Volpatti returned to Vernon to continue with the Vipers in 2005-06. He had 14 points in 25 games before he had to allow himself to recover with Brown awarding him that scholarship he’d fought for.
Making his way to Brown, Volpatti wanted to go into biology and neuroscience, wanting to learn more about what he’d experienced and wanting to get more understanding of the power of the mind and body. He’d seen his friends and other teammates majoring in business and economics, but his advisor told him to stick with what he wanted. So he pursued that, and also thrived with Brown. He worked his way up and was a solid presence on and off the ice. He earned the “C” in his senior year and ultimately finished his tenure with 32 goals and 29 assists in 123 games.
“As soon as a couple years hit, I felt pretty good. I felt like my old self. I had some pretty gnarly scars left to tell the story, but after my freshman year at Brown, I was pretty much back to normal,” Volpatti recalled. “As soon as that bodysuit came off, I was kind of like my old self, just again had a story and some scars.”
While Volpatti’s studies set up his post-retirement life, he first found himself in the one place he never envisioned: the NHL. Out of school, Volpatti signed a deal with the Vancouver Canucks, and in his first year, played 15 NHL games while spending the majority of his time in the AHL with the Manitoba Moose. He’d crack the NHL roster the following season and cement his legacy as a grinder and fighter. As he was told back when burning, teams wanted him to instill the “fear of God” in opponents. Of course, that was easier said than done at the NHL level.
“In junior and in college, like I was a big dude in college. I was a late bloomer and then really started working out and I was a big kid in college. And then I turned pro and now I’m like, all of a sudden, very average size. And so that was a little bit harder because you’re talking about, I was fighting guys three, four inches taller and 40 pounds heavier. It’s not as easy to put that fear in with those big dudes, right?” he said. “I didn’t back away from it. It was definitely challenging to the grind of that role like in a pro hockey season, there was a challenge to it… there’s the anxiety of kind of that next fight that always sits in the back of your mind.”
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Volpatti eventually went on waivers and got picked up by the Washington Capitals. He spent two years with the organization, but a devastating neck injury forced him to hang up the skates, despite his best efforts to reframe the adversity just as he did with the past scars he suffered. That’s when the same life questions he’d faced before — and a bit of that darkness and depression — came back.
In 114 NHL games, Volpatti had five goals, two assists and 137 PIM. Over the course of his pro career, he had 39 fights.
“I battled all of those demons. That was very hard because my burn injury, I couldn’t necessarily make that worse, per se. Like there could be complications, but I was 20, and I had that mindset. Like I was willing to die before giving up. So when I had this neck injury, I still had that mindset, but the problem was I could make my neck a lot worse and there could be really bad complications. Like the burn was more it just hurts, can you deal with this level of pain? With the neck, yeah it hurt, but there was a risk of another fusion surgery and complications,” Volpatti explained. “I was pushing, I had that mindset like I had with the burn but it got to a point where I talked to the surgeon and the doctors were like hey, if you play, like how this neck is now, you might have another surgery and some pretty big complications.
“So I had to give myself permission to take care of my neck. I wanted to hold my future kids, and I didn’t want to have a double or triple fusion because that’s life-changing stuff that you deal with. It was hard to give myself that permission and kind of take care of my health because I could make that a lot worse and it could have a lot of repercussions there. So it wasn’t easy to make that choice.”
After retiring, he worked in wealth management for a bit and explored different avenues as well. His family and friends had told him that with time on his hands, he should share his story. And though he’s open with it now, he didn’t really like to revisit or openly talk about what happened.
“That’s why it’s taken me a long time to write this and a lot of that was because I always kind of kept things close to the vest and I never really got super comfortable being vulnerable. And talking about the story, I remember a couple years ago, I had this realization because this book had always been a side project. And all of my buddies and family that knew the ins and outs of the whole journey were like, ‘You need to tell your story. Like, when are you going to do this?’ They’d always told me that and I was just never comfortable with opening up, I guess,” Volpatti admitted.
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“And at the end of the day, I was thinking, I can really help people with this. People going through any type of adversity, whether it be an injury, we all have adversity, right? I’m like. ‘If I can just even make a difference in one person’s life where they maybe hold on a bit longer, they don’t give up on their dream when they’re told it’s not possible, then that’s a win for me’; So utlimately, I decided to do this and to make a difference and inspire people and tell the story.”
So, Volpatti finally sat down and wrote “FIGHTER: Defying The NHL Odds.” While he was a fighter at the NHL level, the book is far from about that. It’s about reframing when it comes to adversity, overcoming those tough times and sticking with your dream. Simply put, opening the mind and seeing things from a new perspective, just as Volpatti did two weeks into his hospital stay.
“I think the message and big part of the book: adversity’s coming whether we like it or not, and we all deal with it in some way. This was mine. My experience was one of my many experiences with adversity. But it’s funny; I tell people every piece of success I’ve had in my life, whether it be this or the book or relationships or anything, like literally anything, has always been preceded by this extreme adversity. And I don’t think that’s by accident,” Volpatti said. “I know that good never happens without any of that.
“I think the message is that adversity is disguised as a gift. You just maybe don’t know it in the moment. Because when you’re in the shit, it looks like shit. You can’t see past it. And thankfully, I have these experiences to know that, ‘Hey, you might be even stronger and better off down the road.’ I know that now. I think it’s good for people to know that it doesn’t seem like that right now, but if you can just reframe it differently and know there can be a lot of growth here, it can change everything.”
Volpatti’s book also inspired a new career path and passion following his pro hockey career. He is a cognitive performance and injury coach and also speaks about his injury. He also mentors other athletes and runs visualization programs for athletes to help them capture that mindset that led him — quite literally — through fire.
“A quarter halfway through the book, I had another lightbulb moment. I’m like, this is what I need to teach people and teach athletes specifically. I developed these programs with Brown and my experiences of what I knew to be so powerful, and developed these programs and started the business with working with athletes. It’s been awesome, it’s been so cool to see people really make a difference and kind of tap into that power. This makes such a huge difference. Forget about performance, yes, but just overall, being in a state of confidence and being who you want to be, it’s been very rewarding.”
“FIGHTER” came out on Oct. 25, and as of that date for 54 days — a tribute to Volpatti’s number — 40 percent — a tribute to the percentage of his body that is second and third-degree burns — of the profits will be donated to the British Columbia Professional Fire Fighters’ Burn Fund. He also hopes that the book has a lasting impact, as he truly embodies a fighter, and not even with regard to his role at the NHL level. The book is available on Volpatti’s website and on Amazon.
“The message in the book is to fight for what you love and what you believe in. And I was able to do that through the power of the mind and visualization specifically,” Volpatti said. “It allowed me to unwrap that gift of adversity and therefore fight for what I wanted and believed in and loved. And then I happened to punch people in the face at the same time, and [the title] works there too.”