It’s been almost eight years now, but Capitals left wing Aaron Volpatti only needs to take a look in the mirror to be reminded of the excruciating pain and dogged persistence it took to get where he is today.
The scars on his right arm, torso and legs silently tell his story.
In the summer of 2005, after his Vernon Vipers were eliminated in the final round of the British Columbia Hockey League playoffs, Volpatti and his teammates went on a camping trip in British Columbia.
There was a bonfire and there was gasoline and Volpatti, who was 19 at the time, accidentally spilled gasoline on himself.
“We were being stupid teenagers messing around and the next thing you know I was pretty badly burned,” Volpatti recalled.
Volpatti remembers his body going into shock almost immediately. Frantic to give him help, one of his teammates’ girlfriends drove him 25 minutes to the nearest hospital, where Volpatti was then helicoptered overnight to the British Columbia Professional Fire Fighters Burn and Plastic Surgery Unit at Vancouver General Hospital.
“I woke up the next morning and I was kind of foggy,” Volpatti recalled. “And I was like, ‘Aw, man.’”
Doctors informed Volpatti that he had deep second-degree and third-degree burns over 35 percent of his body. His right hand and arm suffered the most damage and there were real concerns that Volpatti, a hard-hitting, glove-dropping forward, would never play hockey again.
Volpatti said there were about 12 beds in the burn unit and because other victims were in more dire need of surgery, he was forced to wait four weeks before receiving his skin grafts.
“I was bad, but there were people that were almost life and death and needed surgery, so I got pushed back,” Volpatti said. “That burn ward in Vancouver is a very special place, but it’s nasty, too. Some of the people there are in bad shape. I could hear people screaming. It’s not a great place to be.”
Volpatti said he shared a hospital room with a police officer who had been riding a bicycle in an alley when he was pinned against the wall by a tractor trailer, burning off some of his fingers.
Volpatti said his body actually began healing in those first four weeks and he was able to pull himself out of his hospital bed and into a chair. But doctors told him skin grafting was necessary for the long-term recovery of his nerves and muscles and a month after the accident Volpatti had skin taken from the back of his calves and thighs and placed over the burns on his right arm, legs and torso.
“Once I got cleared for surgery, the next thing you know – bam – you’re back in bed again and you have to start over,” he said.
It was during his stay in Vancouver General that Volpatti received the incentive he needed to resume his hockey career. Brown University expressed interest in giving him an athletic scholarship.
About a week after the surgery – five weeks after the camping accident – Volpatti was released from the hospital with “a huge burn kit.” A local nurse was assigned to treat his burns, but he was told to refrain from walking for at least another month.
At home with his family in Revelstoke, B.C., Volpatti began the arduous recovery process. He was on his feet by the middle of the summer and, remarkably, on skates by the end of August.
In September 2005, Volpatti returned for his third and final season with the Vernon Vipers, but fatigue and a groin injury limited him to 25 games.
It was during that season that Volpatti accepted an offer to play for Brown beginning the following fall and after extensive rehab he said he felt close to 100 percent one year after the accident.
“The scarring was still pretty bad but I started to feel a little bit normal,” he said.
Volpatti returned to Vancouver General in the summer of 2006 to thank his doctors and nurses for their role in his recovery.
“Just to go back was like conquering it,” he said.
Volpatti was 21 years old when he entered Brown as a human biology major and went on to play four years there, amassing 32 goals and 236 penalty minutes in 123 games.
After his senior year at Brown Volpatti signed a free-agent contract with the Canucks in 2010 and spent two years jockeying between the NHL and the AHL Manitoba Moose.
Volpatti made the Canucks’ roster out of training camp this season but was placed on waivers after scoring one goal and recording four fighting majors in 16 games with the Canucks.
“You don’t like to be put on waivers, right?” he said. “That was a little surprising and I was a little down. But at the same time I was excited to get a new opportunity somewhere.”
That somewhere became Washington when the Capitals claimed Volpatti off waivers last week and inserted him into the lineup Saturday in Winnipeg, where he dropped the gloves with heavyweight Anthony Peluso in a 3-0 win over the Jets.
“He wanted to show the guys he’s here and he’s a team guy,” Caps coach Adam Oates said. “Right away he takes on a big man. I was really happy with him.”
Nearly eight years removed from his burn accident, Volpatti says he appreciates the road he has taken to the NHL and would like to share it to help educate young people on the dangers of fire and help encourage burn victims on the importance of persistence.
“I had a couple guys talk to me, so it can’t hurt, right?” he said. “There is an end. It’s tough, but you’ll get there at one point. I did.”