Hockey Heart Story – Wally Kozak

Wally Kozak is known as one of the best technical hockey coaches in the world. A career coach and past Head Scout and manager of Player Development for Team Canada Women’s Team, he has been an instrumental part of developing female hockey in Canada. He was one of the first coaches of the Calgary Oval X-Treme and was an assistant coach with the Women’s National Team at the 2002 Olympics. Not only is Wally known as a coach, but as a mentor to many others in the women’s game, including former National Team coach, Shannon Miller. He has positively touched the lives of so many players and coaches over the decades with his passion and wealth of knowledge about the game of hockey.

On October 10th, 2007, Wally suffered a massive heart attack while on the ice coaching the Strathmore Rockies of the former Western Women’s Hockey League. The team was practicing a D-zone drill where Wally skated to a spot in the D-zone and players had to adjust their positioning as if he were an opponent with the puck. He skated behind the net, stopped, then slumped over a little and leaned on the net. A couple of players were helping Wally to the bench when he collapsed and lost consciousness.

Krista Larsen, who was there that day recounted the following:

“We weren’t sure what was happening, but we laid him on his back. A few of the players who had first aid training started to assess the situation. It was obvious he had stopped breathing. His lips were turning blue. Samm (Holmes) called 911; another (Corrine) Swirsky started CPR.  I took off to find the AED. Luckily, a staff member was in the arena office and handed me the AED, which I think was stored in the office at that time, and not in a well marked place on the wall, which is more common now. I brought the AED back to Wally and we followed the AED instructions to attach the pads, administer a shock, and continue with CPR. Before we were instructed to shock again, the paramedics arrived and took over.”

Wally was rushed to the Peter Lougheed Centre in Calgary, receiving 14 more defibrillations en route.

The survival rate for a heart attack the magnitude of which Wally suffered is a mere five per cent, and doctors warned his family that if he did survive he may be brain damaged or even brain dead.

“Doctors said I would never work again, watch hockey, or even understand it. Guess they gave us the worst-case scenario so probably there would be less disappointment with my potential recovery. I learned about what happened to me from my wife Carol and hockey friends while I rehabilitated. All I can remember was that I felt like I fainted on the ice, until I woke up from my coma weeks later.” Quote from –“Tucker Hockey Profile: Meet the Instructor – Wally Kozak” from Hockey Zones volume 8, No. 2, Issue 22, Spring/Summer 2011

After being out of the hospital for three days Kozak made a surprise visit to the team during a game in Calgary against the Oval X-Treme. He miraculously returned in a coaching capacity January 18th, 2008.

Wally has remained involved with hockey in various capacities since 2007. Today, he can be seen out watching most Inferno home games. Another coach that Wally mentored is the Inferno’s own Tomas Pacina:

“He was and is my friend and mentor, and continues to enjoy women’s hockey and loves the way the Inferno play. He is probably the most undervalued and underappreciated coach and teacher in Canada. He himself played for the Canadian National team, coached by Father David Bauer; he coached every level of men’s and women’s hockey and taught thousands of kids and hundreds of coaches.”

This weekend, at the Inferno’s Fourth Annual Keep the Beat Fundraiser in support of the Heart and Stroke Foundation, we thank Wally and pay tribute to his contributions to the sport we all love.  We are thankful that he is here to share these moments with us and share his story with others to create awareness about the importance of heart health.