ST. PAUL, Minn. - Wes Walz was the embodiment of hard work over an NHL career that included 13 seasons and five teams, spanning 17 years.
Nobody has appeared in more games as a member of the Minnesota Wild, and the Calgary native has played his last. Walz announced his expected retirement on Saturday at a news conference before the team's practice, closing a curious last chapter that began on Nov. 1 when he took a leave of absence from the Wild for an unspecified personal reason.
The 37-year-old Walz, who played 438 of his 607 NHL games for Minnesota, said he needed time away to figure out if he could still perform at the level he demands from himself.
The answer, he said, was no.
"The way I've been playing - it's really just taken its toll on me, and it's really worn me down," said Walz, who contemplated retirement over the summer but signed a one-year contract with the club.
Walz, a defensive standout and a skating whiz at centre, had one goal and three assists in 11 games this season before stepping away. He finished with 109 goals and 151 assists in his career and left Marian Gaborik as the only player remaining from the Wild's inaugural team.
Sitting in a chair behind a podium in a packed room in the arena basement, Walz had his voice crack a couple of times while talking about his decision. He had the toughest time getting through his thanks to coach Jacques Lemaire, whose demanding style helped him get the most out of his ability.
"This guy's a good man. He's moulded me. He's taken basically a slab of clay that was nothing and moulded me into a player that I can be proud of," Walz said. "For that I'll be forever grateful."
Walz was drafted by the Boston Bruins in the third round in 1989. He played with them, the Philadelphia Flyers, the Calgary Flames and the Detroit Red Wings, but in 1996 his career was headed nowhere. Humbled, determined to get better, and not sure if he'd return to the NHL, Walz went to Switzerland and enjoyed four successful seasons there.
After Wild general manager Doug Risebrough targeted the five-foot-nine, 180-pound checker - undersized for that role - for the franchise's inaugural team in 2000, Walz became one of Lemaire's best workers.
"Wes stands for so many of the values we want our players to embody," Risebrough said in a statement. "On and off the ice he helped build the foundation of this organization."
He showed an almost-fanatical approach to game preparation and self-improvement that annually made an impression on the team's younger players. He also fought through several injuries to his midsection that cost him chunks of three seasons.
He never scored more than 19 goals in one season, but he had a performance to remember in 2002-03 when the Wild advanced to the Western Conference finals. Walz was a finalist for the Selke Trophy, which goes to the NHL's best defensive forward, and he tied for second on the team with 13 points in the post-season - including five goals in the second-round series against Vancouver. The Wild trailed 3-1 before rallying for three straight wins.
"He believed more than anybody in the success of our team when probably not a lot of people did, based on the circumstances," Risebrough said.
Walz, who is married with four children, sounded eager to spend more time with his family. His teammates, however, weren't excited to see him go - even if they've been preparing for the formality of his departure. Centre is the Wild's weakest position.
"Whatever he has to do, you know? It's good for him, I guess. He's a good guy. He helped me a lot. He was a great guy in the room and a great player, obviously," defenceman Brent Burns said.
Forward Brian Rolston sounded more understanding.
"You never want to retire from this game you've been playing your whole life, but obviously there comes a time," Rolston said. "If you understand how Wes is, and I think a lot of us do, he expects the utmost from his performance. We all know that, and I think that was getting to him. I think that's another admirable thing about him."
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