An original member of the Wild, Minnesota’s Wes Walz retires

The hockey community, especially in Minnesota, was dealt a tough blow when Wes Walz officially announced his retirement at a press conference at the XCel Energy Center Saturday afternoon. Walz enjoyed a thirteen-year NHL career, including playing 438 games for the Minnesota Wild.

Wes was originally drafted by the Boston Bruins and played for the Philadelphia Flyers, Calgary Flames and Detroit Red Wings before going to Switzerland to play for four seasons. Wes returned from Europe in 2000 to play for Minnesota’s inaugural team and we remember how forging a relationship with Head Coach Jacques Lemaire was so crucial to Wes’s success and redefined him as a player. Wes went on to become the Wild’s all-time leader in games played (438) and the 2nd leading goal scorer (82) in franchise history, as well as the Captain of the Wild team.

The mutual respect and admiration between Walz and Lemaire was highlighted in both of their comments surrounding the retirement announcement. Wes explained that Lemaire was “a good man” and that he was grateful that Lemaire “moulded me into a player that I can be proud of”. Lemaire was similarly proud of his relationship with Wes and compared Walz’s competitiveness and perfectionist ways to Wayne Gretzky. Lemaire stated that “There are a few guys, the top guys, who retire when they realize they can’t be the guy they were,” he said. “Gretzky was one of them. There’s just handful of guys. Wes is one of them.”

Walz’s impact and value went well beyond his statistics. Walz excelled in all aspects of the game, most notably serving as one of the team’s top penalty killers while still playing on the Wild’s top line with Marian Gaborik and Pavol Demitra. Walz also served as a mentor to several of the Wild’s up-and-coming players including Mikko Koivu.

For us at PuckAgency, it has truly been an honor to represent a class individual dedicated to his profession. The Minnesota Wild and many, many others involved in the game of hockey will undoubtedly miss Wes’ professionalism, approach and sportsmanship.

A Wild original leaves an impression

Wes Walz held nothing back in his emotional farewell, just as he did night after night, flying up and down the rink at full tilt for the Wild.

By Michael Russo, Star Tribune
Last update: December 01, 2007 – 11:58 PM

So intense, he could pop a blood vessel talking penalty-kill intricacies. So dedicated, he would sprint on the treadmill until he was soaking wet. So passionate, he could resuscitate a dying team merely by opening his mouth. So maniacal, he would do countless 360s to test his skates while most his teammates were long gone.

And so good, he could shut down the NHL’s most prolific stars with pure grit and determination.

Wes Walz, one of the NHL’s smoothest-skating checkers and the longtime heart-and-soul backbone of the Wild dressing room, officially hung up his skates Saturday.

In front of heavy-hearted teammates, coaches and trainers, the respected 37-year-old center finally emerged after a month of soul searching and said goodbye during an emotional 30-minute news conference packed with laughs and tears.

Walz, always the character, announced his retirement so matter-of-factly, it seemed to even surprise him. With a beam, Walz said: “Wow, it’s a full house. I thought press conferences were only for superstars. I guess if you retire halfway through the season, you get your own press conference.”

Many believe this is a premature departure, but Walz, the Wild’s all-time games-played leader at 438, said: “It’s time. There’s no use fighting it any more.”

After last year’s first-round playoff loss to Anaheim, Walz made no secret of his disappointment with his second-half play. But Walz trained “like a dog” last summer because “I had something to prove.”But it’s been a struggle for me,” Walz said. “I have not been able to get back to the level that I expect of myself. And in my heart, I don’t believe it’s fair … to play at anything less than what I expect of myself.”

Walz continued: “The way I’ve been playing has really taken a toll on me and it’s just worn me down. After many sleepless nights, I believe in my heart that it’s time to move on into the next phase of my life.”

Highest standards

Teammates, one by one, said there’s no doubt Walz could still play at a high level. But as Brian Rolston said, “If you understand how Wes is, and I think a lot of us do, he expects the utmost from his performance.”

Marian Gaborik, 18 when he met Walz and now the last original Wild standing, said: “It’s so hard to see a guy go that you spent basically eight years with. Great guy, great teammate, great leader. He helped me through the beginnings.”

All expansion teams eventually shed their early parts as the franchise matures and draft picks develop. But while player after player left the Wild since its 2000 inception, Walz remained and brilliantly resurrected what had been a fading career.

A star back in junior, Walz fanned out in 1995 after six years of high expectations. But he spent four years rediscovering his love for hockey in Switzerland before getting the call from Wild General Manager Doug Risebrough in 1999.

“As a 20-year-old, I thought I would play forever until I almost played myself out of the league,” Walz said. “When I came back as a 30-year-old, I was a different person and way better hockey player. When Doug called me, I knew there was no chance I wasn’t making the team.”

Walz tried hard to fight back tears, but he became very emotional when talking about coach Jacques Lemaire’s impact.

With tears flowing, Walz said, “Jacques’ taken basically a slab of clay that was nothing and molded me into a player that I could be proud of.”

Lemaire said: “I was really, really touched. I remember his first training camp, the first time I looked at the players, the first thing I said, ‘At least we got [one] player.’ “

A go-to player

In 2002-03, Walz was a finalist for the Selke Trophy as the NHL’s best defensive forward. He also had a marvelous postseason in which he scored seven goals and shut down such stars as

Peter Forsberg and Markus Naslund, as the third-year Wild shocked the NHL and advanced to the Western Conference finals. Walz’s 82 goals and 182 points rank second in franchise history.

“The thing I’m most proud of is that I know when Jacques was behind me on the bench that he could look down at me and see my name and my number and feel comfortable throwing me onto the ice,” Walz said.

The foundation Walz laid will be everlasting, especially for protégés Mikko Koivu, Brent Burns and Pierre-Marc Bouchard. He also has made a financial impact. By retiring, Walz comes off the Wild’s salary cap, which is roughly $2.5 million south of the $50.3 million ceiling.

“He strived to be at his best all the time,” defenseman Kurtis Foster said. “We all saw that. He’s the guy running the treadmill after a game he just played 20 minutes and he’s running at 9.5 where other guys are getting iced or in the showers and ready to go.”

Added Lemaire: “When I was in New Jersey, I talked about [Scott] Stevens and how intense the guy was and how he prepared himself for games and how he was a great example.

“Wes Walz is exactly the same. He’s a player you do not worry if he’s going to get ready. If we played 100 [games], he’s going to play 100 at his max.”

A different playtime

Walz has been chasing a puck around his whole life. He knows retirement won’t be easy, but he’s looking forward to spending more time with his wife, Kerry-Anne, and his four children.

Asked what’s next, Walz said, smiling: “Change a lot of diapers. My 10-month-old is in go-mode right now. I’ll chase her around the house and get the kids off to school and hang out at Wal-Mart and Target and department stores and now at least I’ll have no excuse getting my Christmas shopping done.

“I do have aspirations to stay in the game. It’s what I’ve done my whole life. It’s what I know best. I feel like I have things to give. … I always hope that the foundation of hard work and what I’ve done from Day One is always something that will stick with the club.”