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Wild's Walz retires from NHL, citing level of play

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Wes Walz was the embodiment of hard work
over an NHL career that included 13 different seasons and five
different teams, spanning 17 years.

Nobody has appeared in more games as a member of the Minnesota Wild, and Walz has played his last. He announced his expected
retirement on Saturday at a news conference before the team's
practice, closing a curious last chapter in his career 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 the 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 center, 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 molded me. He's taken basically a
slab of clay that was nothing and molded me into a player that I
can be proud of," Walz said, "and 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, his hometown
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 ever return to the NHL, Walz went to Switzerland and
enjoyed four successful seasons playing professionally there.

After Wild general manager Doug Risebrough targeted the
5-foot-9, 180-pound checker -- undersized for that role -- for the
franchise's inaugural team in 2000, Walz became one of Lemaire's
best workers.

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 separate 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
that year, which goes to the NHL's best defensive forward, and he
tied for second on the team with 13 points in the postseason -- including five goals in that memorable second-round series against
the Vancouver Canucks. 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 eager to
see him go -- even if they've been preparing for the formality of
his departure. Center 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," defenseman 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."