Monday, June 28, 2010
Wes Walz returned from the hockey wilderness on this day in 2000 when he signed a contract with the expansion Minnesota Wild of the NHL.
Expected to be a force offensively after scoring 104 points in 63 games with the Lethbridge Hurricanes in junior hockey, Walz was selected in the third round of the 1989 NHL Entry Draft, ahead of players such as Kris Draper, Robert Reichel, Sergei Fedorov and Pavel Bure, although it must be noted that selecting Soviet players was still a gamble at the time.
Walz lived up to the Bruins expectations with 54 goals and 140 points in 56 games and 37 points in 19 playoff games in his final season of junior hockey, won a gold medal with Canada at the 1990 World Junior Tournament, including five points in seven games, and made his NHL debut with the Bruins in two games, which included scoring his first NHL goal. In 1990-91 he split time between the Maine Mariners and the Bruins and played for no less than four teams in 1991-92, the Mariners (21 games) and the Bruins (15) and, following a trade, the Hershey Bears of the AHL (41) and the Philadelphia Flyers (2).
After a full season with Hershey in 1992-93, he signed as a free agent with the Calgary Flames and again divided his time between the AHL and the NHL. 1994-95 Walz was limited to 39 games with Calgary in 1994-95. He then signed with the Detroit Red Wings as a free agent, but only appeared in two games with the Detroit and spent 38 games with Adirondack of the AHL.
And with that, his once promising NHL career wound down after just 169 games and 78 total points.
Fast forward four seasons and Walz, a six year veteran of the NHL, was playing for Lugano of the Swiss Nationalliga A after three successful seasons with EV Zug, which included leading the team in points and to a championship in 1997-98.
A father with growing children ready to start school, Walz, now age 30, had a desire to return to North America, and the expansion taking place with the addition of Nashville in 1998, Atlanta in 1999 and now Columbus and Minnesota in 2000 had created roughly 100 new jobs for players in the NHL. With both Columbus and Minnesota looking to stock up their rosters for their debut seasons in 2000-01, Minnesota general manager Doug Risebrough contacted Walz, his GM when he was with Calgary, to see if he would be interested in a job, which Walz jumped at.
"I was excited about the prospect of playing in the league again, and the timing was right for me to give it another shot. The experience of playing in Switzerland had been a good one, but the challenge of living in Europe was growing a little tougher. My son needed to get started in school, and the language barrier was becoming a factor in some of our decision-making. We were ready for a move." Walz recounted.
During the Wild's first training camp, the hard working, tireless Walz caught the attention of head coach Jacques Lemaire, who tabbed Walz as a "checker". With his role now defined and plenty of ice time to be had on the outgunned expansion Wild, Walz transformed himself from a marginal NHL forward into one of the most tenacious defensive forwards in the NHL. He chose the #37, the first one ever assigned to him in training camp as rookie, to remind himself of where he came from and to keep himself humble, and seized the opportunity to return to the NHL. He played in all 82 games of the Wild's debut season, scoring 18 goals, seven of which were shorthanded which was second best in the league.
As a reward for his hard work and to use him as a role model to the team's younger players, Walz was named team captain for the first time in December of 2000. Not having captained a team since he was 14, he recalled, "I wasn't very big when I was a kid, and being captain then didn't have anything to do with leadership. It was just a matter of who was scoring the most goals. This is a huge honor, and certainly nothing I was expecting. I'm surprised and very humbled."
When Walz was not wearing the "C", which Lemaire rotated on a monthly basis, he was often one of the Wild's assistant captains throughout his time in Minnesota. He was also selected by the local Professional Hockey Writer's Association as the Wild's nominee for the Masterton Trophy, awarded annually to the player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey in 2001.
His hard work was also recognized with the second invitation of his career to play for Team Canada, this time at the 2001 World Championships, something that certainly would not have happened had he stayed in Europe off the radar.
Walz playing for Canada at the 2001 World Championships
In 2002-03, Walz helped the Wild advance past the favored Colorado Avalanche thanks to is defensive work against Colorado's top players, Peter Forsberg in particular, as the Wild overcame a 3-1 deficit in games to win in seven. The Wild repeated the comeback feat in round two against the Vancouver Canucks as Walz contributed a vital five of his seven playoff goals during the series. His hard work that season was recognized when he was named one of three finalists for the Selke Trophy, which recognizes the top defensive forward in the league.
Walz makes Daniel Cloutier look foolish as he scores in Game 7 against Vancouver
After his 2003-04 season was cut short by a sports hernia, which required surgery and months of rehabilitation, Walz resumed playing after the lockout ended and set a personal high with 19 goals and came within a point of tying his NHL career best with 37 points in 2005-06, earning another Masterton Trophy nomination in 2006.
In 2006-07, Walz was credited with one of the most unusual goals in the league, an overtime game winner on December 29th against Columbus. Walz drove to the net as teammate Martin Skoula was shooting the puck. Simultaneously, Jason Chimera checked Walz just as the puck arrived - and disappeared into the airborne Walz's breezers! When Walz then landed in the net, the puck when in with him, and after a video review, he was credited with the winning goal!
Walz scoring the game winning goal - with the puck stuck in the leg of his pants!
In 2007-08, Walz played the first 11 games of the season prior to taking an indefinite leave on November 11th following a game against the Pittsburgh Penguins before formally announcing his retirement on December 1, 2007 as the all-time franchise leader in games played and one of only two remaining original members of the team.
Today's featured jersey is a 1998-99 EV Zug Wes Walz jersey from his time in Switzerland. Perhaps the worst hockey jersey ever on planet Earth, EV Zug apparently purchased their jerseys on clearance from the circus clown supply store. It looks like a minor league New Year's Eve special occasion jersey or perhaps some sort of European Mardi Gras in a very 1990's style when torn paper edges and paintbrush strokes were all the rage in graphic design.
We're not certain how the jersey's four sponsors must have felt about having their logos lost in the clutter of the busiest jerseys we've ever seen. It would be interesting to hear a players perspective on what it was like to play in these jerseys, as they could either make their teammates highly visible on the ice, or have the opposite effect of making them blend into the multicolored background of the spectators.
Don't miss the video of the jerseys in action below, as Walz's jersey carries an ad on the back so large, it obscures both his name and number!
Bonus Jersey: Today's bonus jersey is a 2005-06 Minnesota Wild Wes Walz jersey which features the NHL Cares/Katrina Relief Fund patch worn for the first period only for each team's first home game.
Walz wearing the NHL Cares patch during the first period of the Wild's first
game of 2005-06, the NHL's return to action following the NHL lockout
The patched jerseys were then auctioned off to raise money to aid the victims of Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans, Louisiana in August of 2005. Sidney Crosby's game worn jersey generated the highest final price league-wide with a final bid of $21,010 followed by Alexander Ovechkin at $7,929. Overall the auction of 600 jerseys raised over a half a million dollars, which was then matched by the Garth Brooks' Teammates for Kids Foundation for a total of $1,060,944.
Our video section today begins with a beautifully produced look back at the career of Wes Walz and his retirement announcement.
Next, the always tenacious Walz scores a shorthanded goal while playing for EV Zug in Switzerland. Notice that Walz has a full size "Key Player" ad covering his name and number on the back of his jersey! Apparently he is so "key", that everyone knows who he is without aid of any identifying information, like being able to actually see his name and number.
Finally, highlights of the Minnesota Wild Skills Competition, where the fastest skater compeition was won annually by Walz, over recognized NHL speedster Marian Gaborik.