More than a decade ago, Glen Wesley couldn’t unfold a map fast enough to find out just where the Hartford Whalers were moving. The veteran defenseman, like many of his teammates, was unsure where Raleigh was located and just what types of challenges heading to a brand new southern hockey market would bring in the middle of his career.
Fast forward to 2008. Wesley has won a Stanley Cup with the Carolina Hurricanes, played 20 seasons and logged 1,457 NHL games. And he’s squarely planted in the consciousness of Triangle sports fans as one of the game’s most dedicated, gracious and recognizable players.
Wesley’s life officially headed in a different direction Thursday when he retired from the game, saying he still had some left in the tank but wanted to share the rest of his life with his wife Barb and three kids, not his teammates.
“For me, I put my family first,” Wesley said. “I still could have played, but for unselfish reasons it was time to look the other way and give them something back in return.”
Much like the retirement of Ron Francis a few seasons back, Wesley’s departure leaves more than a chip in the Carolina ice. His leadership, consistency, professionalism and dry sense of humor will be missed by the front office, his teammates and members of the media.
His quiet demeanor always portrayed confidence in his game, and faith in his teammates. Wesley was one of those guys who had trouble talking about his accomplishments, deflecting credit to others when he was due most of the acclaim for his solid play.
One of the team’s alternate captains was the last player from the Greensboro days, when it was unclear if hockey would make it in this market. For those of us close to the Canes for the past decade, it’s clear that Wesley deserves a lion’s share of the credit for creating a love affair between the players and the crazy Caniacs, always offering to do his part in the community.
“It seems like 30 years ago to me now,” Wesley said of his first trip to North Carolina. “It has been a process, but we’ve continued to grow and develop the game here and it’s the best it has ever been. All the right things are in place here.”
It’s fitting that Wesley took the Stanley Cup to Camp Lejeune because he was a guy you would feel comfortable going to war with.
It was also fitting today that Wesley was in shock when general manager Jim Rutherford announced that the No. 2 jersey Wesley wore would be retired alongside that of Francis in the rafters of the RBC Center.
“You just don’t think about those things as a player, not even on this day would I have ever imagined that my number was going to be retired,” Wesley said. “It’s a great day, I’m going to enjoy it, reflect upon it.”
Wesley was the franchise’s anchor on defense for close to 15 seasons after Jim Rutherford traded for the red head from Boston for three first-round draft picks. Rutherford was mocked by many in the business at the time for making what they called a foolish deal.
Who has the last laugh now?
“We signed Wesley from our rival team, the Boston Bruins, and there was something to that, to be able to attract a player from a big market team to come to a small market team, knowing he was going to be in a rebuilding process – and we paid a big price for him,” Rutherford said. “But as it turned out, it did work for us. We won a Cup.”
Wesley, who surprisingly came back for two more seasons after winning the Cup in ’06 with a series of one-year contracts, told Rutherford and Francis at his exit meeting a day after the 2008 season that he wanted to retire. Both told him to take a step back and think about it. But the seed had been firmly planted in Wesley’s mind. As he said, for family reasons, the time was now.
“Jim told me to take as much time as I needed and I felt that was probably good, maybe it was a little premature, but the more I stuck around with the family I thought it was in the best interest for myself to make this decision. My kids all wanted me to keep playing, and I appreciated that, but I had other thoughts and it was time for me to stop. It is going to be fun to spend more time around the house. Maybe they’ll take me out once in a while.”
Wesley’s two-decade career had numerous twists and turns. As a rookie, he teamed with Hall of Famer Ray Bourque and was one of the NHL’s best offensive defensemen, was an All-Star in 1989 and was in the Cup finals four times – two with Boston and two with Carolina. Once traded, Wesley switched his game to become more defensive-minded and was pitted against the opposition’s top lines.
“It wasn’t easy because selfishly you want to continue to score, but in your mind what you want to do is do what’s best for the team,” Wesley said. “I took my responsibilities and just kind of reversed them. If I shut down the other team’s best players then most times your team is going to win the game. I took great pride in that. The most important thing on the stat sheet was the wins and losses.”
“I don’t think you can judge a player on who gets the most goals or most points,” Rutherford added. “His contribution game-in and game-out was just as valuable to us as the guys who were scoring the goals. He was one of the big difference makers who helped us win the Cup.”
While with Carolina, Wesley overcame a serious neck injury and a nasty broken jaw when he was checked into an open penalty-box door. He also lost defensive partner Steve Chiasson to an auto accident.
Through it all, Wesley came back for more, competing at the highest level. In is final season with Carolina, he blocked a team-leading 110 shots, still sacrificing his 39-year-old body for the franchise he loved.
Wesley’s best career memory was winning the Cup and watching the Canes’ fans enjoy the ride.
“Seeing the fans tailgating, the support we had from the mountains to the beaches was absolutely incredible,” Wesley said. “That was my highlight as a player and it sticks out.”
Wesley said the hardest player to battle in the corners during his career was Jaromir Jagr, while Mario Lemieux was the best offensive player he squared off against.
“I think I’m still on a video getting toasted by (Mario),” laughed Wesley. “But he did that to everybody so I don’t feel so bad.”
Rutherford will now hit the crowded free agent market July 1 in search of a shutdown defenseman to replace Wesley and perhaps Bret Hedican, whose status moving forward is uncertain.
Wesley will remain with the organization as Director of Defensive Development, saying he wanted to instill consistency in the team’s younger players.
Who knows? One season after Francis hung up his skates, the Canes won the Cup. Could the same be in the cards with the departure of Wesley?
One thing is clear, the redhead from Red Deer will be missed and should be considered for the Hockey Hall of Fame, where Francis took his place this past season.
With just four golf courses within a 50-mile radius of his Canadian hometown, the 6-handicap Wesley has decided to retire in the golf-rich Triangle, where he can tee it up at dozens of great layouts. He plans to begin working on his short game as soon as possible.
Hit’em straight Glen and enjoy your time in the sun.