When to retire from the NHL can be a delicate balance between mind, body and soul.
|| David Droschak |
For Glen Wesley, the time to hang up the skates appeared right last June when the veteran defenseman realized a life-long dream of winning the Stanley Cup.
Seeing the look on Wesley's face was priceless as he finally was able to raise the prized trophy over his head after 18 NHL seasons and more than 1,300 games.
Soon after winning the Cup, Wesley headed to the North Carolina beach with his wife Barb and their three kids for some much needed R&R and time to reflect on a stellar professional career that had spanned three different decades.
But before Wesley left town, general manager Jim Rutherford asked if the defenseman would be interested in returning for a 19th season - and an opportunity to chase another championship.
"I couldn't answer him at the time because I didn't know how my body was going to heal up or how I would be mentally going through what we went through," said Wesley. "I told him I needed some time and I went away to the beach."
"Over those two weeks I really just talked to my family about coming back. I didn't just want to come back to come back. I wanted to come back for the right reasons. That's why I did it."
Anyone who has watched the Carolina Hurricanes for any period of time this season realizes Wesley isn't just a 38-year-old veteran hanging on to collect a paycheck. He's had one of his best seasons, is in the mix for team MVP and is one of the league's biggest steals at $1.2 million.
Only Mike Commodore has played in more games on an injury-riddled defensive corps than Wesley's 65, and he is second on the team to captain Rod Brind'Amour in the plus-minus rating category.
Wesley also scored a big overtime goal on Feb. 22 in a 3-2 win over Philadelphia - his first in 82 games and first game-winner since the 1998-99 season.
But Wesley's job over his last decade hasn't been offensive production. It has been stopping some of the best snipers in the league and as a mainstay on the penalty-killing unit. Wesley is a huge reason the Canes have inched their way to sixth in the league on the penalty kill.
"You feed off of those opportunities, whether it late in a game on a kill and you are up a goal or are tied," said Wesley, who is 10th all-time in games played by an NHL defenseman. "You take pride in those types of things. You always want to be out there and challenging yourself and being accountable to your teammates."
Coach Peter Laviolette started the season using Wesley for fewer minutes than he's accustomed to, but Wesley's ice-time has increased as the playoff chase has intensified.
"He's been so solid for us defensively," said Laviolette. "I don't think we would be where we are if it wasn't for some of the mainstays back there on defense like Glen. We've been dealt a lot of injuries and Wes has given us a lot of experience. The fact that anybody can make it that long in a career is amazing."
As a kid growing up, Commodore watched Wesley when he played for Boston and feels honored to be paired with him on the penalty kill, and more recently 5-on-5 with Bret Hedican sidelined with an injury.
"He's changed his game as he has gotten older and since the game has changed, and it's really a testament to him as an athlete," Commodore said. "I couldn't even imagine playing at his age and the level he's playing at. It's a treat for me to get to play with him."
Wesley is on pace to log more than 70 games again -- a stat he's reached in 14 of his 19 seasons.
"For me, it's about consistency," he said. "I've tried to be as consistent night-in and night-out as possible. Sometimes that doesn't always show on the scoreboard, but you try to contribute as many ways as possible, if it's shutting down a line or a big penalty kill and that's what my responsibility has been."
Wesley said he ultimately decided to return to the Canes for another season because he still enjoys the game and loves to compete. And for a chance to repeat as Cup champions.
"Once you get a taste of winning the Cup you want to come back and do it again," he said. "My resume was obviously missing a Stanley Cup, and to be able to top it off again would be to win it again. That's what we strive for as a player, to be able to do it again. It's the most incredible feeling you'll ever have in your playing career."
"There wasn't a doubt in my mind that I could come back and do it," added Wesley about his top-notch season. "The biggest thing is how to take care of yourself and realize when you have to push yourself and when you have to back off at this stage of your career."
Despite this year's individual success for Wesley, he said it would be premature to assume he'll return for a 20th season - a milestone few athletes in any sport attain.
"It's got to be in your mind," Wesley said. "I would say 80 percent of this game is mental. That's the biggest battle when you get into your mid-30s, is just the battle you have to prepare yourself for, that mental preparation that you put into the game. You have to contemplate that in the summer if you still want to do that."
If Wesley does retire after the season, he'll be close by. Although he's from western Canada, Wes has played his entire career on the East Coast and plans to settle down in Raleigh.
"The biggest thing we enjoy here are the people in the community," Wesley said. "And you have the ocean, the mountains, and the weather is fantastic. You still get the four seasons, but you get some great weather. It's March and it can be close to 80 degrees. You really can't beat it."
David Droschak is the former sports editor for the North Carolina bureaus of the Associated Press, the largest news-gathering organization in the world. In 2003, Droschak was named the North Carolina Sportswriter of the Year. The only writer in the Triangle to have covered the Carolina Hurricanes every season since the organization moved to North Carolina, he currently is a principal in the Raleigh-based public relations firm Hughes-Droschak Communications.