Wes Walz, an assistant coach with the Tampa Bay Lightning, is as sweaty and tired as many of the players in his charge as he exits the ice after a recent Bolts practice.
No wonder, really, since Walz is likely to jump into the middle of an on-ice drill at any time, skating the length of the rink at full speed and keeping pace with even the fastest Lightning player.
Clearly, Walz is a man who loves to play hockey, and that love for the sport couldn’t have made his decision to retire as a player, which came mid-season last year, the least bit easy. But, Walz, a fixture on the Minnesota Wild since they entered the NHL, knew the time had come.
Two weeks into a self-imposed leave of absence, the answer came to Walz when he realized he wasn’t missing the game.
“It became clear to me that I wasn’t going to miss going to the rink, so it also became clear to me that it was probably time to step away and give somebody else a chance,” Walz recalled. “I didn’t want to paint the team into a corner and not give them enough time to replace me, and I didn’t want to feel like I was stealing money from anybody.”
Wes Walz is a study in desire and the value of persistence. Without these qualities in abundance, the career that he was so conflicted about leaving behind might never had existed. His path wasn’t easy.
After the Boston Bruins drafted him in the third round of the 1989 Entry Draft, Walz began an up and down route which saw him play as many games in the American Hockey League as he did for the Bruins in the NHL. That roller coaster ended in 1991 when he moved on to the Philadelphia Flyers. After a cup of coffee in Philly, he bounced through the minors again, eventually arriving in his hometown, Calgary, as a member of the Flames in 1993. Walz was on the move again in 1995, however, playing in the minors for the Detroit Red Wings organization and making it up to the big team, but only for two games.
And that’s where it ended, or could have ended, or would have ended for lots of players without the drive and desire of Wes Walz.
Finding no opportunities in the NHL, He packed his family and headed across the pond for Switzerland, signing a one-year contract at the age of 27 to play in the Swiss-A League. He didn’t speak the language and, of course, didn’t know his way around, but Walz is an irrepressible positive thinker, and he reasoned that if there was something to learn from the experience, he needed to be open to something new.
“I enjoyed my first year over there so much, I stayed for four years,” Walz recalled. “It was a great family experience for us and I didn’t realize it at the time, but there’s so much pressure on the imports to succeed over there, it actually made me a better player. When I returned I was 30 years old and twice the player I was before I went to Switzerland.”
But still a journeyman, and not a young one.
Some others might have called it a career at that point, and gotten on with the rest of their lifetime’s work but hanging up the skates wasn’t on the radar, because there was still a belief in himself that was driving Wes Walz to keep trying. And he was about to meet somebody who believed in him as much as he did in himself.
“I always deep down in my heart believed that I could be a good player,” Walz said. “I just felt like I hadn’t found the right place or the right coach to use me and my skills, the skills that I have, to be able to get the best out of me.”
In the year 2000 the NHL was in the midst of adding two teams, Atlanta and Minnesota, and Walz was signed as a free agent with the expansion Minnesota Wild under Coach Jacques Lemaire. It was the move that finally turned his career around.
“When Jacques Lemaire took me under his wing, he told me, ‘I want you to check – I want you to be our checking center,’” Walz recalled. “In my mind, I knew I could be an effective checker, but I never had a coach give me that opportunity.”
Lemaire had zeroed in on the right guy for the job, as Walz not only had the ability, he had the desire to go through a brick wall, if that’s what he was asked to do.
“I took it to heart,” Walz explained. “When you’ve played in and out of the NHL and played over in Switzerland, this was my opportunity to come back. I was so nervous and so worried about being sent down to the minors or having to go back to Europe that I just played every game like it was my last game. I played exactly like the coach wanted me to play. He told me, ‘If you play the way I tell you to play, you’ll play.’ And he was a man of his word.”
Lemaire had his checking center, Walz had his career back and the fans in Minnesota had a hard-working blue collar type player to cheer for. Eight years later, when Walz called it quits, he left behind 438 games in a Wild sweater and the respect and accolades of players and coaches around the NHL.
But he’d also picked up a few things, too. As Lemaire learned to trust Walz as a player, he opened the door a bit providing Walz with insights as to how a coach thinks and why he does certain things. Walz was absorbing it all, learning how to become a coach, and when the chance came to join the staff of the Lightning, under Barry Melrose, he was ready to move forward.
“I learned some attributes under Jacques that I was able to bring here,” Walz said. “I’d like to think, having just finished my playing career, that I have a good relationship with the players. I think of myself as a go-between for Barry and the players.”
The brain trust with the Lightning must have seen something in Walz’s ability to make the transition to coaching, too. Maybe it’s what Lemaire said about Walz when he announced his retirement:
“Wes Walz is the epitome of passion and perseverance,” he said.
Or maybe they see his dedication to succeed and his ability to work with the younger players. Whatever, it’s most unusual for a coach to begin their career on the NHL level, and Walz knows it.
“Like I told the ownership group,” Walz said. “I’m very thankful for the opportunity.”
Walz’s family, which now consists of his wife, Kerry-Anne, three daughters and a son, has settled in to the Tampa Bay area for what they plan to be a long stay. Coaching is Walz’s career now. Still, a few hours before the puck drops, as the players quietly prepare for the game, Wes Walz can feel a certain pull.
“I don’t miss the training – what you have to go through to be a hockey player,” Walz smiles, “but just before game time, when the team is getting ready to play, I feel like I want to be in the room getting ready, too. But as time goes by and the weeks turn into months, I’m sure those feeling will start to dissipate.”