Fifteen years ago, a blue-collar, defensive forward captured the hearts of fans everywhere in a state that craves the sport of hockey just as much as a good night’s sleep.
During the 2003 Stanley Cup playoffs, Wes Walz scored seven goals and had six assists in a magical run for the Minnesota Wild, a franchise in just its third season of existence. His tenacious play and refusal to lose helped the Wild advance all the way to the Western Conference finals and made the assistant captain as popular as wild rice in Minnesota.
His oldest daughter, Jaedyn, has that same type of DNA.
And that’s been a pretty darned good thing the past four years for the UW-Eau Claire women’s hockey team.
“As soon as we put skates on Jaedyn, she’s always been a gal that has her nose down and does everything with 100 percent intensity,” said Wes Walz, now a pregame analyst for the Wild on Fox Sports North. “She’s an A-type personality, and she’s either all in or all out. I’m very similar.”
It’s fitting that a decade and a half later, the Blugolds co-captain is playing an integral part of her own team’s transformation.
UW-Eau Claire was 5-21-1 after her freshman season in 2014-15. Since then, the Blugolds have gone 41-28-10 under Erik Strand, now in his third season. They advanced all the way to the WIAC championship game a year ago.
After a 2-2 tie Saturday at No. 5 UW-River Falls, their record this winter is 14-6-4 with a 3-3-2 mark in the WIAC.
A gritty two-way player herself, Walz provided Strand a piece of the puzzle he could build his team around to establish his own blue-collar culture.
“She’s someone who is always around the rink, whether she’s working out in the offseason or her passion for the game during the season, she’s always someone who is working to try and get better,” Strand said. “She sets the tone for everyone else with what the compete is supposed to look like.”
Jaedyn, the second-oldest of five kids in the Walz household, didn’t actually get a start in hockey until she was about 8 years old.
Her mom, Kerry-Anne, started her off in figure skating. That just didn’t quite have the head-to-head competitive component Jaedyn was looking for, illustrated early on in the Walz house when her older brother — current St. Mary’s (Minn.) player Kelvin Walz — summoned her to floor hockey games.
“He’d make me play goalie,” Jaedyn said. “Then I started playing hockey and have been playing ever since.
And of course, she was around the game. Ever since she can remember, Wes was playing the game professionally. He made his NHL debut in the 1989-90 season with the Boston Bruins and bounced around with the Philadelphia Flyers, Calgary Flames and Detroit Red Wings for the next half decade before playing four years overseas in Switzerland.
He earned a spot with the expansion Wild in 2000-01 and later was the team’s assistant captain. He instantly became one of the most popular players on the team for his style of play and is still one of the most recognizable names in franchise history.
Walz played until retiring early in the 2007-08 season and then began a coaching career — two years with the Tampa Bay Lightning and then at East Ridge High School in Woodbury, where he coached Jaedyn.
It’s pretty clear when Jaedyn plays — especially in the faceoff circle where Wes excelled — who she learned the game from.
“There’s a lot of similarities,” Wes said. “She asked a lot of questions about faceoffs, and she’s won a high percentage of her faceoffs. She’s responsible defensively. She’s not the most talented, and neither was I. But we got by with grit and determination and a will to win. She’s really enjoyed the last three seasons.”
“He basically taught me everything I know about hockey,” Jaedyn added.
Make no mistake, though, hockey is a path Jaedyn chose. It gave her an avenue to unleash her competitiveness, and her dad let her develop a love for the sport without stepping on her skates.
“He never forced it on us,” she said. “He wasn’t one of those parents in the stands who would yell and things like that. He kind of let us do our thing, and hockey has been part of our whole family.”
And if there’s stress involved in being the daughter of one of the more popular figures in a professional sports organization whose home rink is exactly 83½ miles from her college rink, Jaedyn doesn’t show it.
“Quite frankly, it’s one of the things I’ve been most impressed with with her,” Strand said. “You’d never know from the outside looking in that pressure is there. And maybe there’s not. Maybe she’s done a great job of understanding that, ‘Hey that’s great what my dad did, but I want to be my own person and I love the game and am gonna play it the way I want to.’”
It’s led her to an excellent career for the Blugolds. In 103 games, she has 21 goals and 31 assists while registering an outstanding plus-18 rating. That’s particularly impressive considering she was minus-9 her freshman season. Wes recalled a stark change in the program after that season.
“There was more accountability, and it showed almost instantly,” he said. “I remember saying to my wife that this is a completely different team.”
Jaedyn’s got a clutch factor, just like her father. She has four career game-winning goals with three of them coming this season alone.
Wes tries to make it to as many games as he can when Wild broadcasts don’t interfere. He’ll get over when the Blugolds are playing at UW-River Falls or against one of the many private schools in the Twin Cities. He’s also made the pilgrimage over to Hobbs plenty of times. The two still text and talk after nearly every game.
And Jaedyn’s given him an awful lot to be proud of.
“As a father, and my wife would say the same thing, it’s been great to watch,” Wes said. “I love what hockey brings to people.”
Jaedyn’s got two more semesters left of nursing school, but she still wants to stay around the game after graduation. Whether that’s coaching or watching her younger siblings, hockey isn’t going anywhere.
There’s still, though, a few weeks left in her final season. And she’d like to be the next Walz to lead an unsuspecting team on a magical postseason journey.
“We’re writing history right now,” she said, “and this a really exciting last couple of weeks.”