When your hockey journey has lasted18 NHL seasons and always took you through guys instead of around them, there is perhaps never a good time to walk away. But as it turns out, there is a right way to walk away and here's to Owen Nolan and the San Jose Sharks for finding that right way.
Nolan didn't begin his hockey odyssey a Shark -- he was the first overall pick of the Quebec Nordiques back in 1990 -- nor did he end his career in San Jose, at least not technically.
But on Tuesday afternoon, as Nolan was surrounded by friends, family and the entire Sharks organization, current San Jose captain Joe Thornton and former captain Patrick Marleau presented Nolan, also a former Sharks captain, with a current Sharks jersey to mark his official retirement from the game.
In other words, the Sharks invited Nolan home to say goodbye.
"To have Owen Nolan sit here and retire as a Shark means an awful lot to us," GM Doug Wilson said.
"To me he is a San Jose Shark."
Nolan finished his career with 1,200 regular-season games to his credit. He scored 422 times and collected 1,793 penalty minutes. He spent the first five seasons of his career with the Nordiques, who selected the big winger ahead of such luminaries as Jaromir Jagr, Petr Nedved and former Sharks teammate Mike Ricci.
In the fall of 1995, though, the recently relocated Colorado Avalanche dealt Nolan to San Jose for defenseman Sandis Ozolinsh. The Avs would go on to win the Stanley Cup the next spring while Nolan would go on to become one of the pivotal figures in building an identity for the Sharks, who had come into the league in the 1991-92 season.
Nolan would never win a Cup, but he did score one of the biggest goals in Sharks history, the winning goal in Game 7 over the Presidents' Trophy winners from St. Louis in the first round of the 2000 playoffs. Wilson referenced the long Nolan bomb that eluded Blues netminder Roman Turek from somewhere near the center red line on Tuesday.
"For us to win that series, Game 7, it was a gut check for the whole organization," Wilson said. "The guy that scored that goal is sitting right here beside me."
While Nolan would be denied having his name inscribed on the Cup -- in fact he never played in more than 12 postseason games in any one season -- he did win an Olympic gold medal with Canada in 2002. In fact, his presence around the league was so great at that time that he was among a group of players named early to the team known as the Elite Eight, part of a lengthy marketing plan leading up to the Salt Lake City Olympics.
Among those who joined in feting Nolan on his retirement day was the head of Hockey Canada, Bob Nicholson, who chided him gently about racing to the Team Canada dressing room with about a minute to go in the gold-medal game to get his camera so he could record the celebration that marked Canada's first gold-medal win in 50 years.
"We still wonder why you went to the dressing room to get that camera when Pat Quinn wanted you to be on the ice for that last shift, but I guess you got the best pictures," Nicholson said.
Nolan, of course, wasn't ever in any danger of winning any Lady Byng trophies for sportsmanlike conduct. As a player he was always more prickly than warm and fuzzy. He was suspended for 11 games back in 2001 after seemingly trying to decapitate Grant Marshall of the Dallas Stars. He flattened Ed Belfour one night during the 1998 playoffs, although the two would later share the Olympic stage together.
But Ricci, who was on hand for Tuesday's announcement, said Nolan didn't get enough credit for his skill set.
"He could stick handle in a phone booth," Ricci told ESPN.com. "He had great hands for a big guy."
The two were good pals off the ice, but Ricci also knew that Nolan was a fierce competitor on the ice.
"In the dressing room, he was very intense," Ricci said. "He didn't like anyone messing with his routine. He was all about winning and as a teammate you appreciate that."
For all that ferocity, though, Tuesday revealed an Owen Nolan who seemed overwhelmed by all of it, not just the finality of the moment, but the fact that his hockey road had brought him in a sense home.
He paused in his brief remarks, noticeably emotional, as he talked about coming to terms with the fact his body could no longer keep up with the competitive spirit that still burned hot within him.
Asked if he could pick one highlight of his eight seasons in San Jose, Nolan -- who will turn 40 next week -- said that if he picked one, he knew that 30 seconds later he'd think of another.
"I would just have to say the overall experience was awesome," he said.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.