The toughest part of being a professional athlete is knowing when to say goodbye. For Sami Kapanen, that time is now.

Kapanen yesterday announced his decision to walk away from the NHL after 12 seasons. The move came as a surprise to the Flyers, Kapanen's team the last 5 years.

"It's time to move on with my life," he said.

Kapanen will turn 35 on June 14 and had 1 year and $1.25 million left on his contract. Though he had a career-low eight points in 74 games, he was still part of the Flyers' plans for next season.

"I wasn't not counting on him," said Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren. "I guess I was shocked when I got the call. But Sami's been a good soldier here. He's shown a lot of grit, determination and blood and guts - he literally spilled his blood for this organization."

A reduction in playing time was the biggest reason behind Kapanen's decision to leave the NHL. The Flyers are very deep at forward and Kapanen, a right winger, spent most of the season relegated to the fourth line, or sometimes out of the lineup altogether. He was a healthy scratch for Game 1 of the first-round series against Washington.

"This season, the role wasn't something I was looking for," Kapanen said. "It was disappointing. It was disappointing the way I played. I feel like I can't handle another season like that. Reaching the end of my career, I just want to make sure I get to play at least one more season back home before retiring."

Kapanen, who played 831 regular-season games in the NHL and scored 458 points, will return to his homeland and play for KalPa Kuopio, a Finnish League team in which Kapanen has majority ownership.

Kapanen could have asked the Flyers for a trade but cited the uncertainty of the move and the hardship it would place on his wife, Petra, and their four young children.

"It was an option, but having a family with four kids I didn't see that as a [wise move]," Kapanen explained. "To move the family to another city for one more season and not knowing how it was going to work out [wasn't appealing]. Going back home and playing there, no matter how I play, we're still going to stay there after hockey."

Kapanen came to the Flyers, along with Ryan Bast, from Carolina on Feb. 7, 2003 for Pavel Brendl and Bruno St. Jacques. He was generously listed as 5-10, 185 pounds, but never shied away from contact.

"I always tried my hardest," Kapanen said. "That's the way I tried to play. No matter what the score."

The defining moment of Kapanen's Flyers' career came in the 2004 playoffs. It was overtime of Game 6 when a nasty series against the Maple Leafs became legendary.

Toronto's Darcy Tucker leveled Kapanen with a fierce check that left Kapanen woozy. Had Kapanen stayed down, play would have been whistled dead. Instead, he stumbled toward the bench, falling twice, but allowed the frenetic pace of play to continue. Shortly after Keith Primeau used a stick to literally reel Kapanen to safety, Jeremy Roenick scored the game-winning goal.

"I'm sure he was knocked out on his feet," Holmgren remembered. "But his effort to get to the bench showed tremendous heart and determination and showed what he is all about. Sami's not a very big man, but he played a big man's game."

Ice cube

Holmgren said he has had preliminary discussions with top restricted free agents Jeff Carter, R.J. Umberger and Randy Jones. Holmgren termed the talks, "good conversations, more of a feeling-out process. We'll see how it goes. There's no real rush." The Flyers would like to have their restricted players locked up before free agency begins on July 1. Even if they don't, the Flyers still would have the right to match any offers. *