Tracking the Storm

A Student of the Game

Monday, 11.12.2012 / 10:30 AM / Tracking the Storm
By Michael Smith
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A Student of the Game
Like so many other Canadian children, Kevin Weekes dreamed of playing in the National Hockey League.

Michael Smith
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Also like so many other Canadian children, he grew up watching Hockey Night in Canada each Saturday, a time-honored tradition going on 60 years now.

Years later, Weekes has experienced both. In a professional career spanning the better part of two decades, he played in net for seven NHL teams.

“That was my goal. That’s what I wanted to accomplish,” Weekes said. “To this day, I’m eternally grateful that I was able to make it happen.”

Soon after, he became the first black hockey broadcaster in NHL history, appearing on the very program with which he grew up watching.

“It is very humbling. It’s something I’m very honored to be a part of. In our own way, we’re inspiring generations of people,” he said. “Any time that red light goes on, it’s a real special feeling for me. Just to think that the first games in hockey history on TV were broadcast with us. Where it’s come from, where it is and where it’s going, to be a part of that is very special.”

Canada, By Way of Barbados

In 1973, Weekes’ parents immigrated to Canada from Barbados. Two years later, Weekes was born, and five years after that, he was playing hockey.

Well, at least he was part of the local hockey scene. Hanging out with his teenage cousins and friends, Weekes was relegated to the role of ball chaser; if the ball rolled past the net and down the street or into the bushes, he was the one to get it.

When one of the full-time goalies moved back to Greece, however, Weekes got a promotion. He was the new goalie and organized ice hockey followed.

Perhaps the biggest advantage of his upbringing, Weekes said, was that his parents weren’t very familiar with the game of hockey.

“We were learning as we went along,” he said. “I do think there are advantages if your parents do know about a sport that you’re playing. But the great thing about it for me, my parents didn’t pretend to know more than they knew, and there was never any pressure. We were all learning it together, and they were extremely supportive. Ever since I started playing, my parents never had to force me to try harder or work harder or practice. That’s just the way I was wired, and they were very supportive. In my own experience and comparatively speaking to some of my friends and what they experienced, I think it was a big advantage that way.”

Early Days in Carolina

Weekes’ first hockey experience in North Carolina predated his time with the Hurricanes.

Before the Hurricanes sought temporary shelter in the Greensboro Coliseum, the Greensboro Monarchs (ECHL, 1989-1995) and Carolina Monarchs (AHL, 1995-97) called the cavernous arena home. In the Greensboro Monarchs last two seasons, they averaged over 6,400 fans per game.

“They had a really good following,” Weekes said. “There were a lot of people that loved them. I had friends that played in that old East Coast Hockey League, and they all raved about the arena in Greensboro.”

In 1995, the Greensboro Monarchs became the Carolina Monarchs and entered the American Hockey League as an affiliate of the Florida Panthers. The fan support didn’t dramatically diminish; the Monarchs averaged 4,724 in attendance in their first season and 4,166 in their second. On Jan. 17, 1997, they set the then-single-game AHL attendance record of 20,672 in a 5-4 victory over the Kentucky Thouroughblades.

Weekes was drafted by the Panthers 41st overall in the second round of the 1993 NHL Entry Draft. After spending three seasons in the Ontario Hockey League, Weekes became the Carolina Monarchs No. 1 goalie for their two seasons of existence.

“I loved playing in Greensboro,” he said. “That was my first introduction to the folks in North Carolina, and I still have friends in Greensboro and Raleigh to this day. The people treated me great.”

The Best of Times

On March 5, 2002, the Canes acquired Weekes from the Tampa Bay Lightning in exchange for forwards Shane Willis and Chris Dingman. Just over a week later on March 15, the Canes traded pending unrestricted free agent Tom Barrasso to Toronto for a fourth-round draft pick. The team was headed toward the postseason with the goaltending tandem of Arturs Irbe and Weekes.

While Weekes played in just two games down the stretch in the regular season, it was in the playoffs that he cemented his spot in team goaltending lore.

Weekes credits the team’s run to the Stanley Cup Finals – in which he had an early, key hand – to their strong work ethic and commitment to physical fitness.

“When I got to Carolina, it was like clockwork. Everybody was stretching, on the bike, getting their protein shake. You name it,” he said. “It was just natural. It’s what you did. It’s part of being a pro. I remember telling friends, family and former teammates that it was unbelievable, and we just started building from there.

“Once we got in (the playoffs), you could just feel there was something special because we had done the work,” he said. “There was no smoke and mirrors. It was just part of the ethic of the organization, and more importantly, it was encouraged.”

Up first in the team’s path was New Jersey, a rematch of the quarterfinals just a year prior in which the Devils knocked out the Canes in six games. Even though the Hurricanes had won the Southeast Division, pundits didn’t give them much of a chance to advance past the first round.

After winning the first two games of the series at home, the Canes had dropped both games in New Jersey, 4-0 and 3-1. Weekes had relieved Irbe in net in both games. In Game 5, Weekes was tapped as the starter, his first postseason start in the NHL.

“Honestly, the last playoff game I had started was probably midget hockey in Toronto,” he said. “Paul (Maurice) came to me and said, ‘Ok, you’ve played well in these two games. You’re going. Game 5, you’re going to be great, and you’re going.’ When a coach tells you that, and they’re genuine, they empower you and it goes a long way.”

The series and score were tied 2-2 as the clock ticked down in Game 5 at the then-Entertainment and Sports Arena in Raleigh, NC.

Just minutes into the overtime period, the Devils’ Stephane Richer was found streaking into the slot. Exploding out from the post, Weekes made the initial save. The puck, however, was left free in the slot, and Weekes was sprawled out on the ice. John Madden pounced on the loose puck, the gaping net in front of him. Weekes extended his glove and made what seemed to be the improbable save.

“I remember that save,” Weekes said. “There are times when you’re down, and you’re like, ‘This guy’s going to roof it. It’s going to take the grace of God and everyone else for me to get a piece of this, even.’ But, that wasn’t the case. I just felt like I was down and everything was in sync.

“I didn’t even feel like I was in a desperate prone situation, which I was. I didn’t feel like I had to flail at the puck. It was all really just under control. Laying down and being prone on the ice in that position with a guy basically with a wide open net above you, it’s not a very comforting feeling,” he said. “After making the save and feeling it in my glove, just hearing the crowd – the noise, the magnitude of the game, the time of the game and the series – was awesome.”

Minutes later, Josef Vasicek scored the game-winning goal to give the Hurricanes a 3-2 series lead heading back to New Jersey.

Even still, Weekes recalled, the talking heads thought the Devils would prevail in seven games.

“We just literally believed that we were going to win,” Weekes said. “The whole hockey world was like, ‘Oh, these guys have no shot. What? Carolina? No way.’ Somehow, we didn’t get that memo.”

Coming off of “the save,” Weekes again got the nod in net. He stopped all 32 shots he faced in a shutout bid as the Canes defeated the Devils 1-0, winning their first playoff series since 1986 and first best-of-7 series.

“We knew we had our work cut out,” Weekes said. “We went out, and we played that game so well. It was just one of the best experiences I’ve had playing hockey.”

In all, Weekes appeared in eight games (starting in six) during the 2002 postseason. He was 3-2 with a 1.62 goals-against average, .939 save percentage and two shutouts. Irbe regained the starting job following the Miracle at Molson in Game 4. But, that’s playoff hockey: riding the hot goaltender.

“We knew we had depth at that position (goaltender), and that breeds a lot of confidence because your players don’t play uptight,” Weekes said. “The natural tendency is to become uptight because of the stake of the game. Realistically, it’s still the same puck and the same ice. But, I always say in the playoffs the ice shrinks. There’s less room to make plays, and everyone is more intense. It’s funny the trick that plays on people’s minds. But when your goalie is playing well, it breeds confidence in the team and is a huge game-changer.”

Weekes became the Canes’ No. 1 goalie in the next two seasons, unfortunate as the timing of that big break might have been; the team finished last in the league in 2002-03 and 22nd in 2003-04. Still, Weekes’ 2.33 goals-against average in 2003-04 ranks second in franchise history.

In all, Weekes logged 119 games with Carolina, posting a 39-54-20 record. His 2.41 goals-against average ranks second in franchise history, and he posted a .912 save percentage and 11 shutouts.

“It was really the best experience I’ve had in hockey for all of the right reasons,” he said. “It was an amazing time.”

Frustration

Though Weekes signed with the New York Rangers as a free agent in August 2004, the work stoppage would delay his blue-shirt debut for another year. The 2005-06 season also marked the Rangers debut of a certain goaltender named Henrik Lundqvist.

Unfortunate timing, it seemed, again.

“He came in and blew the doors off right away,” Weekes said. “So I had one of two options: I could sulk, be angry and extremely miserable, even though it was frustrating. Or, I’m going to try to add value and be the best back-up I can be.”

Since it was his first season in the NHL, Lundqvist only played in 53 games. This allowed Weekes to be a “back-up plus,” as he appeared in 32 games.

The next season, Lundqvist played 70 games; Weekes saw action in just 14 games.

In the summer of 2007, Weekes was lured to New Jersey by management’s pitch of a reduced workload for Martin Brodeur. Brodeur ended up played 77 games that season, tying a career high.

“I was a little disappointed in the fact that that didn’t transpire,” Weekes said. “That wasn’t what was presented to me.”

Perhaps more frustrating, Weekes said, was the following season, which was ultimately his last.

Brodeur missed 50 games with a torn biceps tendon between November 2008 and February 2009, playing in just 31 games.

“Now I’m thinking, ‘Ok, this gives me the opportunity to play as many games as possible,’” Weekes said.

That’s not what happened. After Weekes went 1-3 in his first four starts following Brodeur’s injury, Scott Clemmensen ended up getting the bulk of the work. Weekes made the most of his limited appearances, playing in 14 games and posting a 2.42 goals-against average and a career-best .920 save percentage.

“What should have been a launching point for me in terms of games played, it wasn’t. But in terms of the way I played, it was. I could have ended up playing 40-some games, but I didn’t,” he said. “At that point, it did become a little frustrating. But everything happens for a reason. It was almost a blessing in disguise because that’s when the TV opportunities presented themselves.

“I just like doing my job. Whatever my job is, I love to be able to do it because it’s something I’m passionate about. When you can’t do it or you’re denied the opportunity to do it as much as you want to, there comes a point in time where that becomes frustrating, especially when you know you’ve proven yourself over and over and over again.”

Transitioning into Television

After retirement, players often find ways to stay involved in the game, at the NHL level or otherwise. Some coach. Others join the front office.

Weekes pursued a different but not completely foreign angle: broadcasting.

After the Hurricanes eliminated Brodeur and the Devils in the 2009 playoffs, Weekes dabbled as an analyst for the NHL Network. It was decision time in the offseason. Would he stay in the NHL? Would he play overseas? Or was this the right time to get in front of a camera?

“I knew I still had a lot left in the tank (to play), but the offers I was getting weren’t really reflective of the market, and more importantly, my market value,” he said. “Then, Hockey Night in Canada reached out, MSG reached out, the NHL Network reached out. Then it became a game of, ‘Ok, am I going to play for the next two, three or four years and miss this window of opportunity, or am I going to jump into this right now?’”

He jumped head first into television.

“Right from the beginning, I approached it the way I did playing. I was always a student of the game, and I always worked extremely hard when I played ever since I was a little kid. I really just tried to use some of those characteristics in this side of the business. I’m eager, I always wanted to learn and I asked a lot of people a lot of questions,” Weekes said. “They were all so incredibly encouraging, and I knew one of them was only a phone call or text away if I had any questions or needed anything in terms of direction.”

In the transition, Weekes didn’t forget his roots. While some talking heads feast on the failure of others or make a name for themselves opining outlandishly, Weekes, just a few years removed from the game, is still a “hockey guy.”

“I think that relationships in life are extremely critical,” he said. “I don’t speak out of my elbow and just talk. If I want to talk about something in Carolina, you have to know I’ve spoken to people at various levels of the organization. I’m pretty dialed in, and I’m speaking from a position of being informed, not just out of speculation.

“I always like to be honest, I like to be objective and I like to do it with a lot of respect. That’s in-part relationships, that’s in-part the way I was raised and that’s in-part experience,” he said. “I think you can make points and still be respectful, honest and credible at the same time. Far too often I think a lot of people are very pessimistic and sensationalistic. Maybe that’s their way, but it’s not mine. I prefer to promote the game and celebrate the story.”

Weekes is now a staple on a number of networks, including CBC and the NHL Network. But would he ever consider getting involved in some capacity with a hockey team, perhaps in the front office?

“I’d be open to the possibility of front office work, but it’d really have to be a special situation. There’s politics in everything you do, but unfortunately, even just in my playing career, politics has a heavy hand in things. I really just love doing my job,” he said. “Sometimes (the politics) can taint that a little for you.”

Right now, he’s enjoying the broadcasting role, one he sees himself doing for many years into the future.

“Once I decided I was going to transition to broadcast, I was all in. I had no regrets then, and to this point, I have no regrets now,” he said. “I look at this as something that I could do for the next 30-35 years if I choose to. I love it. It’s been very natural and a lot of fun.”

Beyond the Studio

Weekes made his small screen debut in 2000 when he, Scott Gomez, Jeremy Roenick, Sheldon Souray and Chris Therien guest starred on the soap opera “One Life to Live.”

A goalie with the Tampa Bay Lightning at the time, Weekes’ role was quite the stretch: he played a professional hockey player boarding a flight. Roenick and Gomez were airline employees.

“Don’t get it twisted. We weren’t permanent characters,” Weekes said, laughing. “It was neat and a lot of fun.”

The next year, Weekes found himself back on daytime television, this time on “All My Children” with Bill Guerin and Rob Niedermayer. Seven years after that, Weekes teamed up with Willie O’Ree for a guest spot on Chris Rock’s “Everybody Hates Chris,” set in the 1980s. In the March 2008 episode, O’Ree and an anachronistic Weekes give directions to a young Chris and his brother Drew on how to find Wayne Gretzky.

Could more scripted television be in Weekes’ future? He said he’s open to anything and recently had to turn down a role this summer due to scheduling conflicts.

If an Emmy isn’t in the cards, there’s also his venture into clothing and apparel. Launched this summer, the Canada-based “IHaveNo5Hole” brand is rapidly growing and now selling worldwide.

“I’ve always been into clothing and dressing well. It’s really been a natural tie-in,” Weekes said. “A big thing for us is grassroots.”

So that’s how you’ll find Weekes and his brand – on Twitter or Facebook and at the local rink or ball field; locally, you can find custom “IHaveNo5Hole” shirts at Five Hole Sports. Ultimately, the clothing line is no different from how Weekes, still very much a student of the game, conducts himself in daily life.

“A lot of what we do is just about connecting people,” he said. “We’re still in our infancy, but we’re learning as we go, we’re having fun and we’re loving it.”



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