By RON FANFAIR
Goaltender Kevin Weekes saw the writing on the wall after he appeared in just 25 National Hockey League (NHL) games his last two seasons with the New Jersey Devils and the unattractive financial offers he received as an unrestricted free agent during the off-season.
The articulate Toronto-born native chose to successfully market his communications skills as CBC’s Hockey Night in Canada (HNIC) signed him to a one-year contract as a colour analyst, making Weekes the first Black on-air commentator to appear on the popular Canadian TV program.
Weekes, who will continue as a guest analyst with the National Hockey League (NHL) network with whom he has inked a one-year deal, will do HNIC West Coast games, blog and occasionally be part of the late-night show team.
“This is a challenge that I am looking forward to,” Weekes, who was drafted 41st overall by the Florida Panthers in the 1993 NHL entry draft, told Share. “Every hockey player in this country grew up watching Hockey Night in Canada, so to be part of that team now is very special.”
The 34-year-old Weekes knew his playing time would be limited when the Devils signed him as an unrestricted free agent in July 2007. He however did not expect to turn out in just nine regular season games in 2007-08 and 16 last season, including 13 starts after Martin Brodeur suffered an arm injury and was sidelined for four months.
“When I signed with the Devils, part of the rationale was to cut back on Martin’s minutes,” said Weekes whose overall save percentage was an outstanding .903 in 348 games he played in since October 1998. “That was what I was banking on and I made a huge concession based on salary compared with what the market value should have been, in exchange for this opportunity. Martin, however, played every game he wanted to and pretty much called his own shots as far as I am concerned. Last year, Martin got hurt which should have been my opportunity to play.”
Fully recovered from surgery in May 2008 to repair a torn bicep tendon and re-attach it to the bone in his left arm, Weekes started the first five games after Brodeur suffered the first serious injury in his stellar career.
Then for some inexplicable reason, Weekes was relegated to the bench and replaced by Scott Clemmensen.
“I played once every five games from then on even though I had a five-game winning streak,” he said. “I did not have the opportunity to play as much based on what was presented and that was very frustrating because if there was an opportunity, that was it. You never want it to come at somebody else’s expense when they are injured, but that was what the circumstances were. Even in the limited time I had, I still completed a .920 save percentage which was the highest on the team and the second highest among back-up goalies in the league.”
A few teams showed an interest in Weekes who made just over US$1.3 million in the last two seasons. He however said none of the offers were financially fulfilling.
“It’s frustrating when you know you have a resume where you have four, five and even six times as many games played, not to mention the intangibles, than some of the other guys that were in the free agent pool and the next thing you know these guys are signing contracts for what the market is for a back-up goalie and the same opportunities were not coming my way,” Weekes said.
“That was a sign to me to open my eyes to all options. I looked at Russia where I got some offers, including one that was a bit significant. But even in Russia, the market is not what it used to be last year because of the economic crisis, and they were not paying the premium they did a year ago for import goalies from the NHL. The one offer that was put out was for about half of the US$2.2 million that an NHL goalie (John Grahame) made there last season and I have more games under my belt than him (224). I sat with my wife (Stephanie), parents and sister and forensically looked at all options and it made the most sense for me to quit the sport and pursue other avenues.”
Weekes said last season was his most challenging because he did not get the chance to play as much as he thought he should have even though the game’s best goalie was shelved for a significant period.
“You want to have a sense of purpose,” he said. “That’s a big thing for me. Essentially, I felt like a thoroughbred that was always training, always in peak shape and condition and ready to go. You go through your exercise ride in the morning and then race day comes and you remain in the barn. For me, that became frustrating.”
Growing up playing street hockey with his cousin Ian Webster and his friends in the city, Weekes said he would definitely have loved to represent the hometown Toronto Maple Leafs before his playing career ended.
“When you look at the NHL goalies in the league right now, I was the only one that was born and developed in Toronto who was still active in the last five years,” he said. “We have close to 150 arenas in the GTA and the best minor league hockey system in the world. So that’s pretty profound. Of course, I would have loved to play for the Leafs.”
Weekes said the goalie position, which he gravitated to as a young kid because of the equipment and uniqueness of the position, is the most demanding in the sport because the netminder has to be constantly prepared to stop shots that now travel at a very high velocity.
“Eric Lindros was considered a monster when he came on the scene and now there are so many guys that are 6’5″ and 240 pounds in the league,” said Weekes, who is so proud of his Barbadian heritage (his parents Carl and Vadney were born on the Caribbean island) that he wore the Bajan flag on the back of his goalie mask.
“The players are more athletic, dynamic, stronger and faster. When I first came in the league, you knew the players who had the big shots and you could set yourself up for them. In the last 10 years, it doesn’t matter who is shooting because most guys have hard shots. For those players, all you can do is try to get in the best position early to cut down the angles.”
Weekes singled out retired player Al MacInnis and Edmonton Oilers defenseman Sheldon Souray as the players with the hardest shots he faced in his 11-year career that included stops with the Florida Panthers, Vancouver Canucks, the New York Islanders, the Tampa Bay Lightning, the Carolina Hurricanes and the New York Rangers.
When asked who his role model was, Weekes was quick to point to retired goalie Grant Fuhr, who won five Stanley Cups with the Edmonton Oilers.
“He was the best in the world at his position, he was a champion and he also happened to be Black,” said Weekes, who also paid tribute to Dr. Herb Carnegie and Willie O’Ree for their pioneering efforts. “When anybody asked me why I chose to play hockey, I would say watch number 31 on Edmonton. He laid the foundation and created a platform for me to want to become a goalie.”
When he’s not on the TV set, Weekes – who led the Hurricanes to the Stanley Cup finals in 2002 – plans to spend more quality time with his wife of 21 months and start a family, be more active in grassroots hockey initiatives, continue with his charity work that includes an annual celebrity golf tournament in Barbados and set up the framework for the establishment of his own goalie school in Toronto.