Kevin Weekes talks like a politician. In these days of waffling sound bites and government vilification that might seem like a derogatory comment, but it’s not. Once a guarded athlete, Weekes now speaks clearly, maintains eye contact and ties each of his statements to larger ideals. He is business-like yet charismatic, solid and stylish; a television man who’s never off air.
As a hockey player Weekes was a serviceable goaltender with a penchant for catching fire. He is remembered as a backup, but that belies his skill. In 2002, Weekes combined with Arturs Irbe to form a Stanley Cup finalist goaltending tandem – an unusual occurrence. During that playoff run Weekes recorded 2 shutouts before relinquishing the crease to Irbe and watching his Carolina Hurricanes fall just short of winning the Cup.
Those nights of facing down slap shots and marking divots in the crease are gone for Weekes but he is as comfortable and confident as ever. The Toronto-born player, who spent so many years in a mask, is now a prominent face on Hockey Night In Canada, and the NHL Network’s flagship program NHL on the Fly. The league has also chosen Weekes as one of their primary ambassadors, where he promotes minority and disadvantaged participation in the sport.
The former tender’s personality has been a refreshing addition to hockey coverage and he is more than happy to share his thoughts on changing the game. In a hockey world he describes as “insular” and surprisingly conservative, Weekes is a maverick unafraid to discuss topics such as race and why commentators who harken back to “the ’72 series when they were slashing guys behind the ankles” are blunting the progress of the sport.
You’ve proven yourself to be a stylish guy on television. Are you the best-dressed hockey commentator out there?
Not for me to say, I always think that I’m my own best dressed. That’s how I was raised. I love fashion and I like to dress well out of respect for the network and the fans watching at home.
Do you change your style based on the game that you’re covering? Will you be busting out the bow tie this season for a special occasion?
I rocked the tux for the awards ceremony. During the Stanley Cup final I busted out three new suits; one more summery, a baby blue pinstripe blazer, an ice blue blazer and a grey three piece. It’s important to change your look depending on the situation. I’ve only put on the bow tie for the awards event thus far but don’t be surprised if you see me whip that out sometime in the near future.
Do you ever worry about upstaging Don Cherry with your wardrobe?
[Laughs] No. Let’s just say he has a unique way of dressing. It’s specific to him.
How do you feel about Cherry as a broadcaster?
Obviously I’m on CBC and I think he’s done a lot of great things. In many ways he revolutionized that role but at this point he’s not evolving the role. I respect him because he’s had a very longstanding and distinguished career. One of the challenges for him is that he has a very important role and sometimes I don’t know if he recognizes how important that role is. For example, last season he was very critical of P.K. Subban. If you do your homework you know that P.K. was dominant as a junior, dominant for the Canadian World Junior team, then Montreal told him they wanted him to play in the American league – OK, well Drew Doughty didn’t have to go to the American league, but fine – so P.K.’s an American League record plus 47 as a rookie, a first team all-star as a rookie there yet Montreal doesn’t call him up until the playoffs when they get besieged by injuries. He steps in and doesn’t miss a beat. He shuts down Ovechkin, shuts down Crosby – goes chest to chest with those guys. Then, last season, Don starts commenting on Subban’s arrogance, saying that he needs to change his attitude and how he plays. Why? Doughty and Jack Johnson play with flavour. There are lots of young defensemen in the league with flair to their game. Don was very outwardly critical of P.K. for two, three weeks in a row. The next thing you know, P.K. is removed from the lineup for 4 or 5 games in December.
That just shows how much sway Don’s opinion can have at times and in this instance it led to a negative characterization of somebody. Whether it’s that or the visor issue or fighting, Don’s words carry a lot of weight and if they’re not measured there’s the risk of a segment of the population taking everything he says verbatim. It’s not to say that you can’t have your opinion, but I’m tired of these ridiculous attributions based on where you’re from and how you appear. I don’t think a guy from Saskatchewan is automatically a character player because his dad owns a farm. My dad worked on a plantation in Barbados, so hey, I must be a character player as well.
I’ve also noticed that the coverage of Subban has been slanted.
Just recently it was like that. On Hockey Night in Canada we had a shot of P.K. arriving to the arena and Mike Milbury made the assertion that his wardrobe is one of the reasons why people around the league don’t like him. I think he said, “It’s all about him” in referral to P.K.’s ego, because he was dressed fashionably. It’s garbage. When you look at it, P.K.’s dad is a principal in North York, he’s implemented a learn-to-play hockey program for disadvantaged kids at his school at Jane and Finch, he has two younger brothers that are likely going to play in the league – that’s the Staal family [referring to NHL brothers Eric, Marc and Jordan] isn’t it?
And it’s not just commentators, I remember last year after a Philadelphia-Montreal game Mike Richards, the Flyers’ captain at the time, announced that Subban needs to show more respect.
Mike Richards and [fellow former Flyer] Jeff Carter got Ken Hitchcock, a Stanley Cup champion coach, fired as rookies in the National Hockey League but that’s never talked about. It’s one thing to come into the league and respect someone’s accomplishments. As a rookie you’re not going to be the guy on the plane taking two lobster tails. When I was a rookie, I would wait and say, ‘Vanbiesbrouck, you’re the veteran, you go ahead’, but when I was competing on the ice, I wasn’t going to defer to someone and say ‘Oh you won a cup and played with Patrick Roy, why don’t you put that glove side?’ If you saw the way Subban played in the playoffs, having just been thrown into the fire, he said ‘Hey, you’re Sidney, I know you’re the greatest player in the world but I’m going chest-to-chest with you.’ That’s a guy I want on my team. Why should he have to defer? All of that is junk. The bottom line is that he’s too good for a segment of people who don’t want to see him succeed and he’s too smart for people who don’t want him to have intelligence. The majority of people love him – especially the young fans and he will tell you that he’s treated very well in Montreal, but there’s a group of people who derive satisfaction from his failure and that’s too bad.
Is it difficult to not look at it from a racial perspective? As much as we try to eliminate race as a factor in anything, it’s impossible to ignore such a prominent aspect of being human. I look at Subban and I think that one of the reasons he resonates with young fans is that he is very much a “black athlete”. In his book 40 Million Dollar Slaves, William Rhoden writes of this quality of “blackness” about Willie Mays, this swagger and style, and how the white media and old baseball establishment had trouble tolerating his originality. That was the 1960s and you hear similar criticism of Subban in 2011.
Right. We can have a black president of the United States but we can’t have a black defenceman on the Montreal Canadiens who flies around the ice and makes plays. I think it’s absurd. For some people it is about that and what’s frustrating is that they don’t have the guts to come out and say it. If that’s how you feel, say it and leave it open to discussion. They think they’re being coy, but it’s pretty clear.
I like Darren Pang and I certainly don’t think he’s a racist but that slip-up last year [Pang mistakenly said that Subban needed to "learn how to play the white way"] was pretty unfortunate.
Yes, it was unfortunate but very…
Yes, telling. And that’s not how he thinks but how he knows a lot of the masses think. We still have too large of an element in our game of ‘this guy’s a Russian player, this guy’s a swede, this guy’s a black player, this guy’s an Indian player’. From the league’s perspective, not talking about team management, we’ve done and continue to do a lot of things to change that mindset.
Do you see the change happening? Has there been improvement or do you see the amount of minority participants in hockey leveling off?
I see it growing. If you look at the OHL draft here last year, you would be surprised to see how many of the top first round picks were black. And it’s not just black, it’s Asian, South Asian etc. In terms of the U.S., USA Hockey had a record number of new participants last year. The league has done a lot to support those minority programs. This month the league partnered with USA Hockey on an initiative to allow kids the opportunity to try hockey for the first time. They’re sponsoring this throughout the United States. We’re the only league to partner with the First Lady in her Let’s Move initiative, that’s a huge step. We’ve expanded the customary White House visit for the Cup team. The Hockey is for Everyone initiative that Willie O’Ree has been at the forefront of has grown. Willie and I participated in the Congressional Black Caucus on behalf of the league. Actually, while we were in Washington, D.C., that incident with Wayne Simmonds [referring to the Philadelphia Flyers forward having a banana thrown at him during a shootout attempt against Detroit in London, Ontario. Simmonds scored on the play.] happened and we all just stood there saying: ‘Really? We’re in Congress right now. I thought we were past this.’
Speaking of what happened to Simmonds, you had a similar experience in Montreal in 2002. Both of you reacted the same way; you kept silent on the issue. Was that the team’s idea or your own?
It was a combination, but primarily my own. One of the challenges you face when you’re playing, and Wayne is seeing this now, is walking that fine line between being honest and internalizing things. A lot of people say they crave honesty but they don’t really want it. As much as they say ‘these guys should be more forthcoming, they should show more personality’, well, P.K. is giving you personality and you can’t handle it. Often when I played I had to bite my tongue because those who comment on the game might not be objective. If I come out and say ‘I thought Montreal was the Mecca of hockey, I thought it was cultured, I expect more of the people there.’ now I have a “chip” on my shoulder. Well, it’s not that I have a chip on my shoulder it’s that someone threw a banana at me as I left the net. No one should have to deal with that in this day and age.
Do you think it’s specific to hockey for players to be deterred from developing individual character? Does the game have a problem with marketing stars?
Something the league needs to learn is that you can’t prepackage people’s personalities. I played with plenty of players who have personality, who are outgoing and like to joke around but that side of them was never really shown. Not everybody on your team is going to be like Paul Kariya; sure they would be hard-working and focused but your team would be boring. That’s the sub-culture of the game. Everyone keeps saying “It’s about the front of the jersey”and I understand that team first concept, but there are players inside the jerseys, players who inspire fans with their individuality.
The league has gotten better but there is an opportunity for growth in marketing players. I wish we had 24/7 [referring to HBO's mini-series that provided a behind-the-scenes look at the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals in anticipation of their meeting at the Winter Classic] once a week, where people get a chance to see that side of the players and connect with them. Even when I was playing, I would get a sense of somebody from how they carried themselves on the ice and then I would meet them in person and think of them completely differently. That’s why Twitter is so big, because often the teams and the standard coverage controls too much. Nobody wants to hear “we gave a hundred and ten percent”anymore, but that’s the culture that’s created. It doesn’t help the fans, doesn’t help the players, doesn’t help the game. People want to see the players being themselves. That’s why on After Hours [the closing segment of Hockey Night] we try to ask different questions, to provide more depth.
Are you happy about the NBA lockout?
You’re never happy to see guys lose their jobs. In some cases our league has been able to benefit, but I don’t want us to benefit at the expense of anyone else. We’re trying to build something long-term, we aren’t just looking to ride this aberrational wave in the market.
Was it tough for you to decide to retire?
I like options. I was a free agent and all the vacancies around the league were being filled. I spoke with a team in Russia but the moment we started talking with these clowns from there it turned into a deescalating negotiation. Then, CBC, the NHL and MSG network called. I always knew I wanted to do TV and I was ready. I’ve never cried a day since retiring. A lot of hockey players have a very narrow comfort zone, more so than in other sports. I think that although I had that dedication, I wasn’t a one-dimensional guy who could only function around hockey people. A guy who I played with told me last year that he’s on the couch every day. He drives his kids to school and picks them up and for the rest of the day he’s on the couch watching TV. For a 38-year old man that’s pretty depressing. It’s not about career earnings or a nest egg; it’s really about having a sense of purpose.
Follow Kevin Weekes on Twitter: @KevinWeekes