Until recently North Carolina's Research Triangle was considered a Bermuda Triangle for hockey, but if the NHL fever that has hit the area keeps up, ACC will soon stand for Ah'm Cup Crazy. The Carolina Hurricanes have turned into contenders, playing before tail-gatin', pom-pom-wavin', reftrashin', roof-raisin' new believers and in front of an unlikely goalie, Kevin Weekes. Other warm-weather cities are turning into NHL ciphers, but hockey (or ICE HOCKEY as a jump headline in The News & Observer of Raleigh thoughtfully clarified for its readers) seemed to take root in the Triangle as Carolina and the Montreal Canadiens split the first two games of an Eastern Conference semifinal series that a clever sign maker in the crowd of 18,809 last Friday labeled Y'ALL VS EH. The cheers for the Hurricanes might not reverberate up and down Tobacco Road, the most exotic prospective route yet for a Stanley Cup parade, but the playoff energy that gripped the Entertainment and Sports Arena last week was fresh, fun and almost collegiate.
Game 1 against Montreal—which has won more Stanley Cups (24) than Carolina has had regular-season sellouts (23) in its three years in Raleigh (after the franchise relocated from Hartford in 1997 it played two years in Greensboro before its new arena was built)—drew a record crowd, and Game 2 was another sellout. After the Hurricanes failed to fill their arena for a home game against the New Jersey Devils in Round 1, a team executive explained that the match was played on Wednesday, which is a big church night in the area. Consider that on April 29 in Montreal a sequestered jury, which was deliberating for the fifth day in the double-murder trial of Hell's Angels leader Maurice (Mom) Boucher, was given the evening off so it could watch the Canadiens polish off the Boston Bruins in Game 6 of the first round.
On Sunday that jury convicted Boucher, but the jury is still out on Weekes, one of the NHL's two black goaltenders. In a 2-0 Game 1 victory against Montreal he gave up some worrisome rebounds that drew more attention than his impressive playoff shutout streak. That streak reached 143 minutes, 55 seconds before a rebound undermined Weekes 7:25 into Game 2; he let the puck drop and relaxed in anticipation of a whistle blowing the play dead, but then looked like a man laying an egg as the puck squirted out and the Canadiens' Saku Koivu whipped it past him. Montreal went on to put three pucks by Weekes on its first eight shots as the Canadiens rolled to a 4-1 win despite being outshot 46-16.
Until that game, Weekes had turned in consecutive playoff shutouts and stopped 132 of 136 postseason shots. The fans in North Carolina know a zero when they see it—consider the scorn being heaped upon Hornets owners George Shinn and Ray Woolridge three hours down the road in Charlotte (page 66)—and have showered Weekes with cheers and unfurled banners in homage to Shady 80. (The nickname was hung on Weekes by a minor league teammate as a comment on the goalie's quiet, almost furtive ways and the number 80 jersey he wears.) The 27-year-old Weekes, who has already been the goalie of the future for four other NHL teams, may be the netminder of the present. (Veteran Arturs Irbe played well in the first two games of the Hurricanes' series against the Devils but fell apart in Games 3 and 4, giving Weekes the chance to shine.)
For years there has been a reality and a perception about Weekes. The reality is mat four clubs tired of him even though he was a young goalie with good lateral movement, but the perception lingers that he's a star in waiting. Part of the reason is that for a netminder who has played on some bad teams, he has not exactly been traded for six broken sticks and an equipment bag. In January 1999 Weekes and defenseman Ed Jovanovski were dealt by the Florida Panthers (who had drafted Weekes in the second round six years earlier) for sniper Pavel Bure; in December '99 Weekes was moved to the New York Islanders in a package for outstanding goaltender Felix Potvin; in June 2000 Weekes was traded to Tampa Bay for a first-round draft choice; and two months ago he was acquired by Carolina for wing Shane Willis, a rookie-of-the-year finalist in 2000-01.
Despite all this shuffling, Weekes never doubted himself. He views his whistle-stop tour of Florida-Vancouver-New York- Tampa Bay-Carolina with an almost quizzical detachment, as if the poor records of most of those teams had only a tangential relationship to his performance. "If you are watching the game, you'll see I've played well," Weekes says. "That's what it's all about."
Weekes, who grew up in a Metro Toronto area called Scarborough (which produced another black NHL player, Edmonton Oilers wing Anson Carter), darts in and out of profundities with a distinctive baritone, in more control of his thoughts than of his rebounds. To some teammates, his brimming confidence has crossed the line into arrogance. Weekes rejects the idea. He calls himself an island person—his parents, Carl and Vadney, emigrated from Barbados—who prizes humility along with hard work. He says he aspires to the loftiness of "a Patrick Roy, a Dominik Hasek, a Vladislav Tretiak, so why then be complacent and want to mirror the career of [perennial backup] Craig Billington?"
In Vancouver, Weekes clashed with coach Marc Crawford and goalie consultant Andy Moog over his reluctance to play unless he felt 100% physically. This became a sticking point in 1999 when the Canucks were forced to scramble for a stopgap goaltender because Weekes said he had an injured right knee even though team doctors contended that MRIs revealed no damage. Last Saturday as he sat on a couch at the Hurricanes' practice facility, Weekes rolled up his right pants leg and showed a reporter two small scars on his kneecap from the arthroscopic surgery he had in the summer of 2000. "After I got to the Islanders, the doctors asked if I had had an MRI in Vancouver," Weekes says. "I told them I had two or three. 'With what?' they asked, 'Polaroids?' "
Conflicting medical opinions are plausible, certainly more so than the story Weekes told the Canucks as explanation for his late arrival to a game on Dec. 2, 1999. According to Weekes, as he was leaving a dry cleaner a man came up to him and asked, "Are you Kevin Weekes?" Weekes said he was. The man instructed Weekes to follow in his car, which Weekes did. The man stopped his car near an alley; Weekes did too. Weekes said the man then robbed him. Less than a month later Weekes was shipped out for Potvin. When asked about the incident last Saturday, Weekes said, "I don't want to make an issue of it. I didn't want to make an issue of it then."
In Carolina he has been a model goalie, his itinerant days seemingly finished when Hurricanes general manager Jim Rutherford acquired him in March and boldly restructured Carolina's goaltending even as the team chased a playoff spot. Maybe Weekes ultimately will save the second round against Montreal as he did the first round against New Jersey, although clearly not every day in the Triangle is 80 in the shade.