November 05, 2008
Yesterday, we covered many aspects from the aftermath of New Jersey Devils goaltender Martin Brodeur's injury, which will potentially have the Vezina Trophy winner on the sidelines for four months. Two more potential aftereffects are being debated this morning: Whether the Devils are a tougher team to face without Brodeur, and whether new starting goaltender Kevin Weekes could open new doors to the community around the Prudential Center as a black NHL player.
First, a conscious clarification: We know Tampa Bay Lightning Coach Barry Melrose isn't saying that facing Weekes is tougher than facing Brodeur. But his comments about playing the Devils with lower intensity because Marty isn't between the pipes were interesting, and no doubt will be echoed in many locker rooms for the next few months. From Lightning Strikes, here's Barry:
"From a coach's point of view, it actually causes problems. You have a team that's mentally preparing to play against the best goaltender in the game, and all of a sudden he's not there. It's human nature. They'll say, ‘Wow, it's a great break for us and we don't have to work as hard.'
"That's how a coach things. You find a black cloud in everything. Kevin Weekes is an experienced NHL goaltender. Marty Brodeur being hurt only helps us if we work as hard as we did before."
Will teams take the Devils lightly without Brodeur? That's a symptom that could develop if this team goes into a tailspin without him; but, in the end, the Devils' reputation as a stingy, annoying defensive club probably keeps most teams honest.
Melrose is making his first regular season trip to Newark as an NHL head coach after his comments on ESPN last year about the Prudential Center's surrounding neighborhood being "awful" and his warning for fans not to "go outside if you have a wallet or anything else." Melrose was being an idiot then, but no one can argue that Newark itself isn't exactly the best demographic fit for a professional hockey team.
One New Jersey writer wonders if Weekes can bring a new, more diverse audience to prop up the team's sagging attendance in Brodeur's absence.
From Steve Politi of The Star-Ledger, who wonders if there would be any new interest in the Devils if "residents found out that new goalie was black?"
Kevin Weekes considered that question Tuesday and decided that, well, it couldn't hurt. He is an outspoken advocate for diversity in his sport who will take a major role on a team struggling to make inroads in a mostly black city. He is living proof that hockey, despite its reputation, excludes no one.
"I try to educate people," Weekes said. "Obviously, this is a very diverse area with a huge black population. We're trying to grow the game. We want the game to matter to more people in more places."
Weekes has been a longtime advocate for inner city youth hockey, and an ambassador for the NHL in that regard. From the Ledger:
"Our sport has gotten a lot (more diversified) since I've gotten in the league, and I've tried to do as much as I can to help that," Weekes said. "Once kids are hooked on something, it makes a big difference, right?
"Everybody doesn't necessarily want to play in the NBA. After seeing Tiger, a lot more people want to play golf. After the Williams sisters, a lot more people want to play tennis. Cullen Jones in swimming. Shani Davis in speed skating. That's the way I look at it. That's how I see it."
If the argument is that having Weekes on the ice may open the eyes of some African-American fans that, yes Virginia, there really are black players in the NHL, then it's a valid argument -- even if the fact that this information remains unknown to many Americans, and remains a novelty for the League, should be an embarrassment rather than a point of symbolic pride.
But if last night taught us anything here in the U.S. -- and my god, what a night it was -- it's that diverse audiences don't simply want to support those who "look like them." They want to support content of character, quality of achievement and one's exemplary aptitude.
This isn't meant to disparage Kevin Weekes, who is a solid pro and may excel behind the Devils' system. But he only has this starting job because Martin Brodeur is hurt; and even if he pulls out a Ty Conklin-like run over the next few months, he's still going to be Martin Brodeur's backup when No. 30 returns.
Is watching a three-month placeholder, who happens to be a black player, worth paying $300 for a night at the rink for a family in Newark?
In 2007 when I was writing for FanHouse, I spoke with Ken Martin, senior director of community relations and diversity programs for the NHL, about the NHL Diversity initiative. The backdrop was the League's missed opportunity in marketing Ray Emery's achievement as a starting goaltender for a Stanley Cup finalist. (A missed opportunity that, in hindsight, now seems like a dodged bullet after Ray ... ahem ... blew his chance.)
We spoke about a number of topics regarding race and the NHL, including why players like Jarome Iginla and Scott Gomez haven't been used to reach new audiences. But his last comment about the future of diversity in hockey always struck me:
There are potentially 51 minority players that are playing in the East Coast Hockey League, the Central Hockey League and the OHL that have an opportunity to make an impact in the NHL. There's a wave behind this wave of existing minority players - a juggernaut that's going to be a very interesting story as we look at opportunities to market them and use them as examples of NHL diversity.
What this comes down to is symbols vs. symbolic players. Players like Kevin Weekes and Johnny Oduya and Bryce Salvador are symbols of the diversity in hockey. What the NHL needs, however, is a symbolic player on the level of an Iginla to come from that "juggernaut" of new talent Martin spoke about.
It needs a black NHL star; someone who can show kids in Newark that hockey is a sport to embrace, while at the same time compelling their parents to plunk down hard-earned dough for a game against the Lightning on a Wednesday night in November.
(And it also needs one that can strike the balance between being someone who can talk about race in the context of hockey while, at the same time, being something more than the clunky "black NHL star" label I referenced above.)
Weekes has been a symbol to the black community for most of his NHL career; but I don't believe, unless he becomes a three-month sensation, he's on the level to achieve the level of a symbolic, transformative player in Newark.