Kevin Weekes has been quite a busy man since retiring from the National Hockey League (NHL). He is the first black NHL colour commentator working for both the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) and the NHL network, and he continues to contribute to the community with his charitable work. BIM caught up with Weekes to discuss his transition from NHL goalie to NHL broadcaster, the state of the league, and whether he thinks the NHL is doing an adequate job of selling the game to blacks in North America.
Black Ink Magazine: Is there any merit in the rumour that you have not closed the doors on a return to the NHL?
Kevin Weekes: It’s interesting that you ask that question. With my Caribbean upbringing my parents were all about principle, and closing doors in life was not an option; as for playing, I will always be open to the possibility of a return, but at the same time it would have to be what it should be and that’s fair market value. Incidentally, that had a major influence on my decision to transition into broadcasting.
KW: The transition has been very good and very fast. Playing hockey and watching it from a press box high above has given me a new perspective on the game. I was comfortable on camera, and my partner, NHL Network’s play-by-play announcer Mark Lee, has been outstanding and very helpful. Surprisingly, many people in this business have been very helpful, offering information and resources to ensure my success as a broadcaster.
BIM: What drew you to the game of hockey more than other sports such as basketball, football, soccer—or even cricket, having been born to Barbadian parents?
KW: I think it’s the fact that I grew up in Toronto, and as we all know hockey is the number one sport in this country. Now had I grown up in Barbados we’d probably be having a different conversation. My parents were very supportive with me playing hockey as a child; I started playing street hockey with my cousin Ian and all the other children in my neighbourhood prior to my parents signing me up to play house league hockey at St. Michael’s arena. Even though my parents had no connection [to the game, they gave] me the green light to play, and without that I wouldn’t be in this position today.
BIM: Who were some of your hockey heroes growing up?
KW: Grant Fuhr was my main guy; if it wasn’t for Grant, who knows if any of us would’ve made it. He was the first black goalie in the history of the game, a hall of famer, multiple Stanley Cup championships and one of the best goalies ever. Fellow Barbadian Freddie Braithwaite was another player I looked up to, in addition to Dominick Hasek and Mike Richter.
BIM: Were you faced with any challenges as a black hockey player?
KW: Quite frankly the challenges were minimal. I played for the Toronto Redwings, which is one of the best minor hockey associations in the world. It was one of the first organizations to embrace diversity; we had all kinds of players from various backgrounds: blacks, Indo-Canadian, Italians, Russian, Portuguese, and Filipino players. Don’t get me wrong though—the odd time at a tournament you would get the idiot parent or spectator making some racial comments in the stands, but for the most part I always got my due. [At the professional level, it] was a little different . . . there was so much at stake, where you are basically put in a position to take an opportunity away from someone else, coupled with the fact that there are so few black players, making our voice in strength and number not very strong.
BIM: Black hockey players currently make up less than three per cent of all active NHL players; is the NHL doing an adequate job opening, selling, and marketing the game to blacks on both sides of the border?
KW: I think the league is doing a better job, somewhat adequate. I don’t think we have maximized our potential, nor has the league in terms of what they can do from a resources standpoint—and more than just resources, the mission. Compare what the NBA has done to grow their game from a grassroots perspective; the way they grew the game of basketball in North America is the same way they grew their game in Africa, Asia, Europe and South America. The NBA was the first major sports league in North America to do this and they’ve embraced the globalization of basketball, coupled with largely reaping the benefits.
KW: A will and desire to want to open the game to individuals of colour. Unfortunately this is a very difficult task, because hockey has a very strong white Canadian mentality and it’s very one-dimensional as you hear these statements quite frequently: “Hockey is our game… We own hockey….” these statements are very arrogant and small-minded. I understand where this comes from, however it is very frustrating, because statements like these create a sense . . . that “it’s ours and nobody else can have it.” Moreover, this type of behaviour often comes out of fear. Until this type of behaviour is relaxed the NHL will continue to find growing the game outside of Canada very challenging.
BIM: You’re quite the philanthropist; can you tell us about some of your charity work?
KW: My annual golf tournament in Barbados supports two youth-focused initiatives including the Toronto-based Sky’s the Limit and The Phoenix Academy of Barbados, and I continue to support the Herbert H. Carnegie Future Aces Foundation. I love the opportunity and the platform to be able to bring general awareness to a cause, and being a former professional hockey player has allowed me the resources to continue my ongoing charitable work.