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The Life


December 4, 2002
Poles Apart
ESPN The Magazine

Kevin Weekes struts into the locker room like a model on a catwalk. "No free peeks!" he shouts as he peels off his sweaty undershirt to reveal a linebacker's torso. Spotting a reporter, Weekes nods, smiles and invites him to sit down in the stall next to him. "I'm kind of the landlord around here," he says.

Arturs Irbe sneaks in almost unnoticed. He does not say a word. He sits directly across from Weekes, but does not make eye contact. He carefully unstraps his pads and places them on the floor. An equipment manager approaches and reaches down to pick up the pads. Irbe glares and pulls them back. "This is my house!" he says.

Kevin Weekes and Arturs Irbe
Who's No. 1?
Until this month, the two-post house these two men share in Carolina seemed so ideal. "They're polar opposites," teammate Erik Cole beamed in early November. "And we've got the best of both worlds." Irbe is small and spry. He is Latvian -- white. Weekes is tall and chiseled. He is Caribbean -- black. Irbe plays like an old, poor man, flailing desperately with scarred pads and an obsolete helmet ready to fall apart with the next glancing blow. Weekes plays like a young, rich man, peering down at smaller shooters with a panther's face sewn to his pads and gold trim adorning his sparkling mask. Together, Weekes and Irbe nearly became the first goaltending tandem to win the Stanley Cup since the 1972 Eddie Johnston-Gerry Cheevers Bruins. Only Dominik Hasek and the Red Wings were able to stop the Hurricanes in last season's Finals. How perfect they were together in that shotgun wedding -- the odd couple, happily united under one nylon-netted roof.

Yet the house they built is now divided. Irbe is not playing much at all, and he feels abandoned. He lies awake at night, miserable. He is tempted to ask for a trade. Weekes is growing out of the relationship, as well. He dazzles on the ice but remains thoughtful off of it. He too wants space. Sooner or later, there is a breakup coming in Carolina.

***

Let's start with their gear. In his locker, Arturs Irbe has a red bag filled with scissors, tape, thread, needles and a lighter. This is Archie's tool kit. He takes it wherever he goes. On team flights, he'll restitch his trapper. In hotel rooms, he'll fix a broken strap. At home, he'll re-cover his pads. On the bench, during games when he's not playing, he'll retape his stick. Irbe used the same ratty pads for his entire NHL career until they became heavy as logs from all the triage. The typical NHL goaltender costs his team $10,000 per season in equipment. Arturs Irbe has never dented the Canes' annual budget by more than $500.

Archie's tool kit is an emblem for a way of life. He is the youngest son of an engineer and a seamstress who raised him in impoverished Latvia. Arturs started playing hockey at age 9 with a broken shaft nailed to a broken blade. He could hardly skate after severely injuring both his ankles in a game when he was 13. (He still tapes them heavily and walks pigeon-toed.) "The poor kid has no chance," Arturs once overheard his mother saying. But Arturs was so good at blocking shots, his team put him in goal. "Somehow," Irbe recalls in near-perfect English, "the coach notices the kid who never gives up." Arturs outworked his competition, and soon the Soviets were asking about the small goalie with the worn-out equipment. "You can tell," Archie says, smiling, "how I became how I am."

Weekes has his own carry-on, his own emblem. His father, Carl, calls it "the beauty bag." It contains all sorts of oils and lotions to keep Kevin looking and feeling top dollar. Weekes is known as one of his sport's most stylish players, more Jordan than Gretzky. Weekes grew up in Toronto, the son of parents who had emigrated from Barbados. He chose goalie over running back and power forward because the pads looked "pretty." Weekes joined a hockey camp for black players at 15 and watched helplessly as most of his friends quit to play football. As he climbed through juniors, he knew everyone would be watching the black goalie, so he refused to do anything that might invite controversy. "We had to be very careful what we said," says Kirk Brooks, a close friend who helped found the camp, "because if we said the wrong thing, it would affect our chances." Weekes continued to feel the eyes boring in harder upon him. He understood all that was being asked of him. He just kept putting on that pretty mask.

Along with the gear, which these men can personalize, is something they cannot: the uniform. Irbe reluctantly started his career in Soviet red -- even though the mother country once came to his mother's house and nearly sent his grandparents to Siberia. He whooped with his fellow 13-year-olds in 1980 when the Soviets fell to the U.S. in Lake Placid. And he risked his career when the mortally wounded Red Army advanced on his hometown in 1991 to prevent a revolt. Irbe sat in the frigid town square overnight as the tanks rolled in, signing a referendum for national independence and singing songs of freedom. When the tanks left, Irbe watched his neighbors topple a statue of Lenin into hundreds of pieces. Irbe picked up a chunk of the statue, clutched it in his trapper hand, then went home to crush his little piece of history with a hammer. When he got to New York later that year -- playing for the Sharks -- Irbe checked into a hotel, turned on CNN, watched George Bush formally recognize Latvia as a country and sobbed.

After Irbe broke free, Weekes spent eight years trying to break in. He willingly played the role of hockey novelty in four different unis in four NHL seasons, answering every reporter's question about what it's like to be a black goalie. Then he got called into another front office and told again that he would now be someone else's goalie of the future. In 2000, he landed in Tampa Bay, where he saved nine of every 10 shots over 61 games as the Lightning's No.1 goalie. Weekes settled down, bought a house. Then, before last season, Tampa traded for Nikolai Khabibulin. GM Rick Dudley (now with Florida) gloated that finally "we can put a circle around our goaltenders and say, 'Okay, that's solid.'" Weekes? "We think he can develop into a No. 1." Last season, Weekes played like it -- 2.72 GAA and a .916 SP -- in only 21 games. He was 26, playing like an All-Star ... but he was still "that black goalie." Finally, last spring Carolina traded for Weekes and told him, "We want you to make this your home." Weekes smiled his rock-star smile and dropped his black beauty bag in his fifth new home -- a locker directly across from yet another former Soviet goalie.

***

Now that we have them in the same uniform, we can get to the inner sanctum of these two men -- a place where they must protect and sacrifice, where all the shots leave bruises and welts. Last February, when Latvia competed in the Winter Olympics for the first time in over half a century, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman threatened Irbe with suspension if he left the Canes early for Salt Lake City. Irbe -- infuriated and benched -- stared at the scoreboard while his teammates played San Jose. By the time he got to Utah for Latvia's elimination game against Germany, he was emotionally shredded. The Latvians lost 4-1. Irbe left Salt Lake with only the hope for one more chance in 2006. (He'll be 39.)

The sight of Weekes hauling his stuff into the room only worsened what Irbe still calls "the hardest season of my career." But the playoffs are to a pair of competing goalies what having a baby is to a struggling marriage: a short-term effort that can temporarily dam the tide of long-term trouble. Irbe won the first two games of the Canes' series against New Jersey, then eagerly backed Weekes when coach Paul Maurice switched starters after Irbe stumbled badly in Game 3. Weekes blazed through the rest of Round 1 and took a 143-minute streak of perfect hockey into Round 2 against Montreal. When No. 80 finally ran cold in Game 4, he calmly watched Irbe carry the torch the rest of the way. The rotation worked superbly on and off the ice. But each man thought his playoff numbers (1.62 GAA for Weekes; 1.67 GAA for Irbe) were good enough for No. 1 status come October. As soon as the playoffs ended, Irbe told his partner he didn't think the good times would last. "I saw it happening," Irbe says now. "I was not happy. I knew what lay ahead."

The Canes renegotiated Irbe's contract over the summer, offering him a guaranteed third year in exchange for the elimination of his no-trade clause. Carolina GM Jim Rutherford hoped the extra money would soothe Irbe if Weekes got more playing time. It hasn't. Irbe faltered from the season opener -- which he lost -- and watched from the bench as Weekes roared out to a 1.87 GAA in the next 17 games. Irbe has started coming to practice early and staying late -- working up a jersey-drenching sweat before his teammates take the ice and then forcing the RBC Center changeover crew to build a basketball court around his crease after practice. During games, Irbe anxiously wraps and rewraps his stick in tape as his mind redirects doubts like oncoming slappers. "I am going crazy," he says. "When I can't play, I can't sleep." (Then he hasn't slept much lately -- he's played once Oct. 23.)

And when Irbe does play, Weekes' phone starts ringing. After watching Irbe lose 4-1 in Ottawa, Weekes fielded a call from his old friend Brooks in Toronto. He wanted to know why the Canes didn't start their supposed goalie of the future. Weekes listened in silence, laughed nervously, then kicked away the question with a quiet "I know." "They still have doubt in their mind that he's the real deal," says Brooks. "If Kevin were white, this wouldn't be happening. In the back of his mind, that's an underlying factor as to why he doesn't get respect around the league."

Weekes deflects the issue. He insists the Canes have been "fair and honest" with him. But just as Irbe must fend off his own self-doubts from his lonely perch on the bench, Weekes can't quite put away his demons when Irbe gets the nod. He admits to wondering why Fred Brathwaite got benched for Roman Turek in Calgary, why Jarome Iginla isn't being celebrated by the NHL as the next big thing, why Jose Theodore has been anointed the next superstar in goal while Weekes still waits for his turn: "If I were your so-called typical hockey player, maybe things would be different."

Neither Weekes nor Irbe are typical. That is why they are admired. But for all their superficial differences, what will eventually drive these goalies apart is what makes them alike. It's there in Irbe's well-traveled pads, with each cuff and puck mark symbolizing the tenacity of the seamstress' son who never gave up. It's there in the panther's face Weekes sews onto his shiny new pads, in the feline curves and ferocious stare. It's there in Irbe's chrome-shaded eyes when he sits in a parked car outside a hotel on game day, stares through a grimy windshield and says, "I think people make things hard for me because they know I can take it." It's there when Weekes sets his jaw and complains about black men in other sports who get into trouble: "As soon as people see that, they look here."

Irbe and Weekes are hard-wired to protect. They guard their habits, their backgrounds, their true feelings -- their goal creases -- with one basic hope: that excellent players will always get to play. Weekes has eloquently answered hundreds of questions about fans throwing bananas at him or telling him to go play basketball, but he nearly lost his temper when asked by a reporter why he was benched in Tampa. Irbe risked his life by staring down the tanks of the Red Army, but crumbled when Gary Bettman threatened to suspend him if he chose the Olympics over the Canes. They are proud minorities, both of these men. They live clean. They have sacrificed much. They have molded themselves into elite performers at one of sport's most difficult and daunting tasks. Weekes is ready for the end of the beginning of his career, and Irbe dreads the beginning of the end. But each wakes up every day with a desperate need to pull down that mask and just play goal. Their job is their justification for everything. They live to protect their two-post house. How can you ask them to guard it with their lives -- and at the same time ask them to share it?

***

Now the locker room is empty, except for one player. Irbe still has his gear on as he finally confesses his wish to play somewhere else if nothing changes. The only teammate he's told is Weekes -- the only one who truly understands. "We talk," Irbe says with a wry smile. "And we share the same agent. Kevin deserves to be No. 1. He's earned it. I feel I've earned it too." Moments later, Irbe is dressed and walking through the lobby of the Canes practice facility. Weekes is standing there, alone. The two exchange words and then Weekes watches Irbe open the door to the warm afternoon. At the last second, Irbe turns and winks. Weekes just smiles. One man leaves, the other man stays.

This article appears in the December 9 issue of ESPN The Magazine.



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