TORONTO -- There is a circle around Canadian defenseman Shea Weber -- about 24 feet across, give or take, a little smaller than a faceoff circle. It's invisible to the naked eye, but it is plain enough in his mind and the minds of his opponents that it might as well be painted into the ice. It's especially obvious when he is clearing space in his own zone.
The Weber Circumference defines one of hockey's most notorious circles of pain.
Weber might be better known for having the league's hardest shot or being the other half of this summer's massive P.K. Subban trade between the Montreal Canadiens and Nashville Predators, with whom he had played his entire 11-year career. But his influence is most deeply felt in that pivotal piece of territory in front of his net.
"You get in his 12-foot radius and you want to get out of there pretty quickly," Thornton said. "He's possibly the strongest guy in the league."
Mike Babcock, Weber's admiring coach for Team Canada here at the World Cup, talked recently about the withering effects of Weber's stick, in particular.
"Just physically, he's a man mountain," Babcock said of Weber, who is 6-foot-4 and 236 pounds. "If you haven't been cross-checked in the ribs by him, you find out what that is too."
Thornton took that same cross-check to the back last season after tangling with Roman Josi, Weber's defensive partner on the Predators, and it easily downed one of the game's biggest and toughest players.
"It's a heavy stick," Thornton said. "It's a heavy stick, that's all I can say."
Weber is a quiet man, not given to expressions of deep feeling even with friends.
"I love Webs," said Team USA's Ryan Suter, Weber's former teammate with the Predators. "He keeps it all in. He's such a professional. He keeps things to himself, and he deals with things internally."
But Weber does his version of lighting up whenever he's asked about how he views the space around him.
"You want to take care of the front of your net," Weber said. "Obviously, there are a lot of areas that are going to make differences in games, but I think the two biggest areas are right in front of your net and right in front of their net. You want to get as many bodies and traffic in front of their goalie as you can, and you want to make things easier for your goalie to see pucks, as well. I think at every level you're told to box out and clear the front of the net, but especially at this level. The talent that our goalies have, if they see the puck, they're going to stop it."
There isn't much finesse to clearing space, although experience has given Weber an edge in tying up sticks and limiting second chances. His defensive gifts are more a function of his determination -- "He doesn't give you an inch," said Anaheim Ducks winger Corey Perry, a frequent foe -- and his freakish strength. He routinely finished first in Nashville's fitness tests and weightlifting challenges. Friends and enemies alike talk about him with the sort of reverence normally reserved for men who can bend metal bars with their bare hands.
"He's a huge presence," said Josi, who is here playing for Team Europe and will face his former partner Weber for the first time. "He's one of the strongest guys I've ever met. We used to joke around in the dressing room and you could tell how strong he is."
There were other testimonials to Weber's strengths:
"He's a mutant," Canadian and Ducks forward Ryan Getzlaf said. "Being around his net isn't exactly the funnest place to be."
"He's big, he's strong, he's physical," said Team USA's Ryan Kesler, who has engaged in a running battle with Weber in professional and international play for years. "Once you get him in front of the net, he's mean and nasty. He reminds me of playing [Zdeno] Chara back in the day."
Weber's almost mythical reputation has made him one of those rare players who changes the game even when the puck and his opponents are out of his reach. Normally, the offense wields pressure as a weapon. The way Weber plays, the balance of fear shifts. Given the resignation his opponents carry with them into his zone -- "You just know it's going to hurt," Finland's Mikael Granlund said -- the forwards are the ones who feel the need to brace themselves. Weber is like a deep bruise that stings them before it even begins to surface.
"As a player, you always know a guy like him is out there," Granlund's fellow Finn Mikko Koivu said. "There are no nights off. That's the best way to say it."
Weber leveled Perry during last year's playoffs with an open-ice hit that players still talk about. By any usual definition, Weber was in retreat, skating backward over his own blue line. Perry, at 6-foot-3 and 210 pounds, was building a head of attacking steam, but he made the mistake of skating deep into Weber's sphere of influence. Weber somehow exploded up and out while still moving backward, delivering a forearm to Perry's chin. With a single blow, Perry ended up flat on his back -- "Bell rung," he said. Weber continued gliding back toward his net, looking down at one more fallen opponent with a discomforting amount of satisfaction.
"You have to know that's the way he plays," Perry said.
Now Perry and Weber will be teammates while Canada takes on the rest of the hockey world. Asked about having Weber watching his back instead of putting him on it, Perry smiled with relief and said, "It's going to be a lot easier, I'll tell you that."
If only for the next two weeks, Perry will skate within the Weber Circumference and find shelter, not doom.