As Kevin Weekes
prepares to be an unrestricted free agent, he does so with a powerful force pulling him back toward Newark, N.J.
How can he possibly forget about all the kids in the city who look up to him not just for his talent and status as a professional athlete, but also because of the color of his skin?
"Every time I see him play I think of me playing because I'm a minority, too," said Newark resident Kevin Lopez, 14, a high school goalie and one of the founding members of the Hockey in Newark program. "I just met him for only five minutes and I can tell you that he's a really great man."
For two years Weekes, who is of Barbadian descent, has been arguably the most influential spokesperson for Hockey in Newark, a not-for-profit organization that serves the city's youth through education-based programs with hockey providing the foundation.
Weekes grew up in Toronto, but his parents, Vadney and Carl, emigrated from Barbados in the 1970s. Weekes, who holds a charity golf tournament in Barbados every summer, understands his presence in and around the Newark area has given the kids there a feeling of hope and inspiration.
"Newark is very diverse and we have a lot of people with different backgrounds and with me having a Barbadian background and coming from Barbadian heritage means a lot," Weekes told NHL.com. "It's a tangible connection. Toronto is like New York and our sport didn't always reflect that. I was fortunate that I had Grant Fuhr
and Fred Brathwaite
that played before me to give me the courage to think that, 'Hey, this is a possibility, you can do this and you can become this.' That made a big difference."
According to Lopez, a goalie for the Newark East Side High School team that plays its home games at the Devils practice rink inside Prudential Center, hockey is growing within the city's boundaries because of the Devils and players like Weekes.
"I can tell you that more and more people are going to the games and I see more and more people when I catch the bus this morning saying, 'Oh, did you hear about the Devils, they won last night,' " Lopez said. "I hear more talking about hockey through the neighborhood."
Keith Veltre and Dennis Ruppe, a pair of teachers in the Newark Public Schools system and the coaches at Newark East Side, established Hockey in Newark in 2007 as a way of providing a feeder system to the high school program.
The program has grown from five skaters to more than 100 and most of that jump is a result of the foothold the Devils have already established in the city. Hockey in Newark is part of NHL's Hockey is for Everyone program.
"Since the Devils have come in, our numbers have jumped tremendously," Ruppe told newjerseydevils.com. "It seems that there's a little bit more of a hockey buzz in Newark."
"The sport's not as foreign to them as it once was, or to their parents," Veltre also told the team's Web site.
All this is why Lopez, who is of Ecuadorian and Colombian descent, hears kids talking about Devils at his bus stop every morning. So, too, does Harry Smyre, 14, another original member of the Hockey in Newark program who will be a freshman in high school next season and will join Lopez on the East Side varsity team.
Both Lopez and Smyre joined Weekes earlier this month at the NHL Powered by Reebok store in New York City. The kids, both honor roll students, got a chance to meet and hang out with the goalie, play Wii, design shoes on the Reebok design computer and get autographs.
"It's really good that people are promoting this game more because where I live it's mostly soccer and basketball and I want something different for this community so kids can just learn how to play this wonderful game like I learned and have more diversity going into this game," Lopez said. "That's what I like about this program."
"Every time I see him play I think of me playing because I'm a minority, too. I just met him for only five minutes and I can tell you that he's a really great man." -- Newark resident and high school goalie Kevin Lopez on Kevin Weekes
For Devils Chairman and Managing Partner Jeff Vanderbeek and Newark Mayor Cory Booker, Lopez's words and passion for hockey ring out as vindication.
They committed millions of dollars and countless man hours to bringing the Devils to Newark with a strong conviction that their presence will eventually make a difference and add to the revitalization of the city.
"When you have a venue like the Prudential Center, with our ownership and Mr. (Lou) Lamoriello and Mayor Booker committing $400 million to construct one of the best arenas in the world, that has to have a positive impact on your community," Weekes said. "It changes the perception of the community to a positive one and all the opportunities and jobs and possibilities that it crates, that's a big thing. More specifically to our team, I definitely feel we have had an impact in the area. For me that means a great deal."