Shea Weber leading by example while adjusting to life in Montreal

WASHINGTON, D.C. – It’s Saturday night at Verizon Center and Shea Weber is bummed. Between untimely injuries and unfortunate matchups, the season was lost. No regrets to reconcile, really. Only bad breaks. “You know who killed me?” Weber laments. “I played against Le’Veon Bell in the first round and he had, like, 50 points. Julio Jones got hurt for me too. I had a good team. Finished third. Just tough.”

To be clear, little about the defenseman’s daytime gig has brought disappointment. Fantasy football was a drag in the end—three playoff appearances, three first-round exits—but real hockey has been fun. Of course there had been initial anxiety after Montreal dealt P.K. Subban for him June 29, though less about his new team specifically than the cold reality of joining one altogether. He was Nashville’s bedrock over 11 seasons, the last six while wearing the captain’s C, the last four while signed to a whopping deal that extends until 2026 and expires a month before Weber turns 41. “I’d been there so long with some guys, they become almost like family,” he says now, wearing a flat-brimmed Canadiens hat after their 2-1 win over Washington, which kept them atop the Atlantic Division. “I wasn’t sure what to expect here, but it’s been really good so far.”

Some three months ago, SI met Weber in Ottawa at Team Canada’s training camp for the 2016 World Cup of Hockey. Understandably, he wasn’t eager to reflect on the trade, wounds still fresh and surprise still apparent. But then he looked across the locker room, at the doublewide stalls in the corner. Habs goalie Carey Price, over there, had phoned Weber the day it happened. So did forwards Brendan Gallagher, Max Pacioretty and Andrew Shaw. Their collective excitement put Weber at ease, soothing any feeling that Nashville had ditched him for a younger, sleeker model. Plus, he said unprompted, “obviously playing fantasy with them is going to be a lot of fun. Going to give it to each other in the locker room throughout the year.”

Such are the small pleasures Weber has found with the Canadiens, Le’Veon-induced playoff exit and current nine-game personal pointless streak notwithstanding. The Halloween party at a Montreal restaurant was fun, even if Weber didn’t wear the mask of himself that the Canadiens were selling, and he’s looking forward to the Christmas one coming up soon. 

On a Sunday in early October, the night before Thanksgiving Day in Canada, Weber hosted team dinner. At his new house near the practice facility in Brossard, players and families watched football and gorged on desserts. (Did Weber bake? “No chance. I can’t cook.”) After his son and daughter—ages 2 and 1, respectively—began attending a bilingual daycare, he downloaded an app called Duolingo and now studies French daily, learning the language of the local Québécoises. “They’re going to speak French, so I better know what they’re saying,” he says.

For Weber, this all counts as an unusually dramatic life pivot. He grew up in blue-collar Sicamous, B.C., the son of a hairdresser and a sawmill worker. Back there, says Sabres defenseman and childhood friend Cody Franson, “people appreciate that we don’t change.”

This ethos describes Weber well. He still prefers to avoid the spotlight; after Canada won the World Cup and his parents went to meet him at Air Canada Centre, he insisted on finding a private room to chat, so they could have some quiet. He also still leads by quiet example, speaking firmly but only when necessary. Avalanche forward Blake Comeau, an ex-teammate with the WHL’s Kelowna Rockets, remembers a player once skipping school, which resulted in a team-wide power skate at practice. “I remember Webs giving him the gears,” Comeau says. “Looking back on it now, I’m pretty sure the player who skipped school would never dream of doing that again.” 

He’s also still freakishly strong for his age. “My mom has this picture from when we were real young,” Franson says. “We were playing road hockey and the ball is just about to go down in the ditch, and you can tell Shea is sprinting to stop the ball before it stopped in the ditch. His front leg was planted to stop, and at 6 years old, the calf in this picture is in full flex and just huge.” Tough, too. He retreated into the locker room after taking a second-period slap shot from Washington's Dmitry Orlov off his left leg, only to returned for the third. 

“Unless that leg was broken, unless it was dangling there, he was going to play,” says Capitals coach Barry Trotz, who had Weber for nine seasons in Nashville. “He’s exactly the same person, the same player.” 

Through 31 games in ’16-17, his small-sample stats bear this out. Per game, Weber has averaged 0.58 points for the Canadiens, exactly his career average, and scored 0.26 goals, same as he did last season with the Predators. He’s still relied upon heavily in defensive situations—Montreal took 20 faceoffs in its end against Washington, Weber was deployed for 16 of them—and ranks eighth league-wide in time on ice (25:49). “Always productive,” Trotz says. “He always had an impact. He’s made an impact on guys’ lives, players that he’s played with, and he’s had an impact in the community that he’s lived in.”

One example: In addition to chatting with Weber for a few minutes in the Verizon Center hallway Saturday night—“I can tell he’s in a good spot, just by the way he talks,” Trotz says. “He’s got a big smile on his face.” – the reigning Jack Adams winner also welcomed a somewhat surprising visitor into his office at the rink. 

It was Alexander Radulov, the Habs winger and, somewhat infamously, one of two ex-Predators whom Trotz suspended from a 2012 playoff game for breaking curfew. Radulov had returned home to the KHL after the incident, spending four years with CSKA Moscow, but came back on a one-year, $5.75-million deal for Montreal. Bygones were bygones with Trotz, so they caught up postgame. With 23 points in 29 games, Radulov has thrived for Montreal, a perceived risk paying dividends. Part of the reason for his success, he told Trotz, was having Weber around to aid the transition. It was also to his benefit that Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin, amid the course of due diligence, reportedly consulted Weber and received a strong recommendation. 

Another example: With the 62nd overall pick in 2014, Nashville drafted winger Justin Kirkland, who played for Kelowna like Weber but is 11 years younger. A few months later, Weber approached Kirkland in the gym at Nashville's and extended an invitation to dinner. (Apparently, Thanksgiving wasn’t a one-time hosting thing.) “I was a little star struck, right?” Kirkland says. “That’s my first NHL camp and all of a sudden I’m going at the captain’s house.”

Eventually, it evolved into a friendship. In 2015, after Kelowna lost in the Memorial Cup final, Weber invited Kirkland to work out in Kelowna. “I called my parents and said I’m going for sure,” says Kirkland, who’s from Alberta. “I can’t miss this opportunity.” This past summer they hung out again, watching UFC fights and golfing. “Everyone thinks he’s the serious, hard-ass kind of guy,” Kirkland says. “I’ve seen that side in the gym, and the funny guy, the jokester, stuff like that.”

Kirkland was at development camp again in late June, watching TSN in the meal room, when news of the trade zipped across the ticker. Like much of the hockey world, the Predators prospects grabbed their phones and opened Twitter, where the takes were piping hot. Weber, meanwhile, was sailing on a boat with his cell ashore, perfectly unaware. When he eventually caught up to the messages, a reassuring theme pierced through the shock. It was similar to what Trotz later told him, when they ran into each other at Franson’s wedding before spending a month together with Team Canada: “You’re going to love it there.”

Indeed, life appears to have stabilized. Sure, heavy traffic has been an adjustment. (“A lot of construction going on,” he says.) It’s also been a while since Weber lived through winter in a snowy climate. (Just coming back to me, I guess, the joys of having it.”) Though Carey Price is currently across the visiting locker room in D.C., addressing the way he recently looked at the Habs’ bench, the intense Montreal media scrutiny that many friends forecasted doesn’t seem so overwhelming. Plus, Weber has stayed healthy, skated beside Alexi Emelin for every game since the fifth of the season, and blasted seven power play goals, halfway toward his career high.

“New chemistry, trying to build that stuff with teammates, but as far as the game goes, it feels like I’m playing the way that I want to,” Weber says. An equipment manager comes by, pulling the nameplates from above the stalls. Again, Weber looks around. “It’s a really tight group in here. I’m actually lucky to be a part of it.”

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