The year was 2005, and a goalie change was a-brewing.
Sweden’s Henrik Lundqvist was coming off three consecutive victories of the Honken Trophy, the Swedish Elite League equivalent of the Vezina Trophy. He had won the prestigious Guldpucken (Golden Puck) as the nation’s greatest hockey player and the Guldhjalmen (Golden Helmet) as the country’s most valuable player as determined by his peers. If there were Guldshoulderpaddens, he would’ve claimed them too.
Then 23 years of age, Lundqvist — the New York Rangers’ 205th selection in the 2000 draft — was coming off a SEL season in which he set national records for lowest goals-against average (1.05), highest save percentage (.962), longest shutout streak (172 minutes, 29 seconds), and most shutouts in a season (six). He had just threw up a silly-good 30-6-3 record for Frolunda HC, backstopping them to a championship. So, yeah, he was ready to make the leap to the NHL.
The Rangers’ No. 1 goaltender at training camp that autumn, Kevin Weekes, on the other hand, had not played a minute of professional hockey in 2004-05. The NHL had locked out its players, and Weekes decided not to find work elsewhere.
That said, Weekes’ 2003-04 campaign was arguably his best. He had posted career highs in wins (23), games played (66) and shutouts (six) with the Carolina Hurricanes. He was seven years older than the rookie from across the pond, but the veteran had inked a deal with the Blueshirts as a free agent and the starting gig was his to lose.
Sportsnet.ca sat down with Weekes — now an analyst for Hockey Night in Canada who catches up with Lundqvist when their schedules cross — to find out how he lost his job to the “best goalie in the league” and what King Henrik has in common with Tiger and Micahel…
“The Rangers can say what they want. They knew Lundqvist was going to be their guy, and I was signed as a bridge guy. I don’t think they knew he was going to be an instant hit, but they knew he was going to be good.
“Here’s the thing: I didn’t play in ’04-05 because we were locked out. I didn’t want to play overseas and risk injury. I didn’t want to be that guy who goes over and next thing you know, owners are mad at you. A lot of guys were caught in that crossfire. So I made a conscious decision not to go.
“Coming into training camp I felt good and played fairly well. Then at the start of the season, I played very well but then went down with an injury (in October). Remember, everyone was expecting us to be 30th in the league – dead last – and we came out on fire. Then I got hurt and Hank went in.
“Instant rock star. Right away. On fire. After his first game (a 3-2 overtime loss to the New Jersey Devils on Oct. 8), I’m like, alright, well, I better reposition myself here because I’m clearly not going to be starting. This guy’s too good.
“This guy was playing in Sweden during the lockout and he beat Jose Theodore, who was just a couple years removed from being the league MVP (in 2002). He beat him in the Swedish Elite League in the playoffs – outplayed him hands down.
“So after his first game, I’m like, ‘This guy’s legit.’ Watching him every day, he was just so unique. He played so differently. He had that wide butterfly, wide stance. Hank almost stands on his outside edges; it’s so different, very radical from anything I’d seen.
“Fans loved him at MSG. He was the next Mike Richter. He had the potential of Richter and Ed Giacomin and all these greats that played there. I said, ‘You know what? I could be sour. It’s frustrating. Or I could challenge myself to be the best mentor I can be and be the best team guy I can be.’ I felt like I was a good team guy, but now I’m challenged. I could be the best backup in the league.
“That year, in that role, I won 14 games and helped our team get 31 points in the standings – all the while mentoring him, and he’s hitting it out of the park.
“Then he went to the (2006) Olympics, stood on his head, naturally, for Sweden to win the gold, and I got to play a lot of games down the stretch, including our playoff-clinching game against Philly. We won 3-2 in a shootout. I made a big save on Jeff Carter. I was able to contribute, but I had to reset my expectations. It was challenging, but I think I handled it in a way that was good for our team and great for Hank.
“Hank’s a different cat. He’s a super-intense guy. He runs white hot. He’s ultra competitive. He’s on or he’s off, and when he’s off, he ‘s off. Once he’s on the ice, though… that’s him. His intensity has served him well, but he’s had to manage it.
“We worked extremely hard. We went on the ice early almost every day before practice with (goalie coach) Benoit Allaire, and that’s why we had such a great tandem — partly why he’s become the best goalie in the league.
“Every idiot out there who’s talking about goalie equipment, they’re not watching. Because if you’re paying attention, before the lights get turned on, him and Benoit Allaire and (current Rangers backup) Marty Biron are out there doing about four or five goalie-specific drills. He sees 150 to 200 pucks before practice. I did the same thing in Tampa Bay with (Nikolai) Khabibulin; there’s a reason why he was one of the best in the world. It’s not the shoulder pads.
“He’s actually putting the work in; the majority of the other skaters on the team aren’t doing that. Naturally he’s getting more reps, he’s getting more game-specific situations. It’s like Tiger Woods or Michael Jordan or Kobe (Bryant). Guys that work that much specifically on their game, it’s gonna show up when the lights are bright.
“He’s the best right now.”