Shea Weber’s dark hair is parted in the middle and he’s staring into a camera lens with a hint of a one-sided smile. He’s a wiry 15-year-old, so there’s plenty of shoulder room in the Sicamous Eagles sweater he has on. Earlier in the season, the Western Hockey League bantam draft came and went and nobody took him, but the local Jr. B team brought him up for a few games as an associated player, and here he is. Weber’s now playing the highest level of hockey in his tiny hometown in southern B.C., on the same team he cheered for as a kid. He’s excited to be here, even if his facial expression doesn’t show it.
There’s just one problem: When arena staff post that picture on the wall of the Sicamous and District Recreation Centre at the end of the season along with the rest of the roster, the manager writes Weber’s name below his photo in capital letters: “Shane Webber.”
To this day, the misspelled name remains under his picture.
It’s 16 years later, and Shea Weber—no “N” in the first, only one “B” in the last—is sitting in the lobby of a hotel in downtown Toronto, here for the World Cup of Hockey, laughing at the memory. “They didn’t know much about me,” he says, grinning. “I only played four or five games that year, so they didn’t have to. I was just happy to be playing. I didn’t worry about what they were calling me.”
And if it were up to the defenceman with a cannon for a shot, he would still just be playing rather than being part of one of the biggest narratives heading into this NHL season. It’s not that Weber is worried about what people say. He swears he hasn’t read a word about the deal that brought him to Montreal and sent P.K. Subban to Nashville in return. But the thing about this trade is it has thrust Weber into the spotlight like never before, and the attention isn’t going to fade. He wasn’t in the limelight as a kid like “Sid”; he can’t play a backseat role with the Canadiens like he does with Team Canada; and while music was king in Nashville, hockey reigns in Montreal. And so Weber, at age 31, is preparing for a new life. “It really is like the first day of school,” he says, eyebrows up. “Everything’s new.”
To fully appreciate where Weber comes from, you ought to know that his high school and grade school were so small that neither could field a basketball team some years. Weber got plenty of ice time in a town of 2,400 whose minor-hockey association had about 150 players and only went up to “A.” Even still, he wasn’t exactly dazzling at age eight or nine or 10. “Just kinda average” is how Wayne March, the long-time manager of the arena and that local Jr. B team, describes Weber’s skill as a kid.
In a couple of weeks, Weber will add a World Cup to a resumé that includes a Memorial Cup, a World Junior Championship, a World Championship and two Olympic gold medals, but he hems and haws when asked when he first felt he was an exceptional hockey player. Sixteen, he finally decides. “I had a big growth spurt and kind of grew into my body,” he says. By then, he’d shot thousands of pucks in the backyard, off a piece of plywood into a net, which was strung between two trees so he didn’t destroy his neighbour’s windows—especially when he used the heavy “puck” his dad made out of the end of a solid steel cylinder.
It was no surprise that Weber wasn’t drafted into the Western Hockey League from a town that wasn’t exactly crawling with scouts. But March phoned the Kelowna Rockets when Weber was 15 and said they’d better put him on the protected list before the team went on a road trip and scouts saw him. “Can this kid play?” Rockets director of player personnel Lorne Frey asked. He later found out for himself and put Weber on the team’s list. He brought GM Bruce Hamilton to see Weber play for the Eagles soon after that. Hamilton turned to Frey after the first period and said, “Well, Lorne, he’s been OK. But what does he do?” The second period started, and Weber tore down a wing and rifled a slapshot past the goalie from about 30 feet. “Well,” Frey answered, “he does that, for starters.”
Weber played his rookie season in Kelowna in 2002–03 and continued to grow and fill out. He was always an aggressive player, but it wasn’t until the Rockets won the Memorial Cup at home the next season that he showed signs of the toughness that defines his game today. “A Russian player was coming down the wing,” March recalls of that Memorial Cup run. “Shea took him into the boards, and let’s put it this way: That winger never came back down his side, because Shea just hammered him. The whole team stayed away after that.”
If you ask Weber’s good friend and new teammate Carey Price, nothing has changed. Both players spend their summers in Kelowna, B.C., and they’ve known one another for years. “There’s not a forward in this league who wants to go in the corner with Shea Weber,” Price says. To hear guys are scared to play against him makes Weber laugh. “I just try to do the right things to help my team win,” he says. “If it makes me scary to play against, I guess that’s a good thing.” Would he want to go into a corner against himself? “It would be a good battle,” Weber says, smiling. “Pretty even.”
Yes, the often straight-faced, monotone and “very serious” (so says his father) new pointman in Montreal has a sense of humour, too. Players and coaches across the league know Weber well, having seen him away from cameras and recorders. Leafs coach Mike Babcock says he’s “as good a human being as I’ve been around.” Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin says Weber’s going to help Max Pacioretty become a better captain in Montreal. Predators goalie Pekka Rinne is two years older than Weber and still calls him “a guy I always looked up to.”
A couple of days before his World Cup debut, Weber is wearing a red Team Canada hat, and he’s listening to all these compliments with raised eyebrows. Above all, he’s surprised to hear that 2016 Norris Trophy winner Drew Doughty calls him the most underrated player in the league. “I guess I’ve got everybody fooled,” he says, shrugging.
On June 29, Weber’s father, James, thought the joke was on him. He got news of the trade before his son did, while on his lunch hour at work at the rink in Sicamous, where he takes care of the ice and just about everything else. James heard it first from his brother. Then from his wife. Then from his boss. “I said, ‘What the hell’s going on here?'” James says. “I thought somebody had something screwed up.” It wasn’t until he got a call from his son, some 30 minutes later—Weber had been out on his boat and didn’t have his phone with him—that James believed the news. The conversation wasn’t a positive one. “He wasn’t entirely happy,” James says. “I won’t say exactly what he was saying, but he was emotional.”
One of Weber’s next conversations was with Rinne, one of his best friends and a guy he’d played with for most of his 11 years in the NHL. Rinne didn’t really know what to say, except to offer his support. “I wanted to let him know it was an honour to play with him,” the veteran goalie says. Weber remembers neither guy said much during that phone call. “It was shock and disbelief,” he says. “You’ve known somebody for so long.” The excitement of what was ahead in Montreal hadn’t yet set in, Weber admits. “You think of what you’re losing—your friends.”
Weber says it’s a good thing a moving company took care of packing and hauling everything to Montreal, because he figures it would have been emotional. He, his wife, Bailey (they’ve been together since high school), their two-year-old son, Beckette, nine-month-old daughter, Kenley, Dug (a 195-lb. Great Dane–English mastiff cross) and Rod (a 120-lb. English mastiff) are all now settled in Montreal. Because of Weber’s World Cup duties this summer, it was Bailey who visited their new city first, going to 15 different houses with a realtor and shortlisting two. She and Weber decided on one in the suburb of Candiac, about 10 minutes from the practice rink. All of Montreal now knows of that decision, because the house was posted on a fan website about a week after they bought it, complete with a price. Welcome to Montreal, Webers. Says James: “That’s a little over the top for what we’re used to.”
There’s a whole lot Weber will be getting used to in Montreal. He’s not certain what to expect—all he knows is more reporters showed up to talk to him at a golf tournament there during the summer than attended most games last season in Nashville. He’s already noticed he’s doing more interviews since the trade. “I thought it was just because of the World Cup,” Weber says, smiling. Yeah, right. He will put some work into learning French, which he took up until Grade 11, but don’t expect Francophone Weber interviews anytime soon. He can say “Hi, how are you?” but then he’s pretty lost. “They speak way too fast for me,” he says.
Weber will miss a lot about the city he played in for his entire NHL career up until now. He’ll miss his former teammates. He’ll miss the country music (he hopes he can find a “hole in the wall” that plays country in Montreal). He’ll miss the anonymity that comes with playing in Nashville. “Ever since I’ve been young, I’ve liked to… I don’t want to say hide, but fly under the radar. I didn’t need to be the guy everyone was looking at,” he says. “I like to do my own thing, stay out of the limelight.”
Well, good luck in hockey-obsessed Montreal, Shea. He laughs, and those eyebrows go up again. “Yeah,” he says. “Exactly.” One thing’s for sure, though: They’ll know how to spell his name.