“I certainly believe he’s been the most important player for our franchise and always will be.” —David Poile
NASHVILLE, Tenn—We can only imagine what it will be like for Shea Weber to walk past the dressing room he sat in for 11 seasons—five of them as captain of the Nashville Predators—and take his place in the visitors’ room at Bridgestone Arena on Tuesday.
On his way there, the 6-foot-4 Montreal Canadiens defenceman will pass by a wall that lists every Predators record—one that features his name in almost every category. That short journey is likely to bring some memories of the 822 games he spent in Nashville sharply back into focus.
There were many.
Weber scored 166 goals and added 277 assists in the regular season and accumulated 28 points in 59 Stanley Cup playoff games with the Predators before he was traded to Montreal for defenceman P.K. Subban last June.
The move blindsided him.
“I wanted to be in Nashville for my whole career,” Weber told Adam Vingan in an exclusive December interview with The Tennessean. “Especially a team where you’re drafted and you spend so much time, you want to bring the Stanley Cup to that city.”
That dream, of course, was never realized.
Instead, Weber is likely to play out the remainder of his 14-year contract, which he signed in July 2012, as a member of the Canadiens.
His first season in bleu, blanc et rouge has gone swimmingly thus far.
Weber has been a force through 37 games with Montreal, registering nine goals and 12 assists and leading the team with a plus-16 rating. Off the ice, he’s come exactly as advertised: a leader in every sense of the word and a larger-than-life presence both in stature and in character.
“Everything that was said about Shea, it’s everything that’s happening now,” Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin told reporters in Montreal on Monday. “Overall, I’ll use [Toronto Maple Leafs head coach] Mike Babcock’s term: He’s a ‘man-mountain.’”
Weber’s shadow still looms large in Nashville, where his return is highly anticipated by his former teammates.
“It will be, probably, an emotional return for him but also for us players,” said Predators goaltender Pekka Rinne, whose days alongside Weber date back to their time with Nashville’s AHL affiliate in Milwaukee.
From 2005 until last summer, Rinne had a front row seat to Weber’s maturation. He marveled at his quick transition from impactful young player into a sort of father figure for up-and-comers.
The goalie couldn’t help but chuckle as he reminisced about how protégés took cues from Weber on everything—from how to play the game to when it was (or wasn’t) appropriate for them to go out on the town.
“He had that presence, and had that respect from all of his teammates,” said Rinne. “Some of the younger guys—anything he said they’d listen. He’s also a guy you don’t want to upset; you want to earn his respect and be loyal to him as your leader.”
As 25-year-old Predators defenceman Ryan Ellis said, “[Weber] mentored almost all the guys we have here, we’ll always respect him.”
The fans in Nashville will, too.
Hundreds of them showed up to watch the Predators practice in Antioch, Tenn., Monday, some of them sporting Weber’s No. 6.
“It’s kind of heartbreaking, but he’s going to get a very warm response tomorrow,” said Predators season-ticket holder Biff Collins. “You might be surprised at how much we’re going to cheer, it’s going to be awesome.”
Maybe that reception will make Tuesday’s experience easier for Weber, who struggled to explain to reporters in Montreal on Monday what he’s anticipating.
“It’ll be a lot easier for me to describe after we go through it,” he said. “It’s hard to say what I’m going to feel because I really don’t know right now.”
We know it will be a bittersweet night for the man who traded him.
Predators general manager David Poile reiterated on Monday that he had never considered moving Weber until the opportunity to acquire Subban arose.
“Shea meant everything to this franchise,” Poile said. “He did it all, and we miss him a lot. We knew that was going to be the case because when you make a trade of the magnitude that we did you’re changing a lot about your team, the way you play, chemistry, culture and all of those different things.”
The adjustment period has lasted longer than anyone expected.
The Predators, who came into the season as presumptive favourites to reach the Stanley Cup Final, enter Tuesday’s game against Montreal with a 16-14-6 record, sitting two points out of the second wild card position in the Western Conference.
The fact that Subban—who reportedly suffered a herniated disk leading up to his last game on Dec. 15—won’t be in uniform only makes the challenge steeper.
His absence also puts more of the spotlight on Weber’s return.
There’s no telling how the Sicamous, B.C., native will respond to the tribute the Predators have planned him.
“He doesn’t like the attention,” said Mike Fisher, who took over Nashville’s captaincy after Weber’s departure. “But when it comes to playing he’s all business. He’s a true professional.”
That’s the foundation of Weber’s legacy, which will unquestionably be celebrated on Tuesday.