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FAMILY EMBRACES WEEKES\ CANES' GOALIE MADE LASTING IMPRESSION

FAMILY EMBRACES WEEKES\ CANES' GOALIE MADE LASTING IMPRESSION

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Long before Kevin Weekes was traded to the Carolina Hurricanes on March 5, the goalie was one Greensboro family's favorite hockey player.

That Weekes has become one of the most talked about players in the Stanley Cup playoffs, a surprise for a mild-mannered reserve who had never started a NHL postseason game before last week, has only strengthened a relationship that began with a simple request: a round of golf at Starmount Country Club and a letter of appreciation to Weekes' parents.``This is like a dream come true,' said Larry Putnam, a partner in a Greensboro accounting firm, whose family has maintained contact with Weekes and his parents since the goalie made his professional debut with the Greensboro Monarchs of the American Hockey League in 1995. ``We have always known he had this potential, but he has never been on a very good team before.

``It's kind of like watching one of my sons out there playing.'

Weekes is the most talked about player on a team that is the Eastern Conference's top remaining seed, going into tonight's home game against the Montreal Canadiens (7, ESPN).

Officially, Hurricanes coach Paul Maurice hasn't named a starter. That's partly an old NHL superstition, and partly to keep the Canadiens guessing. But Maurice has vowed to go with the hot goalie, and none of the remaining goalies in the Eastern Conference could melt ice as fast as Weekes.

The 27-year-old took over for veteran Hurricanes goalie Arturs Irbe after Carolina lost back-to-back games in the first-round series against New Jersey. Weekes not only made 40 saves in a 3-2 overtime victory in Game 5, but he recorded only the second playoff shutout in franchise history with a 1-0 victory that sent the Hurricanes to the second round of the playoffs for the first time since the franchise moved south from Hartford, Conn.

Weekes' back-to-back saves in the clinching victory may be among the best in the 84-year history of the NHL playoffs.

``I usually sit pretty still when I am watching a game,' said Hurricanes general manager Jim Rutherford, a former goalie himself who was subjected to a fair amount of second-guessing for trading popular forward Shane Willis for a backup goalie March 5. ``But that [pair of saves] lifted me right out of my seat. I had to walk around a little bit.'

Not long after Hurricanes captain Ron Francis scored the winning goal, Putnam was on the phone to Weekes' parents in Toronto, sharing in the excitement.

Putnam's family began its relationship with Weekes one night after a Monarchs game. While other youngsters were milling around asking for sticks, Larry Putnam Jr., then 13, hollered an unusual question toward Weekes.

``You wanna play golf with my dad?' he yelled.

It caught Weekes off guard and piqued his interest. He took Larry Putnam Sr.'s business card and eventually called to set up a tee time. Putnam was so impressed with Weekes' polite manner and pleasant demeanor after playing 18 holes at Starmount that he asked how to contact his parents.

``He was just the nicest guy,' said Putnam, a Greensboro native and hockey convert who has been a Hurricanes season-ticket holder in each of the team's five seasons in North Carolina. ``I wrote his parents a letter and explained my perception of him, that I thought he was an extremely nice guy and a great credit to them. They called me and thanked me for that.'

When Putnam and his sons, 19-year old Larry Jr. and 11-year-old Allen, heard that Weekes had been traded to the Hurricanes, they were elated. Larry Sr. and Allen went to visit him during an autograph party at the ESA.

The elder Putnam plans to be in the stands tonight for Game 1, wearing his white Hurricanes jersey that has been autographed by every member of the team. But he will replace that jersey in the second period, when his red Kevin Weekes road jersey should be completed in an ESA shop, a gift from his family for his 51st birthday this past Sunday.

``I'll always be one of his biggest fans,' Putnam said. ``Not because of what he does on the ice, but because of the kind of person he is.'

Weekes says he will always remember Greensboro warmly, not only because that's where he made his professional debut, but also because of several friends he made during his two-year stint with the Monarchs.

He became acquainted with Greensboro lawyer Fred Whitfield, who introduced him to NBA star Michael Jordan. Weekes played in Whitfield's charity tournament at Grandover and in Jordan's celebrity tournament in Greenville a few years ago. They've stayed in touch and now Whitfield, the director of player personnel and assistant legal counsel for Jordan's Washington Wizards, plans to attend at least one of the Hurricanes' games against Montreal.

``He's a consummate professional and a terrific young man,' Whitfield said. ``He's never given up the dream of being a goalie in the NHL, and it is great to see him succeeding now.'

Weekes, long coveted by the Hurricanes, started out in the Florida Panthers' organization and also spent time with Vancouver, the New York Islanders and Tampa Bay.

He played in 117 games the past two seasons with Tampa Bay, but lost his starting job this year to Nikolai Khabibulin, after compiling a goals-against average of 3.24 and a record of 39-82-13. He went back to being a goalie of the future, backing up 35-year-old Irbe.

Now, the Hurricanes are 2-0 with Weekes as a playoff starter.

For his part, Weekes is trying to handle his new-found celebrity as well as he handled the frustration of losing his starting job earlier this season.

``He is just a laid-back guy,' said Maurice, who coached Weekes in a junior hockey all-star game. ``He is very, very focused. I saw that early on and I think he has the right heart rate to be a great goaltender in the playoffs.

``He doesn't seem to get too wired up. He doesn't get too excited.'

He'll leave that to everyone else.\

Contact Tim Peeler at 373-7062 or tpeeler@news-record.com

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