By Jeff Helminiak, Peninsula Clarion
When the Kenai River Brown Bears began play in the 2007-08 season, it was easy to imagine a local player catching on with the team, getting popular in the community, and using the unlikely platform of a team from a tiny town way up in Alaska in the second-best junior league in the country to reach his college hockey dream.
Even to the most optimistic founders of the Brown Bears, though, the Preston Weeks story would have been a stretch.
Weeks, a 20-year-old defenseman from Soldotna, is set to break the all-time North American Hockey League record for games played tonight at 7:30 p.m. when the Bears face the Amarillo (Texas) Bulls at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex.
In his fifth season with the Bears — remember, Weeks is only 20 and the Bears are in their 13th season — Weeks has played 231 games for Kenai River.
He shares the record with Skylur Jameson, who played with the now-defunct Wichita Falls Wildcats from 2004-05 to 2007-08.
“It’s hard to think about playing a 60-game season for the better part of four years — the longevity in itself is tough,” Kenai River head coach Kevin Murdock said. “To look back and see what he’s been through, the struggles with the record, that shows his commitment to the program.
“His determination to put his best foot forward and do whatever he can to make this thing successful for the most part is paying off in his final year of junior hockey.”
Weeks, son of Byron and Lori Weeks of Soldotna, first joined the Bears for 11 games in the 2015-16 season, right after head coach Geoff Beauparlant had been let go and Jeff Worlton had been brought on board. The team would finish 4-51-5 that season.
In 2016-17, Weeks played 54 games as the squad went 12-46-2-0. Near the end of the season, the team announced it would deactivate for the next season before a fundraising effort spearheaded by Steve Stuber saved the Bears.
Weeks was one of the faces at the fore of that effort.
“It’s huge the community was able to do that,” Weeks said. “It shows how special this team is to them.”
Worlton was let go and Josh Petrich was brought on for 2017-18, when the Bears went 18-38-1-3 and Weeks played 59 games.
“Josh did an awesome job with the community,” Weeks said. “He got us out and volunteering.”
In 2018-19, Petrich resigned for personal reasons during the season, replaced by interim head coach Dan Bogdan. Weeks again played 59 games as the team went 23-31-3-3.
This season, Murdock assumed the helm, with Bogdan as associate head coach, and has the team 25-19-3-3. Weeks has played 48 games with the team currently in position to make the playoffs for the first time since the 2013-14 season.
From the beginning of this campaign, Weeks has been saying this is the best team in his time here.
“Kevin has been such a hard worker and the biggest reason for our success — him and Dan,” Weeks said. “This has been so helpful to the whole team.”
This is Murdock’s first year coaching in the NAHL, so Weeks has been an invaluable resource.
“I couldn’t imagine not having Preston here for my first year,” Murdock said. “He’s definitely made it a lot easier. He’s a great human being.
“He’s very polite and mature for his age. I kind of marvel at the fact that a 20-year-old kid probably carries himself more professionally than Dan and I do, when it comes to certain things. That quality certainly rubs off on teammates.”
The trust between Weeks and the coaching staff showed Feb. 22 before a game at the Minnesota Magicians.
Weeks could have played that night and broke the record. The coaches asked Weeks if he wanted to break the record at home. Weeks said the coaching staff could decide.
“It’s really not a big thing for me,” Weeks said. “I’ve played in front of the fans for five seasons and it’s been special, so if they thought it’d be better that I do it in front of the fans, I’m fine with that.”
Weeks does not take the bond with the fans lightly. He mentioned Terry and Michell Johnston are driving up for the Bears’ final homestand all the way from Houston, even as Michell battles brain cancer.
In the summer, Weeks works for the Johnstons at Firehouse BBQ and said it will mean a lot to have Terry announcing his record-breaking game.
Through the highs and lows, Weeks said it’s relationships with teammates and fans like the Johnstons that have made it all worthwhile.
“A lot of friends I played with the first year are graduating from college,” Weeks said. “They’ll give me a rough time about that.
“But I wouldn’t change what I’ve done for anything.”
Weeks has been the captain now for three seasons. Eagle River’s Zach Krajnik, in his third season with the Bears, said the character of Weeks has stood about since the two met as 14-year-olds.
“He knows when to say something and when to act,” Krajnik said. “Some guys need both, and he can do it both ways.”
Krajnik said it’s impressive to watch Weeks circulate in his hometown.
“We joke around that he’s the president,” Krajnik said. “He’s been here a long time and knows everybody.”
That’s a big asset to the Bears as they do their community work.
“You can tell when we go to the schools,” Krajnik said. “Everybody asks, ‘Where’s Preston?’
“At Skate with the Bears, he’s surrounded by fans.”
Murdock said Weeks’ status in the community or his pending NAHL games record is not apparent at practice.
“He doesn’t go about it as if he’s setting the record for most games played,” Murdock said. “He shows up at the rink ready to go and practice with everything he’s got.”
Murdock also said that work ethic, as well immense athletic ability, has allowed Weeks to survive as a 6-foot-3, 205-pound defenseman so consistently in the physical NAHL.
“He’s a specimen when it comes to that stuff,” Murdock said. “He works his butt off.”
The coach also said Weeks’ ability to keep improving has shown this year, as his five goals, 13 assists and 18 points are all career highs.
Weeks is still waiting to sort out his collegiate future. He hopes his recent performance at the NAHL Showcase caught the attention of some schools.
“Time really flies by when you’re playing junior hockey,” Weeks said. “It’s been awesome having this experience with the same team in my hometown.
“The years go by so quick. It doesn’t feel like just yesterday, but it doesn’t feel like five years, either.”