In defense of P.K. Subban -

In defense of P.K. Subban

The resentment toward the Habs rookie highlights how prissy hockey has become


They called him an original, but Dave “Tiger” Williams was, in truth, the logical product of his era—a clowning marauder who understood that hockey’s sideshow had become, on many nights, its main event.

And better to star in the sideshow, he reasoned, than take a non-speaking role in the feature presentation.

That evening in December 1980 when he rode his stick down the centre of Maple Leaf Gardens might now be regarded as Williams’s apogee: he’d just scored his 17th goal in what would be a career-best 35-goal season, and though not important in the context of the game, it meant a lot to him. It was his first game back in Toronto since the Leafs had shipped him off to Vancouver, and the Canucks were on their way to an 8-5 romp.

So after shoving the puck past Leafs’ goalie Jim Rutherford, Williams climbed aboard his fibre-ply and rode it pony-style down the ice, firing imaginary six-shooters into the crowd. “Hey, you’ve got to put on a show for the folks,” he later told the Toronto Star. “After all, this is show business, and there’s no business like show business.”

Right, that. But the reaction to Williams’s celebration seems noteworthy today for its mutedness, considering the newfound standards of decorum in the National Ho-hum League. There were no scolding opponents, no clapped out coaches-cum-commentators preaching to Williams about “respect for the game.” Gardens fans—harbouring residual affection for their old jester—actually cheered. But you’d never know it from reading the morning papers: neither the Star nor The Globe and Mail mentioned the crowd’s reaction at all.

Flash forward three decades, to a game last week at the Bell Centre in Montreal. P.K. Subban, a dynamic young defenceman with the Canadiens, pops a badly needed overtime goal against the Calgary Flames, and electrifies the crowd by sliding on one knee across centre in an archer’s pose. He mimes a couple of arrow-shots at the sky, and turns toward his teammates. Then, inside of 24 hours, he’s been yanked out to the hockey woodshed: René Bourque, a moderately talented forward with the Flames, whines sullenly in a post-game interview that the display was disrespectful. Sports talk shows pick up on the topic the following day, posing questions like “should P.K. Subban be apologizing?”

Even some inside the Canadiens’ tent seem put out by his jubilation. Scott Gomez, an overpaid veteran (whose ill-timed penalty the following evening would cost the Canadiens in overtime), cold-shoulders Subban during the post-game celebration. Forward Mike Cammalleri shrugs when asked about Subban’s display: “Maybe that’s why we call him Primetime,” he says cryptically. The next day, team broadcaster Rick Moffat gives former Hab Craig Rivet platform for a windy lecture about the proper behaviour of NHL rookies.

“There’s a way to present yourself to other players in the league,” says Rivet, who now plays for the Buffalo Sabres. “How you’re gonna act—hopefully he’ll learn.”

How much of this Subban invited is an open question. Before the goal against Calgary, he’d clearly been getting under his opponents’ skin with on-ice chatter, and the occasional post-whistle prod. And he is not a particularly clean player (indeed, he takes evident joy in humiliating opponents with tooth-rattling mid-ice checks). Moreover, the publicity he enjoys sometimes seems out of proportion with his on-ice contribution, which may explain the snarky asides from teammates. For the number of times he turns up on Sportscentre, smiling impishly and speaking as if he’d been in the league for a decade, you’d think he’d have more than four goals and 13 assists.

Still, the resentment toward a camera-friendly 21-year-old who happens to reject the “humble Canadian” archetype highlights how downright prissy the sport has become. Where is it written that players must exhibit the same personality during games? Or that they must “earn” the right to be themselves? Somewhere between Williams’s iconic stick ride and Subban’s OT winner, the game turned its honour for strength and humility into dogma—and you can forget the idea that Subban’s race is playing a part. Other black players, including Evander Kane and Wayne Simmonds, endure no such criticism. Those guys gladly play to type.

Some blame this stultifying trend on Don Cherry, with a certain amount of justification. A few weeks back, the Lord of Saturday Night used his CBC pulpit to “warn” Subban that he was courting physical retribution. It sounded suspiciously like an invitation for other players to do the rookie harm. Cherry has offered similar “advice” to Alexander Ovechkin over his hot-stick routine in 2009. He’s even gotten on the back of ultra-correct Sidney Crosby, who as a 16-year-old junior offended Grapes by using a stick-handling trick to score from behind the net (through Herculean effort, Crosby has since damped down his natural buoyancy and now makes Michael Ignatieff look like Liberace).

And all hockey phenomena leads at some point to Wayne Gretzky, who pretty much set the standard for off-ice blandness. In this case, though, the Great One probably deserves a pass. Though withheld himself, he appreciated more demonstrative players, from Theo Fleury to Esa Tikkanen. He was not the sort to judge.

Whoever you blame, this attachment to an imaginary, unwritten code has only strengthened those willing to shuck it off. The universal hatred for Rangers forward Sean Avery, for example, stems directly from his explicit rejection of behavioural norms—both on and off the ice. Avery’s moderate talent would never have won him the sort of fame he garnered by publicly ridiculing the NHL’s stodginess, or by screening a goaltender with his hands.

Subban’s bullet-ride to stardom, meanwhile, is in no small part due to the hyper-conventionality of the rest of his team. On many nights, he offers fans the only relief from the Canadiens’ low-risk, low-reward playing style, which is based on the hope that, at some point, some poor soul on the other team will make a game-breaking error. No wonder the crowd loves him.

But how much longer he can resist the pressure to conform? Unlike Avery, who is a happy villain, Subban exudes a desire to please. He’s sounded rueful recently after taking criticism from more established players like Philadelphia’s Mike Richards, whose complaints about Subban prompted Cherry to stick his oar in. After the Calgary game, the young Hab actually tried to head off the storm over his OT celebration, saying he hoped “no one on the other team gets too mad about it. I was just really excited to score that goal.”

The sentiment is understandable—who but Avery likes to be hated?—but unnecessary. It’s not like Subban rode his stick down the middle of the ice, shooting air bullets at the Calgary bench. He has bigger goals to score and bigger moments to celebrate. Subban should save his regrets, and hockey should learn to loosen the bone.


In defense of P.K. Subban

  1. snarky asides? what are you talking about? Cammalleri was beaming when he said "maybe that's why we call him primetime".. did you not see the huge smile on his face??

    • Absolutely. Its hard to know what goes on in the dressing room when the media isn’t around, but I think the team likes him. I also think the veteran Habs probably have a better idea than many critics in the media of what its like to be a 21 year old rookie in the NHL.

  2. P.K’s the kind of player that if he played for your favourite team you’d love him; but if he doesn’t its easy to criticize him. As a Hab fan I think he’s great.

    True, his offensive output is not amazing (but nor is the Hab’s overall), and he’s been excellent for the most part on defense on a team missing two of its top defence men. Sure, he’s made some mistakes on-ice this year, but I think that’s were the phrase “rookie mistake” comes from. I think the ultimate sign of how the coaching staff feel about him is that P.K regularly plays 20-26 minutes a night.

    Also, though P.K is technically a rookie, he’s got a lot more playoff experience than most rookies, having gone to the Conference finals with the Habs last spring.

    • And boy did he suck against Philly.

      • you sucked against. philly.

    • The Habs need more offence than just Tomas Plekanec and Mike Cammalleri, NP, but defence wins games. Guy Lafleur wouldn't have been nearly as heroic as he was without Larry Robinson, Serge Savard and Guy LaPointe behind him at defence.

    • his offensive output is not amazing

      His offensive output is stellar, 13th among rookies and 4th among rookie defensemen.

  3. The article seems to have omitted Alex Tanguay saying he had no problem with it, and wished his team had scored the OT goal so they could celebrate.

    At this point, it's the media, and articles like this, that are making an issue out of a none issue.

  4. The archer pose is nothing new – Canucks' Alex Burrows did it all year at one point. But it was a tribute to friend Luc Bourdon. There's nothing wrong with what PK did. Players need to suck it up and stop whining. If they don't want to see this stuff then maybe Rene Bourque should pop in a few of his own.

  5. Let Subban play the way he plays. What is wrong with putting on a bit of a show. As far as Don Cherry is concerned, he is what a mute button is for.

    • Don Cherry doesn't put on a show?

      • Don Cherry is all show.

    • I think Don Cherry has been showing signs of senile dementia for many years, Nancy. Just look at the suits. I'm sure Ron MacLean is well-compensated.

    • Right on,Nancy ! Subban should be allowed to be his own exuberant self.And frankly, if I were a hockey player, I'd be delighted if Don Cherry did not like me. He is so biased and talks such nonsense that I switch to another channel when he comes on. Go Subban, go !

  6. Disagree about Avery's "moderate" talent bit. The guy's a better player than people give him credit for. It's BECAUSE of the fame his antics have garnered that this isn't highlighted more often.
    And I say that regretfully as a Hab fan.

  7. Anyone else remember the Jaromir Jagr Salute after every goal?

    How is showing emotion after scoring an ot winner a bad thing, its hard to keep that type of emotion bottled up when your a young kid and so excited, you would think that veteran players would understand this better than anyone. But I guess Rivet never had many opportunities to score an OT winner in his rookie year…haha.

  8. Damn straight, P.K. is an exciting rookie who brings a nice offensive flair to his defensive role. His is a significant asset to the team for both his standard of play and his entertainment value. I think anyone who scores an overtime goal should be able to run cartwheels down the ice if they are so inclined. It's not like he stuck his tongue out at the Calgary bench. He celebrated a big goal in a perfectly normal way.

    This is similar to the ridiculous controversy when Carey Price gave a pose after stonewalling Pittsburgh in a shootout the other week. The gesture was amusing and quite appropriate after his performance. When Pittsburgh came back the following week and beat the Habs, their goalie responded with the same pose. As a Habs fan, I was disappointed with the loss but not at all offended by the returning pose from Pittsburgh. This is what makes sports fun.

  9. Leave the kid alone. I've been a Canadiens' fan for almost 60 years and have seen them all – the Richards, Geoffrion, Beliveau, Lafleur, Robinson, Savard, Harvey, etc. and from what I see of today's dismal Canadiens' lineup, P. K. Subban is a delight to watch. Furthermore, the fantastic playoff run Montreal enjoyed last season was helped tremendously by Subban. As far as those who criticize him go, Don Cherry is way past his prime – does anyone really listen to him? Mike Richards has nothing to talk about, after all he plays with Prissy Pronger doesn't he? And as for Gomez, well, even though I love the Habs, Gomez should be benched until he can play without taking stupid penalties that cost his team games.

  10. Great article but I don't agree with it all.

    At first I never bought the racism card either. There's even a great sound bite of Subban himself completely discounting that possibility. But the longer this goes the less I like the taste it leaves, and the more I think about it the harder it gets to find another decent explanation.

    Don Cherry has been flapping his gums about this stuff for decades. There are other media members, usually formerly associated with the NHL in some capacity (player, coach, etc.), that hold the same ideas and share them regularly. Then of course there are the anonymous fans who feel comfortable spouting whatever comes to their mind while hiding safely behind the anonymity of the Internet. But I can't ever remember any one player being on the receiving end of this much public criticism from his fellow players.

    I almost choked when I heard Mike Richards spouting off about 'respect' that night. Maybe someone should put a microphone in front of David Booth (season over –, David Krejci (season over – or Ron Petrovicky (NHL career over – and see what they think of his brand of 'respect.'

    Mr. Richards, you are a hypocrite!

    And for players to pile on like this? Not even Matt Cooke or Sean Avery have been subjected to that kind of criticism through the media. Or when have players had even half as much to say about Steve Ott, Jarkko Ruutu, Patrick Kaleta, Dan Carcillo, Steve Downey, Jordin Tootoo… this list goes on. Those are all guys that push the envelope, on a regular basis, far farther than PK ever has.

    And by the way, I find your comparison of Subban and Avery to be pretty distasteful. The only thing Subban has ever done in the NHL is play a hard, aggressive style with a little more flair than most of the other guys in the league. Avery is a known cheap-shot artist and diver who has been suspended for both his deeds and his words.

    • the article is good, but i think your points are better.

      avery and subban similar? no way. thats somewhat cleared up at the end of the article, but its not made clear enough that the two do not play the same game at all, nor do they have the same on-ice personalities.

      and yes, i cant remember another time when such a good, well intentioned, excited kid was at the center of so much scrutiny.

    • Well said, for Richards to talk about respect is pure hypocrisy.

  11. Go PK!

    He's a great player who tries hard on every shift. And he celebrated after scoring an OT winner (oh my, my panties are in a knot!!). The politically correct ninnies who are offended by a bit of show-boating need to leave him alone. Go watch Antique Roadshow or something…

    • It wouldn't surprise me if PK Subban ends up in the NHL Hall of Fame. Let's just hope the Canadians can afford him after he has won a few Norris Trophies.

  12. I agree, the NHL has always been a religion to me as far as the other three major sports are concerned but it's fast becoming the "other" No Fun League. No disrespect to Don Cherry but we don't live in his world anymore. Let us have our "characters" in the league, because if you don't understand Hockey, than you just don't get it and that's okay. Avery Fan

  13. Classless player playing in front of classless fans

    • humbug.

    • Cool Story Bro!

  14. He 's the most ezciting player on an otherwise BORING team and I've been a habs fan for 63 years. Most exciting player since the Flower

  15. Every team in the league should be required to have an "Eddie Shack."

  16. remember 1967?

  17. I agree that the criticism of his hot-dogging and showboating is lame. Subban's obviously a very talented player. I also winced when Mike Richards went on about that "respect" stuff. Whatever, Mike (and I think Richards is a great player).

    I think the only "issue" regarding Subban is one that's not really mentioned in the article — the question regarding Subban is whether, with his unquestionable talent and flair, he will end up graduating to the ranks of the truly elite players, or, because of personality or other issues, he will end up like Dion Phaneuf — someone with talent who didn't have the other (mostly mental, motivational, etc.) elements that are required to take you from a talented phenom to a truly elite NHL player. I say this because Subban does and has made some spectacularly bone-headed mistakes at times, turning the puck over etc. etc. While he's still young, that may be forgivable. But if it continues, it's not.

    • Do you remember Walt Poddubny? Another very talented player who had to hang up his skates early because his elevator didn't go to the top.

  18. I think part of the problem is the over-abundance of sports analysis. The talking heads go on about certain things as though they were important political issues. If anything, PK Subban should be praised for his passion, but in the move to fill hour long talk shows, these commentators make a controversy about it. If people want a dry sport with no showboating, maybe they should watch cricket.

    • Agree about the over-abundance of sports analysis.

      But I would say that the same "complaint" is just as valid wrt political analysis. In fact many have commented over the years that politics is just a game, and I think they are absolutely right. Certainly there are many, many similarities between sports analysis and political analysis – who is winning, how far behind are the other teams, is it time to replace the coach, who has the better record on the road/in Ontario and on and on and on.

      The shame of it all is that In the case of politics the actual merits of any particular policy are completely secondary to the game part.

  19. Does anyone care what that neanderthal moron Cherry says or thinks any longer??

  20. You're right. Hockey is changing. There will soon come a time when fighting will result in an automatic ejection, like in Peewees and Bantams.

  21. I was not a hockey fan (soccer or tennis is what I watched) until last season. What won me over? The huge buzz in the newspapers, last hockey season, about Subban being brought to Montreal to help the Habs in the playoffs.And I was not disappointed.Subban has so much enthusiasm, such talent, and tremendous charisma. This is bound to lead to envy from his opponents. Players like Mike Richards, who have plenty of talent themselves, should not be making nonsensical remarks about how rookies have to be respectful towards the veteran players.Sorry mate, this is the twenty-first century not the 1850s when young people were not allowed to answer back their elders.Subban is a very courageous young man who will not allow opponents to bully him. And as for his celebration when he scored the overtime goal…..if I were in his shoes I would have done the cha-cha from one end of the rink to the other. Go Subban, go !! We're behind you all the way !

  22. Unfortunately, hits like the cheap shot to Crosby during the Classic seem to get less coverage than post goal celebrations. Amazing that athletes of NHL caliber are more upset with "taunting" then they are with personal injury. My Grandmother used to say "sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt you". Pity that pro sports cannot understand that. Wether or not a player chooses to celebrate after some game success should be up to the player, not some stupid unwritten rule between players or an official rule set by the league that tries to create order and discipline in what are emotional and violent sports. I haven't met a single fan that objects to post game celebration, it seems it is only the players whose feelings get hurt. Personally, I do not find PK's antics to be a travesty of the game.

  23. I think hockey desperately needs more PK's on the ice. Honestly if PK Subban was in the NBA he would be the blandest player on and off the court. Even if you take baseball and football players and compare them to subban he would be bland and that's probably why hockey fails in the states. Americans want these bold and entertaining players to idolize. Alot of Americans, I think, go to football games for the controversy that happens during and after the game (the subplot) more than the teams that are playing and what the score may be. If you go to most honest americans and ask them what they remember most about the last ten years of football most would probably remember an incident not having to do with a play but an personal incident involving 1 or 2 players off or on the field. why?

  24. because it was controvercial take the michael vick incident, he's not a great player but because it was controversial and football related and had nothing to do with football but more on a players personality (actions are based on one's personality) rather than his skill. it may have drown more people to games when vick returned to the NFL. Yes "The Great One" had all the skill in the world but way too unknown by many americans. If I were the NHL I would exploit PK subban in the US as much as I could and I would encourage him to be more flamboyant than anyone else in the NHL.

  25. Not sure what the big deal is about being happy after scoring a goal in OT. However, my wife (who is white and also not a bleeding heart liberal) just played the race card in PK's favour. Interestingly, she said it's taking on the tone not of overt racism, but along the lines of: "oh, he's not one of us but he plays our game so we expect that he'll just shut the hell up and play."

    I think there is some truth to it.

  26. Unlike the 1970s, we now have several 24-hour sports networks, sports radio and far too many sports "journalists" and pundits.

    Most of these brain-dead talking heads have slowly transformed hockey coverage into a version of reality tv and wrestling, with fixations on trivia, spectacle and hype, instead of the game itself.

    As for Cherry, he did, at one point, build his reputation on teaching fans about how the game should be played. "Now pay attention, kids…" You didn't always agree with him, but it was worth listening to. Cherry has since turned his platform, with the CBC's pathetic consent, into a platform for his sub-moronic political views which we always knew were there, but never had to hear every week.

    That said, Cherry has one thing right and I think Subban should take note. Bobby Orr remains the standard for how to respond to scoring a goal.

  27. My opinion: Gomex is Racist, Cherry is Racist, Camalleri is still pissed because he was passed over as captain. All three are overpaid for what they provide and you can only hope we get another asteroid to rid us of these dinosaurs….Gomez is a blight on the Montreal Canadiens landscape…the worst team player in our storied history.

  28. PK is a great player with a great personality ..Mike Richards is a moron and was bitter that night because he lost. Talking about respect …he needs to shut up…and don cherry? what a farce. No one ever complain when Jagr did his thing they all loved it ….when Fleury did his thing no one ever complained… now subban celebrate a OT goal and its a problem.???? Are these players not supposed to enjoy it anymore??? Gomez is a overpaid underachieving player he's not a leader… if he was he would stand up for his rookie.. and encourage the kid…