If this is the watershed—if hockey is about to throw off its self-abnegating instinct for conformity—then May 14, 2014, will surely go down as the first night of the brave, new era. The Montreal Canadiens had just eliminated their hated rivals, the Boston Bruins, in the Stanley Cup quarter-finals, thanks to an astounding performance by the Habs’ star defenceman, P.K. Subban: four goals; three assists; nights during the hard-fought, seven-game series when he never seemed to leave the ice. Other players would have retreated at this point behind a curtain of sham humility. They’d have complimented the efforts of their opponents. They’d have veered from words that might rankle the defeated.
Not Subban. As the semicircle of cameras and reporters formed four ranks deep around his stall in the Canadiens’ dressing room, the 25-year-old issued the verbal equivalent of a mid-ice hip check—to the Bruins, to the Boston media, to the city’s hostile fans who’d spent the past week denouncing him as a pox on all that is good in hockey. “I really don’t care what people have to say,” he said firmly. “I really don’t care what the other team thinks. I don’t care what their fans think. If they hate me, great. Hate me. We’ll just keep winning, I’ll keep scoring and we’ll move on.”
It was customary Subbanic brashness—the sort of thing that in the past has drawn reproach from the game’s self-appointed arbiters of decorum. Yet the response to Subban’s candour in this year’s playoffs has been strikingly different: Voices that once might have slammed him as a showboat now hailed him as a breath of fresh air. “He can walk the walk after talking the talk,” declared Adam Proteau of The Hockey News. “Je lève mon chapeau à P.K. Subban (I tip my hat),” enthused Marc Bergevin, the Canadiens general manager, who has previously rationed praise for his young star. Even the Bruins, still seething from their loss, had grudging compliments for him in their post-game laments.
So sudden has the outpouring been that Subban himself seemed nonplussed amid his preparations for Montreal’s semifinal series against the New York Rangers. The day after the big win in Boston, he shifted uncomfortably at suggestions that the respect he claims not to crave is now arriving in an oceanic swell. “Whatever happened yesterday, you have to turn the page and move on,” he said after practice at the Canadiens’ training facility in Brossard, Que. “We’re trying to do something special for our hockey club. Winning is more than enough motivation for me.” (By Tuesday, with star goalie Carey Price on the shelf with an apparent knee injury, the Canadiens had fallen behind two games to none to New York).
Still, the acceptance of Subban’s all-out persona suggests the world of hockey might finally have grasped what he represents to the game. Since he broke into the league during the 2010 playoffs, the scenery-chewing blueliner has proved unique in ways that outright rankled the hockey establishment, from his half-controlled rushing style to the archer mime he used to celebrate goals. He has gleefully chirped at opponents (most memorably at Sidney Crosby during Subban’s ﬁrst game in Pittsburgh), and issued a highlight reel’s worth of bone-shaking checks with elfin cheer. At first, opponents, pundits and even teammates decried it as novice impertinence. “There’s a way to present yourself to other players in the league,” lectured former Hab defenceman Craig Rivet in one radio interview. “How you’re gonna act—hopefully he’ll learn.”
But even after Subban won the Norris Trophy last season as the league’s top defenceman, the sense lingered that the hockey establishment wanted to put him in his place. He was one of the last players added to Team Canada for the Winter Olympics in Sochi, and found himself in the press box for all but one of the games. Rumours circulated suggesting that the coach, Mike Babcock, liked neither his play nor his personality.
Now, with Subban dominating opponents, and about to sign what will surely be the richest contract in Canadiens history, it’s hard to fathom the initial resistance to his charms. As a bona fide talent—impervious to stage fright, comfortable on social media, generous with his fans and possessed of an actual sense of humour—he’s the rarest of creatures in an increasingly buttoned-down sport. As a black man playing on the game’s biggest stage, he’s exactly what hockey needs to broaden its appeal to the growing demographic of young, ethnically diverse fans. The question is no longer what the NHL or the Canadiens or hockey must do with P.K. Subban. It’s what they would do without him.
That Subban was forced to travel this arc says as much about hockey as it does about him. After the goon era of the 1970s, with its wild hair and wrestling atmospherics, the NHL reverted to an era of uniformity, where a player who expressed anything but modesty risked accusations that he placed himself above the team. Wayne Gretzky’s reflexive blandness set the template: He routinely credited his personal milestones to his teammates; he seldom strayed from a script of shop-worn platitudes about working hard every night. The stars who followed—Steve Yzerman, Mario Lemieux, Raymond Bourque—fell in step. Joe Sakic’s reliance on self-effacing clichés was so all-consuming that hockey beat writers dubbed him “No-quote Joe.”
Many believed Subban would be pressured into adopting the same habits, if only to satisfy his conventionally minded teammates. Much was made of an incident in 2011, when Hal Gill, one of Subban’s early defence partners, called him an asshole in front of reporters; Subban’s gear was littering the dressing room floor, encroaching on Gill’s space. Both players dismissed the exchange as meaningless, but when Michel Therrien took over as Canadiens coach in 2012, he ordered his budding star to cease his crowd-pleasing “triple low-five” celebration with Price following Canadiens wins, in which the two players would slap gloves three times at knee level. “It’s a team concept,” the coach said tartly. “You have to respect the game, the other team and the fans.”
Yet the idea that Subban would have to reform to succeed was based on a flawed understanding of what makes the young Torontonian successful, say teammates. Far from viewing individuality as disrespectful, explains Habs forward Brandon Prust, Subban believes he can use it to advance the team’s interest. “He makes himself the main focus, and gets under the skin of opponents. That negative energy makes him better—he loves stickin’ it [to opponents].” Even Therrien has more than once acknowledged the need to give Subban a bit of rein—on the ice, at least—describing the young blueliner as “a thoroughbred” who merely requires a little “guidance.”
The result has been a figure who fits into none of the league’s existing archetypes—a talented player who agitates; a heavy hitter who rarely gets hit; a well-spoken young man who embraces his role as a lightning rod. Last week, Subban took audacity to levels unseen in two decades. Down three games to two in the series against the Bruins, the Canadiens had just capped a euphoric 4-0 win in Game 6, setting the table for a raucous Game 7 at TD Garden in Boston. It was a daunting prospect even with momentum from the Habs victory, with fans sure to boo Subban every time he touched the puck. But in a remark reminiscent of Mark Messier’s famous “guaranteed win” in 1994, the Canadiens star promised to shut them up. “I can’t wait for the crowd, the noise, the energy in the building,” he told reporters. “I can’t wait to take that away from them.”
Why, you might ask, was this sort of thing ever considered a problem? It’s not as if Subban were the ﬁrst player to feed off the antipathy of opposing players and fans. Chris Chelios, a former Hab and Chicago Blackhawk, thrived on it. So did Ulf Samuelsson, a former Hartford Whaler defenceman who is now an assistant coach with the Rangers. Andrew Ference, a former Bruin now playing for Edmonton, once flipped his middle finger at Montreal fans after scoring a goal in the Bell Centre. All were viewed as agitators or competitors who merely let their emotions get the best of them. Why, when Subban tried it, was he chided for “disrespecting the game?”
Race inevitably becomes part of the conversation, as it’s the one thing that sets him apart from these other players. The son of Caribbean immigrants, Subban grew up in the hockey-mad environs of Toronto among three brothers who’ve been drafted by NHL teams, and endured a few racist taunts during his minor hockey days. Some critics believe he is a victim of discrimination that goes unacknowledged in the NHL—a black man targeted because he dares to challenge the status quo. And certainly bigotry endures at the gutter levels of the game: When Subban scored a double overtime winner against the Bruins in Game 1, a few Boston fans took to Twitter, tossing epithets at him like “porch monkey” and the N-word.
That incident prompted William Douglas, who runs a blog called The Color of Hockey, to write an online defence of Subban, noting that it’s been 56 years since Willie O’Ree broke the colour barrier (in Boston, ironically enough). “Hockey has come a long way since then,” he added, “but the racist messages hurled at Subban show how much farther the game has to go.”
Yet attitudes toward Subban may be as much about differences within sporting culture as they are about skin colour. On a superficial level, he reflects the in-your-face postures of athletes in pro basketball and football, where his brash talk, his victory celebrations and his hip-hop-inspired fashion choices would scarcely stand out. Hockey, by contrast, has long appreciated a cultural reserve that reflects its roots in Canada and northern Europe, and it seems noteworthy that black stars who comport themselves in the Gretzky-Sakic-Crosby vein—Philadelphia’s Wayne Simmonds; Washington’s Joel Ward—have endured none of the scrutiny Subban has.
His youthful, urban vibe, however, is one the NHL would be wise to embrace. Though the league’s television audience has expanded, polls suggest newcomers to Canada and the United States are ambivalent toward the game—bad news for teams in ethnically diverse cities like Los Angeles, Toronto and Vancouver. What’s more, many within that vital growth demographic consume sports through mobile devices, where hockey must compete with everything from the NBA to Instagram, and where famous names attract all the clicks.
In that world, notes veteran hockey broadcaster John Shannon, self-promoters rule, a fact that may finally be dawning on Subban’s detractors. “Everybody in hockey is saying that this guy could not have come around at a better time,” says Shannon, an analyst with Sportsnet TV and a former executive producer of Hockey Night in Canada on CBC. “Hockey players live by a code of not standing out, but this is a different generation. Our kids communicate differently. They look for people who stand out. They look for celebrity. It’s the evolution of the sport.”
Of course, self-promotion brings with it extra pressure, adds Shannon: “If you can back it up with great play, you’re that much higher on the pedestal.” Few rise to the challenge as impressively as Subban. He has immodestly named his fan club “Subbanation,” and a couple of months back, he launched a personal website frequently updated with self-filmed video and photos chronicling his exploits. His Twitter feed has reached 384,000 followers, many of whom send photos of themselves, their children or their pets wearing his No. 76 on their Habs jerseys.
Yet, as per Shannon’s dictum, he is backing it up. After 2½ playoff series, Habs fans already have a treasury of Subban memories, from his tear through the Tampa Bay zone during the first round that left Lightning forward Ondrej Palat pole vaulting over his own stick, to the breakaway goal he scored against Boston in Game 3 after bursting from the penalty box. Subban played a combined 51 minutes in Montreal’s last two wins against the Bruins, and though he didn’t record a point, he was without argument the best skater on the ice.
Whether his impact will last, and whether other players will adopt his all-out approach, is an open question. Larry Grimes, president of the Sport Advisory Group, an investment consultancy that specializes in pro sports franchises, wonders whether the league and the Canadiens will recognize the opportunity he presents. “He got what you might call a little street cred, and that’s fabulous for the sport,” says Grimes, who is based in Maryland. “But the NHL isn’t very good at marketing its individual players. Montreal can help by taking the lead, but the NHL really needs to start marketing more than two or three of the marquee names. It can’t be all Alexander Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby.”
His teammates are more optimistic, saying this spring’s tour de force has reverberated among their peers, with younger, more talented players taking cues. “You can learn a lot from how passionate he is, and the influence he’s having on the game,” says Nathan Beaulieu, a smooth-skating rookie defenceman who dressed for the Habs’ last two games against the Bruins. “On and off the ice, he’s a special guy, and somebody I try to model myself after.”
But to give any of that meaning, the Canadiens must first get Subban’s name on a contract extension. The so-called “bridge” deal averaging US$2.9 million per season that GM Marc Bergevin gave him two years ago expires this summer, and the Canadiens must pay big if they wish to make Subban a franchise fixture. Under the terms of the NHL’s collective bargaining agreement, the defenceman can sign for up to eight years in Montreal, and based on recent deals for players of comparable talent, his annual salary could top $9 million. Bergevin gave no hints at a press conference last week as to what he might offer Subban. But if he fails to lock the star defenceman down, he might face a fan insurrection.
Either way, Subban seems unlikely to fall off the hockey radar, because he shows no inclination to change his style. With the Canadiens behind 3-1 in the final minutes of Game 2 against the Rangers, he all but took his team on his shoulders, driving freight train-style toward the New York net, juking and deking past opposing defenders, twice coming close to setting up goals. And when on-ice gamesmanship failed, he reverted to the off-ice kind, suggesting that New York’s star goaltender Henrik Lundqvist owed at least part of his 40-save performance on Monday night to the hockey gods. “Is he playing well? Yes, but some of it is luck,” Subban shrugged. “If we keep getting those looks, we’ll put some of them in the net. I shot a couple that were tipped and hit his shoulder and he didn’t even see it.”
It was a rhetorical jab clearly intended to irk one of hockey’s most venerable figures—Lundqvist is a 2012 Vezina Trophy winner whose status might in the past have spared him such indignity. But that’s according to the old, unwritten code of a sport that for too long has equated understatement with character. The NHL’s most interesting man is laying down his own code, and while not everyone must play by it, even the naysayers must admit doing so requires character of a whole new order.