It takes a special kind of showman to turn nonchalance into an act of provocation.
When the Montreal Canadiens’ P.K. Subban threw a power-play wrist shot at the Boston net on Thursday night and it went in, he did a quick little spin, stolid expression on his face, arms at his side – it was a non-celebration celebration.
A couple of hours later, when he scored the double-overtime winner (also on a power play) he did more or less the same thing before being mobbed by his teammates.
And it drove the TD Garden absolutely bonkers, which is, of course, the point.
Water bottles, cups, food wrappers and whatever other detritus was at hand rained onto the ice.
Afterward, a few towering intellects took to Twitter to hurl racist bilge at Subban – the social media platform is sadly an ideal vehicle for bigots and their speak-now-think-later online enablers.
The Bruins issued a statement condemning “racist, classless views expressed by an ignorant group of individuals,” and coach Claude Julien and captain Zdeno Chara both spoke forcefully in defence of Subban.
“People who think that way are not what we call our fans. They may think they are, but we certainly don’t support that at all. It’s a shame that this is still going around in this day and age, and that people are still thinking that way,” Julien said.
Bruins officials were thrust into a similarly regretful position in 2012 when Joel Ward of the Washington Capitals scored a series-clinching goal against Boston, and while the Bruins may want to have a word with their fans about throwing full bottles of water at unsuspecting athletes, this isn’t about one city (after all, fans in Montreal have been known to show up to games in blackface).
It’s a social ill, a sports thing – think NBA owner Donald Sterling – and a social media thing.
Subban has said in the past that he simply ignores hateful speech; on Friday he wasn’t available to comment, but his teammates were.
“He’ll be fine. He’s a good kid. I’ve got to know him over the last two months I’ve been here. I’ve been really impressed with him,” said winger Thomas Vanek. “Obviously, I knew how good he was on the ice, but off the ice, how good of a teammate he is and how he carries himself – he’ll get even stronger through that.”
Added teammate Brendan Gallagher, who saw some of the vitriol first-hand after the game: “He’s disappointed, obviously. It’s not something you want to hear, but he handles it well. He understands … the most appropriate way to deal with it is just to ignore it because those beliefs really don’t matter.”
Notwithstanding the moronic comments of a segment of the Boston fan base and the city’s admittedly troubled past with race relations – the busing crisis of the 1960s, the jeering of black athletes including Celtics great Bill Russell, who once described the city as a “flea market of racism” – there is a more benign strain of distaste being expressed at the TD Garden.
And that’s the stuff Subban thrives on; it is also something Boston fans may want to take into account when they boo him and fling their trash at him.
After the game, Subban was asked about the garbage shower, and said “I don’t know. It doesn’t really matter.”
Gallagher said “I didn’t notice it until after – guys were saying P.K. actually got hit. I guess that’s part of just playing on the road.”
And when the playoff road goes through Boston, Subban evidently enjoys it.
He has four goals (and six points) in eight career postseason games at TD Garden, and played 33:49 in Montreal’s double-overtime triumph, leading all players.
“I think that I’m always play my best when I’m playing a lot. I don’t think there was any shortage of ice time today, but I always feel that the more I play the better I play,” he said after.
What about the raging hothouse atmosphere?
“Just growing up, [I liked] having success in the biggest games. In the craziest atmospheres, in the craziest buildings, in the biggest games, the biggest moments – to me that’s how you define yourself and your career, yourself as a player … that’s how I evaluate myself and my game. I don’t evaluate it in the 5-0 games or the 4-0 games,” he said.
Subban has a forceful personality and a preternatural confidence; he is also a product of a family that has an appreciation for self-deprecation.
Outside the Garden on Thursday, T-shirt vendors were doing brisk business with a red-white-and-blue model that says “Canadiens Diving Team” and has Subban’s name and 76 on the back.
A Montreal Gazette reporter intercepted someone who had just bought one for a quick interview.
The customer was Subban’s father, Karl.