The superstar cuts a striking figure, even in the U.S. Customs line. Bespoke two-piece suit – hockey players tend to have unique tailoring requirements and the cash to satisfy them – narrow tie, crisp white shirt, black trilby. Urban myth holds that hats went out with JFK; maybe this is the guy to bring them back. When P.K. Subban bumps into a reporter who jokes there’s a Mad Men aesthetic happening, there’s an instant rejoinder.
“Nah, Mad Men has a P.K. thing going on,” he says, grinning, before wandering off to a nearby gate where the Montreal Canadiens’ charter will shortly fly out to Tampa Bay to open the playoffs.
A boast, but not really – he’s clearly joking. It’s a casual remark but hints at self-regard.
There’s a danger to reading anything of significance into appearances and run-of-the-mill interactions with famous people, but Subban is a man of layers, contradictions and unknowable depths – in that regard, he is just like everyone else. In almost every other sense, he’s different. Not everyone is happy about this.
Subban is indisputably the most electrifying player of these NHL playoffs. Right now he is the de facto face of the league. In a world that prizes its bland, predictable, reflexively humble stars, he’s anything but: cocksure, nonconformist, exuberant. He’s also black, and the occasional target of racist abuse, which he handled with typical elegance at the start of the second round against Boston.
But the greatest competitors in sport – like Tiger Woods, Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan, three men he says he has studied closely – aren’t about off-ice classiness, taking pictures with kids, and playing pretty.
They are ruthless closers who derive a malign joy from sticking it hard to their detractors and rivals.
On the recent evidence, Subban is all that, and possibly more. The 24-year-old (he turns 25 next week), exudes a sense of unwavering confidence.
“He believes in himself, and sometimes that rubs other teams the wrong way. And he’s been really good at it. It’s been fun to be part of it with him,” said teammate Daniel Brière.
When asked where Subban fits on the spectrum of swaggering athletes he has known, the veteran centre laughed and said, “I think you know the answer.”
Well, yes: just past the highest end of the scale.
“I think everybody wants to perform on this stage. What sets him apart from what I can see is he wants to be the guy. He wants to be the guy with the puck on his tape when the game’s on the line, he wants to make the big play,” Brière said. “I’ve always believed that’s how it happens – you’ve got to want it. And it’s not always going to work, but every time you want to be the guy to make the difference, and he has that attitude.”
Above all else, Subban has an unshakeable belief in who and what he is; look beyond the extravagant talent, showman’s timing and outsized personality, and you find the relentlessness of an assassin. And against the hated Bruins, his game has risen to new heights (six points in four games; his three goals against Boston are more than the combined total of his previous 25 games).
He has experience when it comes to proving a point.
Think I’m a selfish, disruptive player who’s too reckless with the puck? Fine, I’ll go out and win the Norris Trophy.
Don’t trust me in the closing stages of games? Want to bench me for a mistake? Okay, I’ll still go to Sochi.
Won’t put me on the ice in Sochi? All right, I’ll just practise like a crazy person, soak in the atmosphere and a few months later Patrice Bergeron, leader of men, will call me “a great teammate.”
Not happy with my play down the stretch? Want to limit my ice time? Well, you won’t mind if I go out there and take over the playoffs then.