Subban told an interviewer from TVA this week that he has voraciously consumed everything he could find about Kobe, Jordan and Tiger – three men who, yes, are black, but more importantly were or are stone killers in their sports. They kicked hindquarters, they took names.
Consider an interview Subban gave a reporter from Sportsnet – coincidentally the company that gave him a television job during the last NHL lockout – at the end of the 2013 season. He said: “I don’t forget the people that said that I’ll never play in a Habs jersey again or that I’m selfish or that I’m greedy or that I’m confused. I’m thinking I’m a lot better than what I actually am. I don’t forget those things.”
Tiger and Kobe had already won titles at Subban’s age; Jordan had to wait until he was 28 to lift his first NBA championship trophy, and Subban is clearly impatient to fulfill the promise he made on draft day in 2007, when the second-round pick (and boyhood Habs fan) pledged to bring a Stanley Cup to Montreal.
When Subban joined the Habs full-time, during the 2010 playoffs, the only team number that moved more units was Jaroslav Halak’s 41. Now, when the Bell Centre pre-game ceremonies reach their crescendo, it’s hard to tell who gets louder cheers between Subban and goalie Carey Price, the team’s acknowledged MVP.
Remarkably, the Toronto-born Subban has reached these heights despite continued attempts by coaches and veteran teammates to coax him into running his game through the de-flavourizer.
“I have not changed how I’ve played the game. Not since I was 16 years old and I moved away from home to play in Belleville, Ont.,” he said this week. “I’ve matured, I’ve gotten older. I’ve gotten a little bit of facial hair. I’ve learned, but I play the same game. I’ve always played well defensively. I’ve always moved my puck, I’ve always been a team guy.”
Teammates concur, saying Subban is more or less the same personality-wise as he’s always been – funny how the stream of stories about how he’s disliked in the room has dried up.
Some of that is because he’s been around awhile, some because of how he does his work on the ice. As one Canadiens player said privately: “Hey, he backs it up. He’s a dominant player for us. Love him or hate him, we need him.”
None of this is to say Subban hasn’t improved as a player, or that he isn’t coachable. Ask around and everyone – everyone – will tell you the opposite.
Subban is, however, a glacier-like force, someone who grinds down obstacles and usually ends up doing things his way (Sinatra was known to sport a trilby too).
“I don’t think anybody expected me to do it at this level. We can look at reasons and try to justify it, but I’m the same player I was six years ago, just a little bit older, probably stronger and a little bit more mature,” he said. “I still think there’s a lot of things in my game I can get better at … there’s always little things in my game I want to improve on, but you’re not always going to play a perfect game. You’ve got to look at the big picture and that’s how I evaluate my game.”
So why isn’t Subban – the kind of player and individual that marketers build brands around – more closely embraced by the hockey world and the league?
Consideration of race and “other” inevitably arise in answering that question. There is surely a probing discussion to be had about diversity in the NHL, but Subban doesn’t seem keen to get involved in it, let alone lead it.