After the most recent outburst of racist online nonsense aimed at Subban, he seized the moral high ground, saying, “You know what the funny thing is, is that we get stronger as a league. You see how people come together, and it’s great. And it’s not just about me. The NHL’s got tons of players from different backgrounds, from different places around the world, and that’s what makes this league so special and what makes sports so special, bringing everybody together.”
Foes and supporters alike highlighted the class with which he approached the issue.
If you apply the Occam’s Razor principle that the simplest explanation is likely the best one, the perception of Subban may come down to him being a different kind of player than the zeitgeist currently demands. Today’s most-revered NHL superstars – Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews, Drew Doughty – are world-class talents, certainly, but they are also industrious, stalwart, responsible. We live in an era hostile to mad geniuses and flashy improvisers.
Alex Ovechkin is derided as mercurial and savaged on television for his lousy plus/minus and the sin of switching off on back-checks (um, he scored 51 this season, people). Jason Spezza is depicted as reckless and unreliable; Nail Yakupov, Linus Omark and others are painted as hot dogs who have too little respect for the game. When people refer admiringly to the Blackhawks, they usually invoke Toews first, not Patrick Kane, the team’s wildly creative goal-scorer.
Subban, then, is “unpredictable.” This is meant to be a bad thing.
He is not a perfect hockey player. He makes costly mistakes (like a horrifying turnover in game four against Boston that would have resulted in a goal had the Bruins’ Carl Soderberg not found the crossbar instead) and sometimes takes silly risks. He also has the one thing Montreal hockey fans prize above all else: He makes them get out of their seats – like Alex Kovalev, another underappreciated genius.
In that sense, he’s not so much the spiritual heir of the Habs’ fabled Big Three defencemen (Serge Savard, Guy Lapointe, Larry Robinson) as he is Guy Lafleur’s.
Like Lafleur, there were early doubts as to what this player could be, grumbles over mistakes and complaints about how long it was taking for promise to be fulfilled. In 2010, then-Philadelphia forward Mike Richards warned that “something might happen to him if he continues to be that cocky.”
But over the past couple of seasons, Subban’s standing among his peers has grown, as has the respect he commands. Now, when Subban sneakily knocks a goalpost off in the dying seconds of a close game to get a whistle – as he did in game three against Boston – the opposing goalie shrugs and says, without rancour, “veteran move.”
The Bruins’ Shawn Thornton, who has frequently voiced a burning desire to punch Subban in the face, went so far as to compare him to former Anaheim teammate Scott Niedermayer, a Cup champion who is the Hall of Fame. “He’s unbelievable,” Thornton said this week.
There are more Subbans on the way. P.K.’s younger brother Malcolm is a first-round draft pick of the Boston Bruins; his youngest brother Jordan is a Vancouver Canucks prospect. He also has two sisters, the eldest of which was a basketball player of considerable repute.
And as a soon-to-be restricted free agent, P.K. is about to get paid. Pro sports franchises aren’t in the business of giving away their money, but it seems at least a little bit odd that Subban hasn’t yet been signed to a long-term contract; nearly all the star players of his vintage were locked up by their fourth season in the league.
Perhaps that’s a sign of disquiet, or maybe it just means the negotiations have yet to begin in earnest. The Habs’ braintrust understands this is a player who is going to earn mad money; whether it’s theirs or someone else’s is in their hands.
They’d do well to remember there’s only one P.K. Subban.