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.
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.
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.