‘I try not to be bitter. I just try to be better.”
P.K. Subban is at times as slick with the English language as he is with the puck. He can surprise with a spinnerama move. He can pass, smoothly, from one subject to another. His opponents on the ice will say some of the stuff coming out of his mouth is the verbal equivalent of a spear.
He is 21, a rookie in a dressing room – the Montreal Canadiens' – where for decades the “unspoken” rule was that rookies say nothing. They wait their turn. But not Subban – he takes his turn.
He was first noticed in Ottawa during the 2009 world junior hockey championship, where his end-to-end rushes brought the crowds to their feet chanting “Pee-Kay! Pee-Kay!” He was noticed again in the postgame interviews, where he might respond to a dumb question with something like, “I beg to differ.” Another time, speaking of a testy situation on the ice, he referred to it as “animus.”
No “can't get too high or too low.” He's always too high, his teammates and more than a few opponents will say.
It is generally considered a crime in hockey to be flamboyant or provocative. Those said to have talked too much have often paid a high price, going all the way back to when Doug Harvey and Ted Lindsay were traded and largely blackballed by the Original Six for daring to speak about players' rights and fair compensation.
Eddie Shack, Bobby and Brett Hull, Jeremy Roenick are but a few of the better-known names who have, at times, miffed even their own teammates by saying or doing things that are seen as attracting too much or unnecessary attention.
Andrew Ference was said this season to have broken some sort of sacred “code” among players when the Boston Bruins defenceman dared state the obvious out loud. A teammate, he said, had delivered a “bad hit” on an opponent. “You can't be hypocritical about it when it happens to you,” Ference said, “then say it's fine when your teammate does it.”
Ference was blistered for speaking the truth. In fact, he was somewhat ahead of the curve when you consider this is precisely what the Pittsburgh Penguins did when their own Matt Cooke was suspended for the remainder of the season and the first round of the playoffs for a hit to the head.
No one was harder on Ference than the CBC's Don Cherry, who actually said, “I don't care if your teammate is an axe murderer,” you keep such talk inside the room.
It does not pass notice that the one so quick to criticize the likes of Ference for his mouth or the likes of Subban or Alexander Ovechkin for their flamboyance on the ice is Cherry, who is himself the epitome of the quick tongue and over-the-top style.
Subban has had a tough year by one measure. He was called out by Philadelphia Flyers captain Mike Richards for cockily wading into the NHL before he has “earned respect.”
Subban, Richards said, acts as if “he's better than a lot of people. … You can't just come in here as a rookie and play like that. It's not the way to get respect from other players around the league.”
Richards was thinking of the yappy Subban, the Subban who celebrates goals as if one has never before been scored, who capped off an overtime winner last week with a wild, mid-air belly bump with Montreal goaltender Carey Price. While his antics delight some, they outrage others. Facebook.com even has a page dedicated to “I Hate P.K. Subban.”
But there is also the accomplished, talented Subban who scores critical goals – two game winners last week, a hat trick in March – and who has gone from an at times awkward novice in last year's playoffs to a mainstay of this year's Montreal team, the one who, with Hal Gill, will be expected to shut down whatever star scorers the Canadiens will meet in the playoffs.
Subban can also score his own goals, now at an astonishing 14 and within one of the team rookie record set by Guy Lapointe 40 years ago. It should make Subban a candidate for rookie of the year, but it may well be that the way in which he somehow rubs people both ways could work against him.
He claims not to be thinking about it. “In terms of decisions like that,” he says. “I don't make those decisions. So whoever makes those decisions, there's a lot of guys who are deserving of that award this year, so whoever gets it is going to be deserving.”
He knows his personality will again be a topic of conversation this spring, just as it was last spring and has been all season long.
“I know I'm being watched out there,” he says. “There's TV cameras everywhere, there's 22,000 people in the stands. They watch everything you do. Not just me. I just go out there and try to have fun and just do my job the best I can and have a smile on my face when I do it.
“My job is to play the game. It's not to be critical of what critics want to say or anything like that. They're always going to say something. That's their job. And that's a part of the game.
“I just try to get better each day – and to use that stuff as motivation.”