Three years ago, an article from The New Yorker asked, “Can P.K. Subban win over hockey’s stoic traditionalists?”
At the time, the Montreal Canadiens’ star player had already become one of the youngest defencemen in National Hockey League (NHL) history to win the Norris Trophy, an award given to the NHL’s best defencemen. Subban is also one of only two current NHL players to receive the President’s Award from the American Hockey League for “excellence in all areas off the ice.” Subban is the youngest person to win the trophy, receiving the award at just 21 years old—his first season as professional hockey player.
A couple of weeks ago, however, P.K. Subban stood at the Bell Center in Montreal weeping before the crowd during a minutes-long standing ovation. Subban’s performances on the ice and his philanthropic efforts off the ice had endeared him to the city of Montreal.
In a city where Canadiens legend, Jean Béliveau, is more celebrated for his charitable heart than his Hart Trophies as the NHL’s most valuable player, Subban’s commitment to donate $10 million dollars to the Montreal Children’s Hospital—the biggest charitable donation by a Canadian athlete in history—is partly the reason why everyone at the Bell Center rose to their feet to celebrate Subban that night.
The scene was bittersweet, however. Subban wept while the fans cheered. Subban wore a number 76 Predators jersey and the fans wore his number 76 Canadiens jersey. Subban had won over hockey’s impassionate and progressive fans. He had not, however, won over everyone within the hockey culture.
Last summer, when the Montreal Canadiens traded P.K. Subban to the Nashville Predators for Shea Weber, they inadvertently answered The New Yorker’s question: Subban cannot win over hockey’s stoic traditionalists.
In 2010, mere months after Subban won the President’s Trophy, TSN’s Darren Pang said:
“P.K. Subban is full of life. He’s full of personality. He’s a gregarious sort. And almost the more gregarious he got, the more full of life he got, the more everybody wants to settle him down. I can tell you this right now: there is another example in the league that, maybe, he should try to duplicate…Alex Pietrangelo…he does everything on the ice and off the ice the white way… [Correcting himself]…the right way.”
Some attribute the hockey culture’s unfavourable impressions of Subban on his charismatic personality. There is some truth to this. The NHL is infamous for its dull characters. I’m sure that somewhere within the NHL rulebook there’s a rule against charisma. In fact, the most colourful thing about the NHL is Don Cherry’s suits. Nevertheless, the NHL’s current love-affair with Brent Burns suggests that Subban’s personality is not the the main reason why traditionalists dislike him.
Others suggest that the hockey culture’s disapproval of Subban is largely because of racism. However, if Subban’s skin colour was largely the motivation behind his biggest critics, how do we explain Jerome Iginla’s immense reputation within the hockey culture? The NHL is not racist.
Nevertheless, there is something clearly wrong here. If you believe the NHL media, you might mistake P. K. Subban for Evander Kane. When Subban trash-talks, Mike Richards calls him disrespectful. When Mike Richards trash-talks, however, the hockey culture hails him as an effective agitator. When Subban celebrates a goal, Don Cherry, host of CBC’s Coach’s Corner and the unofficial Prime Minister of the hockey culture, calls him selfish. When Sidney Crosby celebrates a goal, Cherry calls on kids to emulate Crosby’s infectious passion. And even after Subban earns recognition for his charitable efforts—including the Meritorious Service Decoration from Canada’s governor general—Darren Pang and others within the hockey media instruct Subban to become something other than himself.
The hockey culture doesn’t necessarily have a problem with Subban’s skin colour—they have a problem with his culture. This is, of course, not true of every single one of Subban’s critics. Nevertheless, the NHL is notorious its conformist culture. In his New Yorker article on Subban, Ben MacGrath wrote:
“The conformist power of Canadian hockey culture is such that even New Englanders and Swedes, after a few years of inhaling North American Zamboni fumes, will come to adopt a Manitoban prairie lilt, and speak in run-on sentences of cautious optimism.”
In the National Hockey League, doing everything the white right way means conforming to the NHL’s pretentious culture. Russians are demanded to act like Canadians and Black people are demanded to act like White people. Subban’s affinity for the hip-hop culture, which emphasizes confidence, trash-talking, style, personal branding, and charisma, couldn’t be anymore antithetical to the hockey culture.
However, Subban appeared to be a perfect match for the Canadiens organization. Subban was actually a Canadiens fan while he growing up in Toronto—another indication of his strong character. And the Montreal Canadiens are the most progressive team in NHL history. This is the organization that produced Maurice Richard, the outspoken Canadiens legend who criticized the NHL’s then apparent discrimination against French Canadians.
The Canadiens organization also produced people like Doug Harvey, Ken Dryden, Patrick Roy, and Sam Pollock, who revolutionized the NHL at their roles. If Subban had any chance winning over traditionalists, it would start with the Canadiens organization. And for some time, it looked like he stood a chance. He had the support of Canadiens fans and Canadiens legends like Bob Gainey (who drafted Subban) and Ken Dryden.
However, the Montreal Canadiens dealt P.K. Subban for an aging and less talented Shea Weber last summer. Is the team any better since the trade? Predictably, no.
Subban isn’t a perfect person or hockey player, by any means. His audacious style of play occasionally produces costly mistakes. However, he has been one of the most effective defencemen in the NHL over the last several years. The hockey media’s overcritical diatribes of Subban’s mistakes are akin to some complaining over Steph Curry leading the NBA in missed three-point shots, while seemingly forgetting that he also happens to lead the league in made three-point shots.
The point is mute, now anyway. Subban is now a Nashville Predator and as far away from Montreal as the organization’s Stanley Cup aspirations.
On the bright side, though, Weber does everything on the ice and off the ice the white right way.