P.K. Subban fought hockey culture and hockey culture won

An ode to the Habs shooting star, who will soon burn brightly in Nashville, and an analysis of what brought him down.

PK Subban celebration

P.K. Subban wore many hats during his tenure in Montreal, both literally and figuratively. He was a first and foremost a hockey player — a well-decorated NHL All-Star and Norris Trophy winner destined for greatness. But he was also a philanthropist, a comedian, fashion icon and role model. He was a larger than life personality, albeit one that came with all the positive and negative baggage that one would expect from a person with such a following.

PK Subban pimp suit
P.K. Subban in one of his elaborate suits

I was fortunate enough to meet Subban in 2009, before he had yet played his first game in the NHL. Not yet a household name, he was already recognized as a prospect for the Montreal Canadiens, due in large part to his performances for Canada at the Junior hockey level. After a brief conversation, it became clear that day that he would likely end up being a great hockey player in the NHL, but it was just a hunch. This was largely due to his extroverted  nature — his mere presence lit up the room. One could tell that there was something “special” about him, something so against the cookie cutter mold that I’d grown accustomed to. It was very welcome and refreshing. While this is something that is taken for granted now, I could not have predicted the impact that he would soon have on this community.

His career soon took off, emerging as a fan favourite on the ice, from practically the moment he first put on the team’s jersey during the 2010 playoffs. More success soon followed, with a Norris Trophy in 2012 (Best Defenseman Award) and multiple selections to the NHL All-Star game. He was a shooting star.

As Michael Jackson for Halloween
As Michael Jackson for Halloween

While these accomplishments on a professional level were quite impressive, they pale in comparison to his actions last fall when he pledged to make the single largest philanthropic contribution by a professional athlete in Canadian history. He should have been lauded for these actions and treated as a national hero. Surely dressing up like a old-timey bus driver as part of an initiative to support underprivileged minor hockey players would be enough to win over the hearts of the hockey community and his teammates. Right? Wrong. This sadly wasn’t the case, as P.K. was passed over for the team’s vacant captaincy and not selected at the NHL Awards for the NHL Foundation Award, given to players who “enrich the lives of people in his community.”

And while Subban was revered by fans in Montreal, somehow this was never enough for the backwards culture of the hockey community and the Canadiens brass. Somehow P.K. never played “the white way” (note: this was actually said on live TV). Somehow P.K. was accused of having no respect for the game by a veteran player on an opposing team, who implied that he would get what’s coming to him if he didn’t tone down his act. That’s hockey rhetoric for “you don’t fit the boring mold we’ve fostered so someone will punch you in the face.” Thankfully that never happened and we should be grateful that the player who made that accusation/threat, Mike Richards, didn’t end up getting his contract terminated for getting busted at the border with the same stuff that keeps getting Lil Weezy in trouble.

Further evidence of this backwards culture came into play last week when former Habs legend Guy Lafleur suggested that Subban would get hit in the head with a stick back in his day for his behaviour. Outrage, right?! Yet no one flinched, instead it was P.K. who was vilified for being a unique individual. P.K. being P.K.

Subban in the guise of awful old fart Don Cherry
Subban in the guise of awful old fart Don Cherry

There appears to be a paradox in the hockey community: while the game itself is fast-paced and entertaining, the culture that surrounds it is outdated and resistant to change. This is the same community that couldn’t appreciate a national treasure like George Stroumboulopoulos, a person who I might add went from picking the brains of prominent politicians and celebrities to breaking down upper body injuries and blown offside calls with Nick Kypeos and Glenn Healy. And while the Rogers brand is currently retooling its hockey coverage due to stagnant ratings, the real culprit is it overbearing old-school culture that refuses to evolve. While personalities like PK may have their work cut out for them when the norm looks like this mind-numbing Canadian Tire Commercial, anyone looking for some semblance of “versatility and creativity” is fighting a losing battle.

As for the product on the ice goes, it won’t take long for Habs fans to appreciate the player traded for P.K., Shea Weber, as he boasts an impressive resume: he has two Olympic gold medals and was recently recognized for his leadership qualities by his peers in the community. He will undoubtedly play a huge role for the team for many years to come and seems to fit the mold that cannot be broken or will not be challenged.

P.K. challenged these ideals. He looked to make the culture of hockey more exciting and inclusive for fans of the team in this city and was revered for it. And while we are unlikely to see much of difference between the on-ice performances of the two players involved in this controversial trade, the fact remains that this city just lost an adopted son. It lost someone who wanted to make a difference on the ice and in the community. All things considered, while he appeared to be a natural fit,  it seems as though the hockey gods with their rigid and dogmatic ways were destined to win. Only shooting stars break the mold.