P.K. Subban retirement retired

P.K. Subban was a one-in-a-million hockey player — and he deserved better

“We may never see the likes of P.K. Subban in the NHL again any time soon, if ever. I can only hope his persona and on-ice play have inspired young fans to pursue their own hockey dream. But the league and the Canadiens’ front office and coaches should be ashamed of how they handled him during his prime.”

I’m fighting back tears just writing this.

Ever since I became a fan of this hockey team, no player on it has thrilled and excited me as much as P.K. Subban. In fact, he’s perhaps the most exciting and dynamic player we’ve seen put on a Canadiens sweater since the days of prime Guy Lafleur. (And yes, that includes Alex Kovalev and, for now, Cole Caufield, who’s still just getting started in a Habs sweater.)

He could lay devastating hits, help run a power play, shoot pucks like a jackhammer and also make great plays for his teammates. His breakaway goal out of the penalty box against the Boston Bruins in 2014 remains my favourite goal I’ve seen by any Canadien since I’ve been a fan. He was a treat to watch whenever he stepped onto the ice, and a true game-breaker.

Now, the Habs’ former resident class clown has called time on his 13-year NHL career, at only 33 years of age. This comes nearly a month after Carey Price, with whom Subban had quite the bromance, all but announced his own retirement.

It’s easy to see why Subban was a fan favourite in Montreal both on and off the ice. He was charming, full of jokes, hugely charismatic and a born entertainer. Even after being selected in the second round of the 2007 entry draft, Subban’s quotes after being picked by the Habs were early signs of how hilarious and likeable he was. His philanthropic work and heavy community involvement endeared him to Montrealers even further.

Best of all, he grew up a Habs fan in Rexdale, ON, in the heart of Leafs Nation. He had the CH tattooed on his heart since he was a child (his father was a Habs fan first), and looked destined to be a star in a notoriously difficult market for players to thrive in.

On all fronts, he deserved much better.

A key component of his legacy is the one he left on hockey in general. He was a boisterous, flamboyant, energetic Black man playing a stubborn, uptight, conservative white man’s sport. Subban was also a heavily disliked figure by other teams’ fans, and I don’t know if such vitriol would’ve been quite as intense if he were white.

Even if his behaviour is common in other major sports leagues’ locker rooms, it clearly sat poorly with powerful figures in the Canadiens organization. More specifically, we can point fingers at then-head coach Michel Therrien, then-GM Marc Bergevin and owner Geoff Molson.

With Subban and Therrien, there seemed to be an obvious personality clash. First, Therrien banned the triple-low five celebration Subban and Price did after wins, because he clearly hates fun. Then, there’s that clip from 24CH where Therrien hurls all kinds of verbal abuse at Subban over his play. It truly makes one wonder how much happier Subban would’ve been under a more creative, free-flowing coach like Marty St. Louis.

Also, with all due respect to David Desharnais, imagine being Therrien and thinking he’s more valuable to your team than a Norris Trophy-winner and bonafide all-star in Subban. STONKS! 

There’s also that time Therrien publicly blamed Subban for losing a game for the team, and he recently admitted to playing the bad guy role with Subban on purpose to ease relations with his teammates. If that’s not a form of emotional manipulation, I don’t know what is. Oh, and Daniel Brière claimed in his autobiography that Therrien told Subban no one respected him or wanted to play with him.

And yet, even despite rumours of a feud with then-captain Max Pacioretty and some salty remarks years down the line from Brendan Gallagher, people thought Subban was the toxic one in that locker room?

As for Marc Bergevin… hoo boy. First, there was all the unnecessary drama surrounding his contract negotiations with Subban in 2014, eventually leading to Molson reportedly intervening and Subban being granted a $9-million AAV contract over eight years after going to arbitration.

Fast forward to June 29, 2016. Bergevin would flat-out ignore the advice of the analytics consultant he himself hired by trading Subban to the Nashville Predators for eventual captain Shea Weber. At first, the transaction was widely viewed as a loss for the Canadiens, and comparisons to the lopsided Patrick Roy trade in 1995 were immediate. Think pieces about the trade were often emphatically negative. 

The trade hit the city of Montreal like a bomb, and brought my own workplace at the time to a standstill when the news broke. Me and my best friend even bought tickets to his first game back at the Bell Centre with the Predators in March 2017 minutes after the deal was announced.

I remember going home from work that day utterly dejected, and feeling mentally as if someone close to me had died. My parents were in town visiting that week from Calgary, and I tried staying in good spirits while out with them at Jazz Fest to see Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings perform (just five months before Jones’s passing). But I couldn’t savour or truly enjoy a single second of it. All I could think about was the trade, while also bracing myself in case any associated riots started downtown.

I also boycotted all beer products with the Molson name on it for at least a year or two after the trade. This is how much Subban meant to me on a hockey and human level, and a reflection of how betrayed I’d felt by the only NHL team I’ve ever supported.

That’s another thing with P.K.: he felt more relatable to a lot of Montrealers than your average stoic hockey player. His gregariousness made him a beloved figure around town, and he felt like someone we’d want to have a beer with, or invite to our parties. This is partly why many fans felt like they’d lost their connection to the team after the trade — or more strongly, like the team was dead to them. The sense of disappointment across the fanbase was so seismic that local journalists felt the aftershocks, too — one even travelled to Nashville to report on the start of Subban’s first season there.

Back to Marc Bergevin. After the trade happened, Bergevin — himself a former journeyman NHL defenseman with nowhere near Subban’s talent level during his playing days — would frequently dogwhistle about “character” and “attitude” in the months and years after the trade. Then again, this is the same Marc Bergevin who eventually showed us all that he’d rather have full-on MAGA racists, domestic abusers, players who’ve hurled homophobic slurs during games and sexual predators on his team than someone like Subban. You do the math.

Then there’s Geoff Molson, who ultimately could’ve tried blocking the trade if he wanted to, but didn’t. Instead, he gave it his blessing, and even publicly stated he thought the team was “better” without him.

From an off-ice standpoint, PK Subban was a rare breed of hockey player that the game sorely lacked. He essentially exposed how much the NHL — a league known for being woefully behind the curve on many levels — had no clue how to market their game as effectively as leagues like the NFL and NBA have.

Subban was an incredibly endearing and hugely marketable personality, who was an absolute natural with cameras in front of him — just watch him hijacking a CTV Montreal weather report in 2012, or his pitch-perfect Don Cherry impersonation. People like him are how you grow the game and attract new fans to your sport. The NHL truly fumbled the bag with him, just as they’ve done with so many other things.

Though debates about the trade for Weber raged on in the years to come, it turned out to more or less be a draw. Both Subban and Weber would eventually go to Stanley Cup Finals with their new clubs in 2017 and 2021, respectively. Weber was also undoubtedly a fantastic presence in the locker room, and his status as one of the game’s great natural-born leaders has surely rubbed off nicely on players like Nick Suzuki, his successor as team captain.

Regardless, there will always be “what if” scenarios with Subban and the Canadiens. Yes, his play declined over time (especially during his stint with the New Jersey Devils), but he also thrived in high-pressure environments. He was tailor-made for a market as demanding and intense as Montreal, where gushing adulation and vicious criticism come in equal measure depending on your play.

Frankly, had he stayed, I still think he would’ve had a few more years in him as a top-tier offensive defenseman in the league. Perhaps he wouldn’t quite be Norris-quality anymore, but certainly more impactful than he’d been with the Devils and toward the end of his time in Nashville. The Bell Centre atmosphere always seemed to inject new life into him.

Now, he’s retiring from the game he loves, rather than accepting a PTO (professional try-out) from an NHL club this season — something I wouldn’t be surprised if he felt insulted by, and I wouldn’t blame him, either. A career in TV punditry is surely waiting for him, and likely a more lucrative one, too. Broadcasting has always looked like his second calling.

P.K. Subban should’ve been a one-club man in Montreal, and deserved a Cup even more than that. But he was a truly electrifying player to watch on a team that had been steeped in mediocrity and boring, static on-ice play for years. We are damn lucky to have had him in the first place.

As a presence in the NHL off the ice, P.K. was ahead of his time. In a league full of banal, milquetoast dudes who say “uhh” after every thought during interviews (and use cliché language like “getting pucks in deep”), Subban brought a refreshing dose of personality to the league, and challenged traditional hockey culture in the process. The gatekeepers of said culture simply weren’t ready for him.

Both the league and the Canadiens front office and coaching staff should be ashamed of themselves for how they handled him during his best years. We may never see the likes of P.K. Subban in the NHL again any time soon, if ever. I can only hope both his persona and on-ice play have inspired young fans of his to lace them up and pursue their own NHL dream.

Congratulations on one hell of a career, Subby. May your second act be even better and more successful than the first.

In closing, fuck Michel Therrien and Marc Bergevin. ■

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