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P.K. Subban & the Montreal Canadiens: A Battle for the Generations

Guest writer Avi Goldberg gives us his take on why he thinks the negotiations between Subban and the Canadiens seemed overly complicated.

As I type, members of Habs Nation have collectively exhaled and stepped back from the brink.

After an arbitration hearing between P.K. Subban and the Montreal Canadiens over the player’s next NHL contract resulted in plenty of doom and gloom predictions, the two sides dramatically announced a lengthy extension last Saturday afternoon.

And, while all signs are pointing toward a relatively quick return to normalcy, fans and pundits are likely to continue to puzzle over why it ever came to this in the first place.

Was the impasse merely a matter of the two sides negotiating stubbornly hard over the parameters of a deal that would be maximally fair to both Subban and the team’s budget?

Was it because the GM undervalued his defenseman’s contribution to the Habs? Or, was something more complex and insidious at play wherein the fact that Subban’s black in a predominantly white sport-culture causes him to be treated differently than other players with whom his skills, accomplishments, and roles are comparable?

The case of P.K. Subban and his relationship with the Montreal Canadiens has been thoughtfully grappled with before, but nobody really understands why Marc Bergevin insisted on playing a game of hardball with the team’s first non-goalie superstar in more than a generation. In watching the whole thing unfold, folks have been asking whether the GM really has the team’s best long-term on-ice interests at heart.

Now, it very well could be that the deadlock had something to do with the common explanations that have been bandied about in the last several weeks. But, rather that looking at the realities of hardcore negotiations over competing economics interests, exploring the notion that Subban was thinking about returning to Toronto to play for the Leafs, or confronting the possibility that this was a case in which different standards were being applied to an athlete due to the colour of his skin.

I submit to you a different explanation.

The relationship between P.K. Subban and the Montreal Canadiens has been shaped by the competing expectations that arise in interactions that have been playing out between a manager and coach who act according to the logic of Generation X and a player who’s been raised in the culture of Generation Y.

Whereas members of Generation X (those born between the 1960s and 1980s) are reported to think of bosses as experts, to like their work environments to be structured, and to believe that access to authority is something that’s limited and that must be earned, Generation Y’ers - also called millennials - operate according to a rather different set of beliefs.

Raised by parents who taught them that their opinion matters, who hovered over them and protected them from criticism and disappointment, and who pampered them with Baby Einstein videos and with digital technology to keep them connected with their friends, Generation Y’ers (those born between about 1980 and 2000) are described as having social outlooks that routinely bring them to clash with members of older generations in the workplace.

So, whereas Generation X bosses expect their employees to execute tasks in the exact manner in which they’re asked to do so, Generation Y workers confidently speak their mind and ask ‘why?’ If Generation X’ers believe that the most important thing is to get to work, and to get things done, Generation Y’ers are strongly committed to balancing work with fun and the pursuit of meaning. And, though Generation X’ers tend to believe that progress and career advancement come from ‘paying one’s dues,’ Generation Y’ers are optimistic, impatient, and feel as though they’re entitled to recognition as soon as their efforts bring results.

Is any of this starting to sound familiar, Montreal Candiens fans?

Well, with awareness of the trends that characterize members of both generations, P.K. Subban’s uncomfortable relationship with Michel Therrien and Marc Bergevin can now be interpreted in a slightly different light.

Think all the way back to draft day in 2007. At 18 years old, Subban made quite the impression on Habs fans and the media with his buoyant declarations that drafting him was the right choice because he’d help bring a Stanley Cup back to Montreal.

Or, recall when he was thrown into duty for his first ever NHL playoff game against the Washington Capitalsin 2010. At age 20, Subban got an assist and helped the Habs force the series into a game seven that the team ended up winning.

These examples clearly show how Subban showed the joy, optimism, and confidence of a Generation Y’er from his earliest important moments with the Canadiens. Yet, it also didn’t take long before his millennial spirit appeared to defy to the standards expected of him by his Generation X Coach and GM.

Let’s take the triple-low-five (TL5) as an example. For Subban, and arguably for Carey Price and their other teammates, the TL5 was nothing more than a quirky ritual, expressive of fun and accomplishment following a win at home. In its mirthful celebration of meaningful human connection, it doesn’t get much more millennial than that. But, for coach Michel Therrien (age 50), the TL5 was disrespectful and in obvious violation of a consistent and uniform focus on the team. The exuberant freestyle ways of the Generation Y’er most certainly had to be expunged.

Next, and though not strictly an issue between P.K. and the Habs, what about that debate surrounding Subban’s selection for Team Canada at the Sochi Olympics?

Plenty of good reasons were offered in support of Subban being named to Team Canada, and in favour of him playing a significant role once he earned his place on the roster. But, when it came to those who said he should be held back, the claim was invariably made that Subban’s emphasis on offense and his freewheeling style of play would leave the team too vulnerable in a short tournament.

Habs fans, and P.K. himself, ended up taking the player’s eventual benching in stride, yet the implication lingered that the Canadian hockey establishment had their doubts. Subban’s open style on the ice, and his above-average gregariousness in the room, were just too much to handle. Putting it another way, Subban’s millennial qualities - his creativity and his carefree flakiness - were seen as being too far afield from the structure and discipline that a player needed to demonstrate to the Generation X’er, Mike Babcock (Age 51), in order to be trusted.

Finally, let’s return to the showdown over Subban’s contract that’s finally been put to rest. After holding out at the start of the lockout shortened 2013 season, signing the much debated bridge deal, winning a Norris trophy, and performing spectacularly in the playoffs, it seemed only logical that P.K. deserved to be rewarded with a contract on par with those given to the NHL’s top players. Moreover, with key veterans leaving the team, it was reasonably being argued that Subban be considered as a candidate to be named the new team captain. With so much going for him, and with everybody knowing it, why would Marc Bergevin and the Montreal Canadiens have had any doubts about locking him up?

I say it’s got something to do with the generational divide. In holding out for a contract, in having elected to go to arbitration, and in openly liking to have fun, Marc Bergevin probably thinks that P.K. Subban does too much in his own way, expects recognition to come to him a little too soon, and is just a little too passionate about life outside hockey.

Seen in this way, Bergevin hasn’t only thought of Subban as a hockey player whose skillset differs from most other players he knows, but he’s also been experiencing him as the perfect exemplar of the same millennial spirit that’s commanding space and attention in work environments everywhere. And, as someone whose Generation X philosophy of work, authority, and life may be very different from that of the millennial generation, Bergevin’s simply been doing what managers have been doing in companies in many industries outside hockey.

In holding off praise, in forcing him to bridge, and in delaying the delivery of a justly deserved contract until the last possible moment, Bergevin’s been trying his bloody best to send the message that it’s his preference that P.K. Subban conforms to the way things were for those in the generation that preceded him.

Now, I don’t deny the legitimacy of competing explanations for the Subban-Canadiens battles. And, if the generational divide were so clearly at play, wouldn’t more NHL teams be exploding with GM-coach-player acrimony?

Yet, if the recent Subban contract situation tells us anything, it’s that an NHL GM was somewhat reluctant to make a long-term commitment to a player who unabashedly brings a freshly new comportment to both his on and off-ice affairs.

And, if it took Marc Bergevin this long to truly recognize that his team will be far better off by accepting and working with the best qualities of the new generation rather than coming up with every excuse in the book to resist them, then the hometown GM may not be quite as hip to the times as his sartorial demeanor leads everyone to believe him to be.