P.K. Subban was snubbed by the NHL this weekend, not being chosen to go take part in the All-Star activities later this month.
This is the sort of thing I normally couldn't care less about. I haven't watched the game in years, with the exception of a couple of years ago when I tuned in for a few minutes to watch Carey Price put on a show during the skills competition portion of the festivities.
Have you heard of P.K. Subban? Last year, during the Canadiens playoff run, the few who hadn't quickly did. Who can forget the series against the Bruins, and P.K.'s out-of-the-penalty-box undressing of Tuukka Rask? Who can forget Subban wanting to hear the Boston crowd in Game 7 and wanting to take their energy away from them? I'm known in my suburban Vancouver neighbourhood as the resident rabid Habs fan. Last spring all of a sudden neighbours, and in particular children, would stop me every time I was out on my dog walks just to talk about the Habs in general, but Subban in particular. He and B.C. boy Carey Price gained legions of young fans deep in Canucks land last year.
Subban is at times an electrifying player. He is at all times a magnetic personality. That smile, that immediately recognizable voice, that sense of humour. He has become such a persona that in the dog days of summer 2014 when hockey was over, the biggest topic in the sports world was his contract, or rather, the lack of a new one. The speculation of why the contract hadn't been signed yet, how much he would get, and near the end, the abject fear that he would slip out of our grasp and be snapped up by the most horrifying of possibilities, the Toronto Maple Leafs, actually came close to causing mass violent illness, let alone mutiny. Fans were calling for GM Marc Bergevin's head, bemoaning coach Michel Therrien's treatment of him, and threatening to leave the fanbase outright if this whole contract negotiation got botched up.
Subban, affable gentleman that he is, seemed to take all the madness in stride. It was during this rampant speculation that he made public appearances and gave radio interviews, talking about such pedestrian things like getting in trouble with his mom for leaving the stove on and nearly burning the house down, all the while talking up the community work he was proud to be a part of. Laughing and calmly deflecting questions regarding the arbitration possibility.
This is when it got interesting. When he finally would say the "only thing" he would mention about where his contract stood, he began to refer to himself as "P.K. Subban." In the third person. This was not an obnoxious move like "The Jimmy" from Seinfeld. This, to me, was P.K. talking about this "P.K. Subban" entity like it wasn't even himself. This gigantic "P.K. Subban" that the rest of us can't get enough of - almost like he couldn't even believe in this imaginary "P.K. Subban" at all. He knows how huge he is to us; but at the same time it seems to be so unbelievable that he steps outside of it to discuss the phenomenon like an observer.
Since the start of his career, Subban has been notorious, for reasons ranging from his obvious talent, his obvious tenacity, his obvious passion and yes, his obvious skin colour, which societally is always going to factor in to some degree despite our "post racial" generation; and lately - mostly - for his incredible character and intestinal fortitude, which I'll get to in a minute.
Such notice has been taken of Subban outside of Montreal that a cover story was dedicated to him in the Canadian edition of Sports Illustrated. The New Yorker ran another fantastic piece. He was the Canada Day cover story for Macleans magazine. His every tweet gets instantly and infinitely retweeted, six-second instagram videos of him lifting weights go viral. The over-the-top, no-one-will-ever-top-this truckload of ice dumped on him during the ice bucket challenge, complete with P.K. wearing a cup outside his shorts ran on the news in Toronto, a city that, desperate to claim any part of him, repeatedly referred to him as "Toronto-born."
Subban ended up signing, at the 59th second of the 59th minute of the eleventh hour, the biggest contract to an NHL defenseman to date. An eight-year, $72 million dollar contract; this after actually going to an arbitration hearing - which incidentally took years off the life of every Habs fan and induced salivation from fans of 29 other teams that would gladly snatch him away.
Here's the thing. Subban, so he has repeatedly reminded us, doesn't want to play anywhere else. He has never wanted to play anywhere else. After the contract was finally agreed to, he again told us he wants to spend his entire career in Montreal. In Montreal. His whole career. Take a second to absorb this tremendous gift.
Now take a second to think about what it must be like to walk around in P.K.'s shoes.
We all know the story, his parents were immigrants, his father being a big Habs fan, raising his boys playing Canada's sport. Their undeniable athletic gifts paired with the unfailing support of two dedicated and loving parents. You only have to hear his father once to know that the Subban spell is something P.K. merely inherited.
I said earlier P.K. is "at times" electrifying. He is. Of the hairs-standing-on-end variety. As a player, 90 percent of the time he is quietly and immensely effective; when you don't notice him, he is doing his job tremendously well. Five percent of the time he brings Habs nation to its feet, screaming out his name, taking advantage of mistakes in the proverbial game of mistakes and making plays like the aforementioned breakaway goal that was SportsCentre's highlight play for weeks running.
And, five percent of the time, he makes mistakes. Mistakes that anyone would make, particularly players who get as much ice time as Subban. He plays that many minutes a game, chances for him to make a mistake are that much greater. And they're that much more magnified if your name is P.K. Subban.
Last week in the much-anticipated game against Tampa, the second meeting of the two teams since Montreal swept Tampa in the first round of the playoffs last year (in the first meeting Stamkos and the Lightning utterly embarrassed the Habs 7-1), Subban made one such mistake. He took a silly penalty in defense of Andrei Markov, and the ensuing powerplay resulted in the go-ahead goal of a 1-1 game. The Habs lost. And madness followed.
"How dare he," and "He's not earning his paycheque," talk permeated the airwaves for days. It reminded me of earlier in the season, when the Habs went on a mini losing streak, and after one loss that came on the heels of the Sports Illustrated article, Sergio Momesso was talking to TSN 690 about what could possibly be happening to P.K. Subban. Momesso intimated that P.K. might be a little too caught up in all the extracurricular distractions of his fame, and forgetting about playing hockey.
Imagine being P.K.. This guy is incredibly professional, incredibly dedicated to his sport, his job, improving himself and being in the kind of shape that most of us are so exhausted merely thinking about that we just stay on the couch and reach for the bag of chips. He is a Norris Trophy winner; but even this achievement is consistently cheapened by "albeit in a shortened season," by Bob McKenzie every chance he gets. By the same token, I don't recall this particular analyst referring to the Chicago Blackhawks as Stanley Cup winners "albeit in a shortened season." Subban cannot do anything, cannot take a single step, or stride on the ice, especially in the incredibly difficult hockey-obsessed atmosphere of Montreal, that is not infinitesimally dissected and/or criticized. During the Bruins series, the abhorrent racist tweets abounded in response to his magical play. Much like his snub for the All-Star game, the refusal of the Team Canada coach to play him in meaningful games at the Olympics in Sochi dominated all the sports talk shows.
How does P.K. respond to all this pressure, this criticism, this painstaking scrutiny? With a smile. With class. With maturity, perspective. After temporarily letting his heart rule his head in that Tampa game, he faced reporters for his mea culpa, and welcomed all the criticism toward him, grateful to fans for their passion and knowing that they care.
The draw of P.K. Subban is a marketer's dream. He is a bona fide, gigantic superstar. That the NHL chose not to have him on the All-Star team is genuinely incredible, short-sighted, foolish. I don't care about the game or that weekend; but had P.K. been involved, I would have tuned in, and like him or not, you would have, too. That event was created for players, personalities, like Subban; to thrill the fans.
Just another one of those things that I can't wait to see how P.K. Subban responds to, especially on the ice. And just another one of those responses that I'll show to my children as an example of how you react in adversity and to enormous pressure. And just another reason I have to pinch myself that he plays on my team, and not yours.