NASHVILLE – One hand on the wheel of the rental car, P.K. Subban cruises southbound on I-65 in Nashville, radio dialed low and A/C full throttle. It’s a Wednesday afternoon in mid-September, sun rays bouncing off his shades. When Subban really gets into a conversation, he tends to start nudging anyone nearby, as though he wants to pass along the excitement like static cling.
Right now, he’s doing a lot of nudging.
“I’m just really excited about the city of Nashville, how quickly it’s growing, how quickly our team is growing, where we’re at. I think there’s a lot of great things to come. I’m just happy to be here during that time. I mean, geez, it’s a great opportunity. Do you know how many players have said to me, ‘How f---ing lucky are you?’ I’m like, what? They’re like, ‘I’d do anything to play in Nashville.’”
Eleven weeks ago, Subban was eating dinner at the Hôtel Costes, a trendy spot in Paris, when he received a text from Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin, asking that Subban call immediately. (Since free agency was opening in two days, Subban initially thought Bergevin wanted to ask about that summer’s big target, an old friend from Ontario in Steven Stamkos.) Upon learning what happened, it wasn’t long before Subban’s mind shifted to moving south—to a new team, in a new city, in a new country. His initial thoughts explain the nudging.
“I’m 27 years old,” Subban says. “Most people would say entering the prime of your career. On the ice, the expectations are the same. If I have 20 points and I’m plus-3 and have three goals, that’s not going to be good enough. Regardless, team success is number one. But you individually have to perform well for the team success to continue to go up. Number two, when you look at it, this is a completely different market. I go from a market of 30 million to 330 million. In Canada often people say there’s a glass ceiling. I think I’ve been knocking on it for a while.”
His hand raps on the center console.
“In the U.S., there’s no glass ceiling. The U.S. is not a conservative place. It’s a place that embraces everything, especially in sports. Sports is part of the glue of the United States. I’m a professional athlete. I’m playing a sport that, amongst the big professional sports in North America, is probably on the lower end. But I think that hockey in the U.S. can still grow and can continue to grow, and I hope that I can help that by coming here.”
This has always been Subban: Self-aware in understanding his celebrity, enthusiastic about deploying it. “It’s sports-entertainment,” he says. “Hockey’s still old that way. It’s like we’re back in gladiators, where you’re fighting for your life on the ice. No, I’m not. I plan to get off the ice, go home, have dinner, see my family. It’s a game. Someone’s paying $250 to watch a product. To grow a sport, to grow a game, you need more fan-player interaction, and it starts with first selling players, not just selling teams. Hockey has a tendency to do that.”
So what better place to land, then, than here? At Bridgestone Arena, the motto painted outside team offices calls the Predators’ home rink a “sports and entertainment venue.” The clear intention is that, here, both concepts should blend together. Now, they have the best example hockey can offer, someone who already speaks their language.
“Everybody in this area grew up with football,” GM David Poile says. “Nobody grew up with hockey. I think we’ve really, steadily sold the game. We’re clearly at the highest level of success for our franchise, both on and off the ice in terms of sponsorship and season tickets. Now we’re trying to be a more offensive team. I hope that we’re a winning team, but I fully expect that we’re going to be an exciting team to watch.”
This, too, was always part of Subban’s repertoire. Even before the trade, the Predators had already assembled an elite blue line, mostly through draft picks like Roman Josi (38th in ‘08), Ryan Ellis (11th in ’09), Mattias Ekholm (102nd in 09) and, of course, the price paid for Subban’s services: Shea Weber (49th in ’03). Only now, instead of Weber’s brute force, they have something more aligned with coach Peter Laviolette’s fast-paced priorities: Subban’s pizzazz.
“It’s the sense of creativity,” Subban says. The rental car exits off the highway, toward the house he's renting. "I have a creative mind. When you have a creative mind, you see plays develop differently than most players. I don’t do anything just because it looks good. I do it because it’s going to get the job done.
“If I feel that putting a two-and-a-half foot saucer pass over some guy’s stick or three people, for us to have a scoring chance, that’s what I’m going to do. Not every player has the skill or talent level to do that, but if you do, then yeah, you’ve got to use your skill or talent to execute, right? That’s how I see it.”
In Nashville, Subban is getting the latitude to oblige this belief. But, from their first face-to-face meeting over the summer, Poile made it clear that the Predators want to be kept in the loop. “He’s already a mega-star, both on the ice and off the ice,” the GM says. “This is a celebrity status he’s earned and deserved. This is what he has to figure out: How is he going to be different, by which I really mean better, here in Nashville than he was in Montreal? I don't think that takes a lot, but it’s just him being aware of these things, the communication and transparency. I’m on the same two words all the time.”
The morning after the trade, Subban flew from Paris to Croatia, where he began a weeklong voyage on a chartered yacht with several friends. They sailed along the coast, anchoring outside different cities to enjoy the beaches and nightlife, which still left time to discuss Subban’s big move. Eventually, they landed where Poile would: Subban and the Canadiens weren’t always on the same page.
“We did this, kind of an autopsy,” says Joel Leonoff, a frequent Subban travel companion. “We talked about, he’s got to learn a little bit from the past too. Maybe Nashville’s a place where they really need to promote hockey, they do need an ambassador and a champion, and maybe P.K. Subban can work in conjunction with the team and make it all a positive. I think that was certainly clearly one of those objectives: Let’s not repeat some of the pitfalls of the past, where there’s not that type of collaboration.”
Subban seems to understand this. It’s why he flew into Nashville last August, having requested to meet with team marketing executives to pitch promotional and charitable ideas; one early result of this meeting was an in-arena photo booth labeled PK APPROVED. “What I loved about him, is the answer’s yes, just ask the question,” Predators CEO Sean Henry says. “It’s so much more fun to just say yes, and that’s his attitude.”
In some way, it’s also why Subban recently joined the first fantasy football league of his life—to show teammates that he’s happy about where he landed. “To come into Nashville, Tennessee,” he says, “where hockey is still developing, completely different from Montreal, everybody is going to ask this question until Christmas time, until everybody gets to know me: Does P.K. like Nashville? Is he comfortable here? And you can sense it among the players. They just want to know. Everybody’s reaching out, making sure this and that are good, but it’s to make me feel comfortable. I’m so aware of that.”
Only three days into living here full-time, Subban is starting to feel plenty comfortable; the weather is great, the fans are friendly, and there's no state income tax. Several weeks later, the first preseason sellout in franchise history would indicate that Nashville rather enjoys his presence as well. "Change is sometimes the best thing for somebody," he says. "It is. And for me now, we’re talking business? I’m in the United States. The market, this is where the game needs to grow. If you want to do it, win a championship here and see what happens. We have the opportunity to do that. I’m pretty stoked, man."
Pulling up to the security gate at his housing complex, he spots the guard and rolls down his window. “There she is,” he says, almost swooning. “How are you today?”
Heading toward his street, the nudging starts up again. “They all know me,” he says. “I’m not the type of guy who just comes in and sits in the background. I’m kind of upfront.” He laughs. “A little bit. What you see is what you get, man. What you see is what you get.”