SI's Michael Farber writes that unlike most elite defensemen, P.K. Subban of the Montreal Canadiens is not a calming blue-line presence. He colors outside the lines.
This story appeared in the Nov. 24, 2014 issue of Sports Illustrated. Subscribe to the magazine here.
Tout le monde en parle is a talk show that bears only a passing resemblance to the familiar American genre. There is no opening monologue. There are no house bands or stupid human tricks. The program, which is televised on Sunday nights on Radio-Canada, the French version of the CBC, runs an exhausting two hours and 15 minutes. There is an amiable sidekick and a studio audience, but the viewing experience is otherwise as foreign as the language. Guy A. Lepage is the host. He can lob softball questions but will also unabashedly bring 95-mph heat. The show is among the most watched in French Canada, and its guests include politicians, celebrities and, on Oct. 5, three days before the NHL season, Canadiens defenseman P.K. Subban.
Wearing a white sports jacket, a midnight-blue shirt with matching tie and an earpiece through which he heard simultaneous English interpretations of the questions, Subban, flush with the richest contract in Montreal's 104-year history, stickhandled deftly. Asked about his booming shot, the 25-year-old, who hails from Toronto, replied in English, praising his teammates for screening goalies. When Lepage dredged up former Canadiens winger Alex Kovalev's recent comments that the blueliner was unworthy of his new eight-year, $72 million deal, Subban graciously said that Kovalev was entitled to his opinion. Pressed about being the NHL's highest-paid defenseman, Subban responded by noting that a popular TV host probably has a sweet contract himself. Subban, one of Montreal's four newly minted alternate captains -- this season the team has decided that nobody will wear the 'C'—was ticking all the leadership boxes: humility, respect, poise. As the 17-minute interview wound down, Lepage asked Subban, who can be grating on the ice, how he unnerves opponents.
From his home—the show was taped on Oct. 2—Subban texted Mathieu Darche, a former teammate.
"Listen to this line coming up. Ha Ha."
Unlike most elite defensemen, Subban is not a calming blue-line presence. He colors outside the lines. At his worst, when his enthusiasm trumps his judgment, he might give both teams a good chance to win. At his best, he is unconventional and fearless. Now Subban saw his opening, a chance to win the interview. ("I was giving fans what they wanted," he explained three weeks later. "Things you wouldn't get in a regular interview.") Subban launched into a Science Guy discourse about how the protein in his diet and the coffee he drinks before each game combine to produce gas, which he then emits in the vicinity of enemy goalies.
His calculatedly pungent remarks wafted across North America, all the way to St. Louis. "[Our coaches] were laughing, like, Did he really say that?" says Blues assistant coach Kirk Muller, who was a Canadiens assistant during Subban's rookie season in 2010--11. "[We'd] never heard anyone answer a question like that before. The only guy who would is P.K."
In the Bell Centre dressing room, accompanying a line from Ontario native John McCrae's World War I-era poem In Flanders Fields—TO YOU FROM FAILING HANDS WE THROW THE TORCH BE YOURS TO HOLD IT HIGH—are portraits of the 45 Canadiens players in the Hockey Hall of Fame. Subban sometimes scans the faces. "I don't know how many guys think they have an opportunity of being in that special group," he says. "I hope I do. That's my motivation." Subban pauses. He wants to make sure it sounds neither selfish nor boastful but right. "If I have that motivation, it can only help my team be successful."
Subban is at a corner table in a superb Japanese restaurant near downtown Montreal, a lunch reservation made by his personal assistant, his older sister Natasha. An 18-piece sashimi platter and three smartphones are arrayed before him. Being P.K. is never a bad thing, but it has also never been quite this good. In July he vacationed in Saint-Tropez. In August he signed his megadeal. In September, at the request of Spike Lee, Subban presented the director with an award at the Montreal International Black Film Festival. 60 Minutes is planning a story on Subban, despite the fact that, at least until the Canadiens win their 25th Stanley Cup, he is mostly famous for being famous.
Meanwhile Montreal leads the NHL and Subban has already scored one spectacular goal, a circle-the-net-and-dangle beauty during a 3--2 win over the Avalanche on Oct. 18. He also rocked the most fabulous costume at the team Halloween party—which he paid for and hosted—as a professional makeup artist transformed him into Michael Jackson (if Jackson had been 6 feet tall and a thick 217 pounds) from the "Thriller" video. As Subban attacked his sashimi, a line had already begun to form outside an electronics store three miles to the east, where he was scheduled to make a dinner-hour promotional appearance. There he met a steady stream of adoring fans, young and old, English and French. A young, tall brunette approached and said, "Let's step up our selfie game," and Subban obliged. As she left, she dropped a slip of paper on the table with her name, xox, the imprint of a red-lipstick kiss and a telephone number. As Karl Subban, P.K.'s father, says, "When they like you in Montreal, they like you a lot."
If you accept the Canadiens' poetic inclinations, the time line of the franchise can be charted as a torch relay of hockey exceptionalism. Starting in 1942 the metaphoric flame has passed from Maurice Richard to Jean Béliveau (in '53), to Guy Lafleur (in '71) and finally to Patrick Roy (in '85). Now after two mostly unexceptional decades (the Canadiens last won a Stanley Cup in '93), Subban has stooped, retrieved the flickering light and illuminated the city. Without his ever having won a Cup, and with just a single Norris Trophy to his credit in four full NHL seasons—"half a trophy," says Karl, noting that his son was voted the league's best defenseman in the lockout-shortened 2012--13 season—Subban's disproportionate popularity has made him the illogical successor to Quebec's homegrown hockey gods, who won a combined 20 Cups and 16 major trophies in Montreal: the Rocket, Le Gros Bill, the Flower and Saint Patrick. Subban just happens to be a different color, speak a different language and hail from the rival city of Toronto.
Subban is not even the best of the Canadiens; goalie Carey Price is. But that is incredibly beside the point. This is P.K.'s world, and everybody else is just feeding him for one-timers. He is a phenomenon, filling a void in a city that is reaching, or overreaching, for a hero. "The feedback [about Subban] from fans, through Twitter ... it's unbelievable, it's impressive," says Geoff Molson, the Canadiens' principal owner, whose family owned the team during parts of the Richard, Béliveau and Lafleur eras. In a city that venerates flair, Subban cuts across generational lines because he plays with a video-game edge that skews young while also rekindling soft-focus memories of the Canadiens' dynasty teams that racked up style points as well as Stanley Cups.
When the city holds a mirror to its best self, it sees a grinning Pernell Karl Subban.
"When was the last time the fans had a player who played with the same passion that they have for watching the game?" Subban wonders. "The fans see a player who understands what it means to wear the jersey. There's a difference between that and being a good hockey player. There've been games when they said P.K. didn't play his best, but there hasn't been a day they've booed me. People appreciate that I'm not scared to make a mistake. How many players have come through this organization and played scared? I'm just happy not to make a mistake so I'm not noticed.
"Me, on the other hand...."
Like his adopted, principally French-speaking province, Subban is distinct. He's built like no other elite defenseman, starting with his powerful wrists and freakishly long fingers, which are both instrumental in his ability to hammer pucks on net even when they are not lying flat. Subban inherited his outsized hands from his 6'3" father, who emigrated from Jamaica to the Ontario mining city of Sudbury at age 11 in 1970 and played basketball at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay. (The Subbans are an accomplished athletic family. P.K.'s mother, Maria, who was born in Monserrat and emigrated to Toronto when she was 11, also in '70, was a high school sprinter; his eldest sister, Nastassia, played basketball at York University in Toronto, and ended her career in 2004 having scored the third-most points in school history; younger brother Malcolm, a 20-year-old goalie, was the Bruins' first-round draft choice in 2012; and Jordan, a 19-year-old defenseman and the youngest of the five Subban children, was taken in the fourth round by the Canucks a year later.)
"That bomb from the point ... P.K.'s almost like that [character] from The Mighty Ducks, Fulton Reed," says Subban's friend Montreal defenseman Mike Weaver. "The difference is P.K. can skate." Subban is agile on his blades, more power than elegance. He often removes one hand from his stick while puckhandling and uses the other hand to fend off checkers, a habit that used to make former general manager Pierre Gauthier crazy. Sometimes when Subban wheels with one hand on the stick, his other will almost brush the ice, like a short-track speedskater's. He practically invites contact in the corners. He will slow, absorb a hit, control the puck and spin away from forecheckers. Says Kovalev, "He just plays like we used to play on the street."
But Subban is at his most unorthodox when bodychecking. He often delivers hits backward, a maneuver that has been out of fashion in the NHL since journeyman defenseman Gilles Marotte did it in the 1970s. With crossover strides and a quick pivot, Subban will slam his back and rump into puck carriers. The checks are literally breathtaking because he usually catches his targets in the chest. In December 2010 he nailed Boston's Brad Marchand with a punishing backdoor hit that left the Bruins' winger gasping. (During the Canadiens' home opener on Oct. 16, Marchand attempted a Bauer vasectomy on Subban, who crumpled to the ice when the stick speared his groin. Marchand received a slashing penalty while Subban was called for his scenery-chewing embellishment.)
Subban considers his checking style utilitarian, not flashy. "[If] you hit with your shoulder, that's a lot of force on an extremity," he says. "You don't want to go through a dislocated shoulder, labrum surgery, that garbage. Your butt and back are two of the strongest parts of your body." Subban has been a healthy scratch and missed the first six games of the 2012--13 season because of a contract dispute, but he has never missed a match because of injury.
Weaver says Subban took a shot off an ankle last season and the following day iced both ankles. "For like a month he was hobbling all over the room, making sure everybody saw it," Weaver says with a grin. "P.K. likes to put an accent on things—an accent aigu."
"All you have to do is watch our childhood videos," Subban says. "[It's] Malcolm's birthday and there I am, dancing in front of the camera. Hey, look at me, look at me. But for me it's not so much about the attention but the sense of accomplishment. I want to win a Cup. I want to be known as one of the best. Montreal's given me a great platform."
"He's a better player in Montreal than he would be in Nashville," Darche says. "The attention."
But many in the NHL take a dim view of what one Eastern Conference veteran calls Subban's "narcissism." In 2010, then Flyers captain Mike Richards excoriated Subban, saying, "He's a guy that's come to the league and hasn't earned respect. Hopefully someone on [his] team addresses it because ... something might happen to him if he continues to be that cocky."
A laundry list of Subban solecisms includes:
• During timeouts he will skate in tight circles and stare down the opposing bench. ("The notion is tough guys challenge the bench and skill players never do," he says. "I'm considered a skilled player, but I don't carry myself like a skilled player.")
• He joins postwhistle scrums as a peripheral figure. ("My team needs me on the ice," he says. "Even a trade-off of me and [Boston winger Milan] Lucic might not be fair for my team.")
• When challenged after his seismic checks, he rarely fights; he's had only 12 NHL bouts. ("I drop the gloves once in a while," he says.)
• His goal celebrations, which might include a Usain Bolt pose or ch logo popping, are excessive.
"There's a swagger to him that annoys some guys, the way he carries himself on the ice," Marchand says. "They see it as arrogance. But then all good players have some of that."
Subban certainly knows how to make an entrance. When the Canadiens took him in the second round in 2007—he was the 17th defenseman selected—Subban approached the draft table, shook hands all around and said, "You guys made the right choice." In his first NHL game, a 3--2 loss in Philadelphia in February '10, Subban challenged towering Flyers defenseman Chris Pronger, perhaps the nastiest player of his generation, during a scrum at the end of the third period. "He's got one guy in one hand and one guy in another," Subban says. "I come right in the middle, grab him and say, 'Let him go, let him go.' And he didn't say anything. I say, 'I'm not scared of you.' He says, 'God, your breath stinks. Can you get out of here?' "
Subban takes a swig of sparkling water and continues the story. "Next night we're playing them in Montreal. The puck gets rimmed out of the zone on a power play, and I'm in front of the Philly bench. I stop just before the red line, getting ready to rim it back around after our forwards tag up. As I'm winding up I look over, and the player coming out of the [penalty] box is Pronger. All I see coming over my shoulder is orange. He's coming to kill me. So I follow through with my shot and as I recoil, I kinda duck down over my right shoulder and slip out of a check as he starts to throw it. He trips over my back leg and falls into the boards face-first. As I'm backing away, I see [Flyers wing] Ian Laperrière, and he's got a funny face, like, Oh, my God. And I'm laughing and Pronger's yelling, 'You bailed! You bailed!' If you can believe, the words out of my mouth were 'Suck it, Prongs.' "
With Montreal trailing the Flames 2-0 after the first period in Calgary on Oct. 9, 2013, Michel Therrien summoned Subban and defense partner Josh Gorges into his office. The coach, however, addressed only Subban.
Therrien: "Is this summer f------ hockey that I didn't f------ know?"
Therrien: "Is this a charity game?"
Subban stumbled through an answer before Therrien interjected, "Skate! Move the f------ puck. You're not f------ there. I know you're not there. I told the guys before the game, he's not there. Just the way he practiced yesterday, he's not going to be there. Same thing today."
NHL coaches have colorfully chastised players during intermissions for roughly, well, forever, but this was different: TV cameras had captured the moment. More important, these were the Canadiens' own cameras, shooting the club-produced 24CH series, which airs on Canadian sports networks RDS and TSN. GM Marc Bergevin vets all content of the weekly behind-the-scenes show—this is state-sponsored media—and did not red-flag the reprimand, a decision widely interpreted as a subliminal message to Subban about his unreliability rather than simply a peek behind the closed door of nightly NHL life. Molson says that the team "probably learned from the experience it was a little too much reality TV." Even more curious, Subban says that Bergevin cleared the snippet with him. "I didn't want to be the guy who'd say you can or can't air it," Subban says. "It's your show."
On a Thursday in late October, Therrien is at his desk at Montreal's suburban practice facility. Behind the bench, his expression fits neatly into that slot between mournful acceptance and pained stoicism. Now his broad face is merry, almost playful. "Let's put it this way," Therrien says, "I have more meetings with P.K. about teaching the game than [with] a lot of the guys. P.K. needs to be pushed at times. We all know we have a special player. And I have a vision for him. I told him he has the potential to be one of the top D in the league, both ways. We're going to work to that."
Therrien, who had previously coached the Canadiens from 2000 to '03 before coaching the Penguins from '05 to '09, returned to Montreal in June '12 after scouting and working as an analyst for RDS. In one of his first meetings with the team's veterans, he told them that he, not they, would monitor Subban. In February 2013, when Subban reported to a muted reception from his teammates after having missed the first two weeks of the truncated season because of a contract dispute, the coach told him the same thing. The previous season there had been "turmoil," in Bergevin's words, throughout the organization, and Subban was bobbing in the roiling waters. In '11--12 he had fought seven times -- three times in games and four in practices, scuffling with teammates Darche, David Desharnais, Louis Leblanc and Tomas Plekanec.
For Subban's veteran teammates, including current Stars winger Erik Cole, the root issues were his lack of "consistency" and "professionalism," code for punctuality in the clockwork world of professional sports. "There was a stretch where he was great on the ice and almost gave off a [vibe that] he didn't care off it," says Cole, who was hard on Subban. "There was a home game [in 2011-12]. A Saturday. He came in at 9:45, walked in pretty casual, like, What's going on? It's halfway through the year, bud. We always have 9:30 meetings. That morning some of the vets let [interim coach Randy Cunneyworth] know they'd appreciate something in the way of discipline. Not the first time it'd happened. He'd had a couple of free passes. Cunney said to just focus on the game. It made a lot of guys feel like P.K. could do no wrong. That can create an imbalance in the locker room."
Therrien indeed has handled Subban himself, starting with banning the triple-low-five that the defenseman and Price did after victories, a move mimicked in every schoolyard and rink in the city. On occasion the coach has told Subban that he might be better suited to play forward, not exactly a compliment for a Norris Trophy winner. Before the Sochi Olympics, Therrien initially declined to stump for his player's inclusion on Team Canada, saying, "It's not for me to say. I'm in charge of the Montreal Canadiens." (Passive, meet aggressive.) Therrien eventually offered belated support, saying, "When I felt he was playing both sides of the ice, I got his back." Subban made the team as Canada's eighth defenseman, skating 11:41 in a 6-0 rout of Austria, his only game of the tournament. "I thought it was a great growing experience for P.K.," Team Canada coach Mike Babcock says. "He handled himself with so much class. Great teammate. Positive. Energetic. Trained hard every day."
Subban finished 2013-14 with 10 goals and 53 points in 82 games, which was down from the 11 goals and 38 points in 42 games that he had when he won the Norris the season before. He was also -4 after being +12 in '12-13. Still, in relative Corsi, an analytic that attempts to measure the effectiveness of a player in driving possession relative to his teammates, Subban ranked 11th among NHL defensemen, an indication that his season was not entirely bleak. "It just seemed there was always something going on," Subban says. "Always something about P.K. Always negatives. It's a miracle I played as well as I played. I mean the playoffs were me saying enough's enough."
In the second-round series against the Bruins—after chipping in five assists in a Round 1 sweep of the Lightning—Subban had some of his grandest moments, on and off the ice. Game 1 in Boston opened with Karl buying a CANADIEN DIVE TEAM T-shirt adorned with Subban's number 76 outside TD Garden and then mingling with delighted fans, and ended with his son's power-play winner (his second goal of the night) in the fifth minute of double overtime. In the hours that followed, Twitter exploded with racist comments. Two days later, after a 5-3 Game 2 loss, Subban faced questions about the social media eruption. In words that were extraordinarily wise for a player who had always been skewered for immaturity, Subban absolved the Bruins' organization, the city of Boston and the NHL, and he praised the Hub's passionate fans. This was a Gallic shrug from the illogical successor to the Flying Frenchmen. He had defused the situation. He had skated past the noise.
In the last minute of the Bruins' 4-2 win in Game 5, moments after Subban had closed the scoring with a power-play goal—a one-timer from the high slot—enforcer Shawn Thornton squirted a water bottle in Subban's face as he lugged the puck past the Boston bench. (Thornton was fined $2,820.52.) "From a Boston perspective, I'll say he's a dynamic player, agitating, very effective," says Thornton, now with the Panthers. "His antics are a little bit exaggerated. I'll also say he was the best player in the series." Therrien agrees; Subban scored four goals and had three assists in the second round. "When it's time to play big games, he plays big games," says the coach. "Him and Price were our best players." Montreal beat the Bruins 3-1 in Game 7 in Boston. For the Canadiens, it was almost as satisfying as winning the Stanley Cup.
"Racist tweets, booed in Boston, all the Bruins players wanted to kill him," Darche says. "A lot of guys would crumble under that pressure. But for P.K., it's just fuel."
Subban also has this in common with the Canadiens' other torchbearers: The relationship between the team and its most popular player hasn't been all lollipops and rainbows. GM Tommy Gorman wanted to trade Richard early in his career because Gorman considered the Rocket injury-prone. By 1984, coach Jacques Lemaire had no use for an aging Lafleur, the right wing on Lemaire's line in the late '70s, hastening Lafleur's departure from Montreal and subsequent dotage seasons with the Rangers and the Nordiques. In December '95, Roy demanded a trade mid-game when he was left in goal by coach Mario Tremblay during a blowout; he was obliged days later.
In Subban's case, contract negotiations have been civic psychodramas. Although he wanted to sign long-term in 2012, he ultimately accepted a two-year "bridge deal" worth $5.75 million that expired last spring. A restricted free agent this past summer, Subban had wanted to re-up with a deal for the eight-year maximum, but in-season negotiations between his agent, Don Meehan, and Bergevin faltered. On July 5, Subban filed for arbitration, along with 19 other NHL players.
His was the only one of those that actually was heard. In every other instance, players and teams were able to come to terms before they had to sit down together.
Subban insisted on attending the Aug. 1 hearing because he wanted to hear every word, all the team's criticisms and cavils -- the eighth-best defenseman in Canada, a minus player, whatever. Arbitration hearings are unpleasant, but Subban recognized them for exactly what they are: business. He exited the room grim-faced but later conceded to a friend that he thought the Canadiens' critique could have been even worse.
The game of contract chicken went into overtime. The collective bargaining agreement allows for a 48-hour negotiating window following arbitration hearings. If Montreal and Subban could not reach a deal, he would play for one year at the arbitrator's number, presumably face the same dance next summer and then be eligible for unrestricted free agency in 2016. Of course by then he might have been gone—Bergevin likely would have made a preemptive trade before Subban had a chance to walk. The clock was ticking on Subban's Montreal love affair.
Moments after the hearing, Molson contacted Subban. They spoke that night. Within 24 hours Subban had signed—for the maximum eight years—a deal that exceeded the annual average value of those of star defensemen Zdeno Chara, Drew Doughty, Duncan Keith and Shea Weber. "We wanted to get it done," Molson says, "and a big effort was made in order to get it done."
Did he overrule his GM?
"I would never do that."
Says Subban, "I spoke to Geoff on that day and before the arbitration process, and he made it clear to me that I'd be a Montreal Canadien for a very long time. He told me that, and he was a man of his word."
Seventy-five seconds left in regulation at the Bell Centre on Oct. 21 in a 1-1 game. The Red Wings' Drew Miller carries the puck down the left boards, one-on-one against the Canadiens' right defenseman. The smart play for Subban, the safe play, is to stand up, impede Miller and force a dump-in, but Subban chooses to line up Miller for a hip-check instead. Timing off, skates angled to the boards, Subban misses, and Miller slithers past, throwing the puck into the slot, creating a glorious game-winning scoring chance that Detroit does not cash.
Back on the Montreal bench, Subban beckons J.J. Daigneault, who coaches the Canadiens' defensemen. Subban asks, "Why do I keep doing that?"
Instead of obliging with a blistering evaluation of Subban's blunder, Daigneault merely taps him on the shoulder, a sweet gesture of absolution.
And that is the ineluctable truth about the marvelous and occasionally maddening P.K.: Montreal cannot stay angry at him. In the first minute of overtime, Subban's laser from the point caroms off of Red Wings goalie Jimmy Howard and, eventually on a rebound, to the stick of Desharnais, who backhands home the winner.
Subban has a worrisome 12 minors through 19 games, tied for third most in the NHL, including five in the offensive zone and two that negated power plays -- and he has not been as effective getting pucks from the point through the thicket of penalty killers, one reason the Canadiens' power play ranks 27th in the league. But the dynamic elements of his game and the honor of his intentions always seem to win out. Subban had two poor games in early November, echoes of a 7-1 loss in Tampa Bay on Oct. 13 in which he took a soft interference penalty that led directly to a power-play goal and, when he was caught out on a long shift, was beaten wide by winger Ryan Callahan, who scored. After the game, in which Tampa star Steven Stamkos had a hat trick, Subban told the media, "Obviously he scored some goals out there tonight. We know he can do that. Our team, when we're playing well -- i.e., in the playoffs last year when we faced them -- [is] a lot better than we were tonight.... I'd tell Steven to enjoy it because next time it's not going to happen."
Question: What hockey player actually would use the expression "i.e." in conversation?
Answer: The same highbrow, lowbrow, bold and exasperating player who would go on a popular talk show and talk about gut-check time.