The Big Bang: A frenzied 23 minutes in June changed the outlook of the season
- Two monumental trades and one signing altered the NHL landscape and the lives of some of the league's biggest stars.
This story appeared in the Oct. 10, 2016 issue of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. Subscribe to the magazine by clicking here.
Around 3 p.m. EST on June 29, right before the news struck like claps of thunder—or, in one particular case, a bolt of Lightning—P.K. Subban was sipping red wine and studying the dinner menu at an upscale restaurant in Paris. North of his off-season home, Steven Stamkos had just teed off on the 15th hole at Goodwood Golf Club in Stouffville, Ont., and judged that it was his best drive of the summer. Across the continent, in British Columbia, Shea Weber was busy catching waves on the waters of Okanagan Lake. His cellphone, stashed away ashore, was starting to buzz.
Consider this: Had the NHL simply returned to its usual summer rhythm after the Oilers’ trade of winger Taylor Hall (the No. 1 pick in 2010) for Devils defenseman Adam Larsson (No. 4 in ’11) broke at 3:34 p.m., talking heads and fans would have considered themselves well-fed. Instead, six minutes before the hour, an even bigger blockbuster hit Twitter—Subban to Nashville, Weber to Montreal, a straight-up swap of the league’s two highest-paid defensemen, made even more intriguing by their divergent playing styles and dispositions. “People said it was a hockey trade,” Subban says. “I think it’s the furthest from that. I think it was a personality trade.”
Four minutes later, word leaked that Stamkos had re-signed with Tampa Bay for eight years and $68 million, far less than what he could have reaped in free agency. Even Lightning teammates were stunned. “I thought we lost him there for a while,” defenseman Anton Stralman says, “just because it was dragging on for so long.”
The contract had actually been signed that morning, and Stamkos hit the links to celebrate. But after that pristine drive on 15, he spent the rest of the round fielding calls from his golf cart. “My phone was blowing up left, right and center,” he says. “Some of it congratulating me. Some of it, Hey, did you see the trades?” And suddenly, what began as a merely buzz-worthy stretch had evolved into something unforgettable—shocking on many levels, breathtaking in pace and recoloring the NHL landscape in one midsummer day’s craze.
Inside the hotel restaurant near the Eiffel Tower, P.K. Subban flashed the text to his friend across the table. It was from Montreal’s general manager, Marc Bergevin. “Call me ASAP,” it read.
Three days earlier Subban had flown to Paris finally relieved of anxiety. The hum about potential moves that had pervaded draft weekend seemed to have subsided. The no-trade clause on his contract would activate on July 1, at which point he would be sailing on a yacht near Dubrovnik, Croatia. “At the airport he could relax his shoulders,” says Chris O’Sullivan, his dinner companion and an Islanders pro scout. “Like he had weathered the storm.”
A 27-year-old bachelor, Subban would later liken his separation from the Canadiens to a divorce after a long marriage, in which the couple “traveled the world and did everything together” yet still drifted apart. That was not how he felt about the city of Montreal. There fans gushed over their All-Star blueliner and biggest personality—for his stylish suits and fedoras; for how the Toronto native learned passable French; for three straight 50-point seasons; for his charitable work, highlighted by his foundation’s $10 million pledge to Montreal Children’s Hospital in September ’14.
In August, when Subban guest-hosted a gala at the 34th annual Just for Laughs showcase, the world’s largest comedy festival, two unofficial records were set: most press credentials issued and longest standing ovation, at more than two minutes. “Over the past six years, almost every single person in this city has embraced me with open arms,” he said to the Montreal crowd. “And the ones who didn’t, well those are the people that traded me, right?”
The best jokes are often rooted in painful truths, and indeed, the relationship between Subban and the Canadiens had always been . . . complicated. There was the contract holdout in 2013 and the arbitration hearing two seasons later—clashes that a Subban friend says “can leave a scar.” There was coach Michel Therrien’s subdued advocacy of Subban for the ’14 Canadian Olympic team and the team’s ban on the signature victory celebration he shared with goalie Carey Price. (“Now I’m free to do as many triple-low-fives as I want,” Subban told the Just for Laughs audience.)
In any market, small or large, these issues would have drawn attention; in Montreal they shot up like flares. “The city’s consumed by hockey,” says Mathieu Darche, an ex-Habs teammate who remains close to Subban. “P.K. will sneeze and the coach will look at him a certain way on the bench, and it’s a story.” Even the players’ nomination of captain Max Pacioretty for the King Clancy Trophy, which honors both “leadership qualities” and humanitarian contributions, was spun as a slight against Subban and his $10 million donation. (For his part, Subban said he voted for Pacioretty—“almost twice.”)
There was a disconnect on the ice, too. Consider last Feb. 17, late in the third period of a tie game at Colorado. Subban carried the puck just inside the blue line and tried to round the corner on his backhand. Instead, he lost possession and crashed into the boards, gifting the Avalanche an odd-man rush and the eventual winning goal. Later Subban shrugged off the error, seeing little wrong with his intent. Therrien took an alternate view. Speaking to reporters, he blasted the “selfish play that cost us the game.” (The Canadiens declined to make Bergevin, Therrien or any team official available to comment for this story.)
“It’s a fine line—wanting to be who you are and accepting to play within the team structure,” Darche says. “I think it’s harsh to say that Montreal didn’t embrace him. Montreal’s just a very conservative organization.” Darche sees the inherent conflict. “But why change the guy? P.K. is good because of his personality, because he doesn’t care if he makes a mistake. Eight times out of 10 it’ll work, and it’ll help the team win.”
Stepping out of the restaurant, Subban began making calls—first to his agent; next to Bergevin; then to Therrien; and finally to Predators GM David Poile. In true Subbanian form, he took time in between to snap selfies with passing fans. After hanging up with Poile, he also made three tourists the first outsiders to learn the news. When they shouted, “Hey! P.K.! Montreal!” he replied, “Not anymore. I just got traded to Nashville!”
Subban would have fun with the unusual scene, quipping to reporters that the trade had rudely interrupted his meal. (“Most guys would say I’m devastated, here I am saying I’m rattled because my foie gras was getting cold,” he says later.) But internally he was speeding through the grief process. “Probably 60 to 90 minutes was, S---, I’m not a Canadien anymore,” O’Sullivan says. “Then it turned to excitement for Nashville.” Before sitting back to dinner, Subban insisted on tweeting a thank-you video for Habs faithful, which O’Sullivan filmed in the stairwell leading to the bathroom. The next morning, they flew to Croatia and sailed into the Adriatic.
“I’ll never know the full reason of why they traded me,” Subban says now. “I don’t really care, to be honest with you. I gave anything I humanly possibly could to that city, to that organization, while I was a Montreal Canadien. And if that wasn’t enough, what can I do? I’ll move forward.”
Reflecting on June 29, though, Subban has reached one conclusion. It was among his first thoughts in those early moments, right after his agent delivered the news, when he says he began grasping the magnitude of what happened. “I firmly believe that if Nashville didn’t want to trade Shea Weber,” he says, “I would not have been traded.”
As Subban finally ordered dinner, Weber was pulling the tarp over his Malibu Wakesetter. Until that moment, he had zero reason to suspect life-changing news was on the horizon.
Since 2003, when the Predators drafted him 49th overall, Weber had become their most decorated player and in ’10, their captain. He made four All-Star teams and won two Olympic golds with Team Canada. His 44 power-play goals since ’11–12 are a dozen more than any other NHL defenseman’s. “Shea’s been the image of that team for a long time,” says Buffalo’s Cody Franson, a childhood friend. “He’s brought that grit element, the All-Star defenseman element, the tough-to-play-against element.”
This identity formed early. Growing up in British Columbia, Weber spent his summers working manual labor jobs, washing houseboats, picking chicken eggs or shoveling cow dung. During youth hockey games against Weber’s teams, fellow skaters would ask that Franson avoid passing to the big kid’s side: “I don’t want to go down his wall.”
“He’s got that stare,” says Jeff Truitt, who coached Weber in Canadian juniors. “He’s got the intensity to him. Plus he’s got the power to back it up.” NHL opponents share similar fears of the 6' 4", 236-pound Weber, whom Team Canada and Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock recently gave a memorable tag: Man Mountain.
“A huge, huge part of keeping Nashville going in the right direction—strong on and off the ice,” Poile says.
So unlike Subban, Weber awoke on June 29 without any hints of the coming thunder. His contract didn’t carry a no-trade clause, but security seemed baked in anyway. It had only been reinforced eight days before, when Weber dined with one of Nashville’s owners and the team’s CEO in Las Vegas while accepting the NHL’s Mark Messier Award for leadership. Though the season had ended in Game 7 of the second round—Weber finished –3 in a 5–0 loss to the Sharks—the message was overwhelmingly positive. “They were singing his praises, saying how they were going to spend more money and take a run,” says Shea’s father, James. “The way it all fell into place probably picks at him a little bit.”
The words were not disingenuous at the time. Only later that week, at the NHL draft in Buffalo, did Poile first approach Bergevin. The Canadiens, reeling from a 28-point drop in the standings, were already trending toward a grittier identity, having added winger Andrew Shaw. Now Poile dangled a three-time Norris Trophy finalist known for physical defensive-zone coverage, cannonball slappers and a quiet-but-firm disposition that harmonized with Montreal’s ethos in a way Subban’s never did.
“They have opposite personalities,” says Colorado’s Blake Comeau, a former teammate in juniors. “P.K. has the popularity thing down to a tee. That’s not Shea, and that’s totally fine.”
Indeed, Subban broadcasts his adventures to 895,000-plus Twitter followers and more than 530,000 on Instagram. Weber’s father, on the other hand, recalls the time their hometown of Sicamous named a street after Shea. “They presented the whole street sign and pole to him at the Canada Day celebrations,” James says. “He was embarrassed by the attention. Once he got down off the stage and out of the limelight, he relaxes a little more.”
The immediate post-trade reaction largely favored Nashville’s haul, juxtaposing the 31-year-old Weber against his younger, sleeker counterpart. “It’s a one-for-one trade. Obviously he was liked a lot in Montreal, so you expect that’s coming.” Weber says. “At the end of the day, we’re not the same people, we’re not the same player. There’s no point in even comparing us.”
It’s the first Monday in September. Weber is sitting in his stall at Ottawa’s Canadian Tire Centre, where the national team is holding its 2016 World Cup of Hockey training camp. (Subban was not selected by its Canada’s management group, which included Bergevin.) Over the next month, Weber finished second on the team in average ice time (21:49), helped lock down Russia’s star-studded top line (Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Vladimir Tarasenko) in a semifinal win, and earned that new nickname from Babcock.
This all left little time for Weber and his family to acclimate themselves with Montreal. “Haven’t really settled in yet,” he says. “Haven’t been there long enough.” But change can happen in baby steps. Weber bought a house this summer, near the practice rink where many Canadiens players live. He was excited about joining the locker room fantasy football league as a way to bond. The day of the trade, he remembers how Price, Shaw, Pacioretty and forward Brendan Gallagher each called to welcome him. A common theme emerged.
“You think you’re going to be with one team for your whole career,” Weber says. “Then you hear how excited these guys are, so you get anxious and excited to move forward. You’ve just got to realize that they want you.”
Subban describes reaching a similar emotional crossroads within those first hours, and in this way he and Weber aren’t so different; both were dealt, but to places that desired their specific services. This does, however, separate them from another fellow Canadian, currently sitting across from Weber in the locker room in Ottawa—the only main character from June 29 who entered the next chapter of his life by simply staying put.
The closer July 1 came the more signs of stress Teddy Purcell saw, in that clairvoyant way only close friends can. Distracted looks. Nervous ticks. How his former Lightning teammate set early bedtimes yet still awoke exhausted. The way Steven Stamkos steered every conversation, no matter the initial topic, back to hockey. “I don’t want to say he wasn’t enjoying his summer, but he was off, and reasonably so,” says Purcell, a Kings forward. “Every day it was on his mind.”
Much of this was owed to the crescendoing public clamor around it—Stamkos’s choice between staying with Tampa and entering unrestricted free agency on July 1. In 2014, after LeBron James rejoined the Cavaliers, the Markham, Ont., native started getting asked about a similar homecoming with the Leafs, even though his contract wouldn’t expire for another two years. Last December, during a game at the Air Canada Centre, Toronto’s local TSN radio affiliate printed and distributed signs reading SIGN STAMKOS. The Hockey News dedicated the cover of its free agency issue to a picture of six Steven Stamkoses, each Photoshopped into the jersey of a prospective suitor. “Everybody had an opinion,” says Gary Roberts, Stamkos’s off-season trainer and an ex-teammate, “and I think he was working through those emotions.”
Some of the pressure, however, stemmed from Stamkos’s distinctive inability to, as Purcell puts it, “do anything half-assed.” There are funny examples of this, such as how he preys on inexperienced fantasy owners in Tampa’s locker-room leagues. (“He stole Mike Trout from me,” defenseman Victor Hedman laments.) Or how he often wanders into the training room to peer over MRI results or examine teammates getting stitches. “It’s an ongoing joke—Dr. Stamkos is coming to check out your X-ray,” he says.
In November 2013, Stamkos fractured his right leg by crashing into a goal post. Before surgery, he started YouTubing videos of tibial nail insertions, watching what he would undergo. “Gruesome stuff,” he says. Five games before the regular season ended last April, doctors found blood clots between his collarbone and uppermost rib, a condition known as effort thrombosis, which can result from overworked shoulders. So while the Lightning romped into the Eastern Conference finals, Stamkos was calling doctors, studying surgical options, personally electing an aggressive venous reconstruction that required longer recovery but would limit future symptoms, and injecting himself twice a day with blood thinners.
Naturally, once the clots healed and Stamkos returned in a dramatic season-ending Game 7 loss to Pittsburgh, he paid the same attention to what he calls “probably the biggest decision” of his life. He met frequently with his agents, returning home with spreadsheets, folders and a small black notebook filled with thoughts. “He’d write down the pros and cons of everything in there,” says Purcell, who was spending the week at Stamkos’ house. “Weather. Travel. Taxes. Chance to win. Who he’d fit in with. How’s the power play? Who’s retiring soon? Who are the young guys? . . . ”
“Nothing wrong with just getting as much information as possible,” Stamkos says. “When you get to that stage, you had to make sure you had all your options open if you were going to veer from that path.”
Indeed, staying seemed like the obvious choice. In the eight years since they selected him with the No. 1 pick, the Lightning have become perennial contenders. Including Stamkos, they sent 12 players to the World Cup, tops in the NHL. And even without him—their highest goal scorer (36 in 2015–16), power-play triggerman (14 goals), ice time leader among forwards (19:45), and, depending on coach Jon Cooper’s deployment, top-line center or wing — they finished one win short of a second straight Stanley Cup finals berth. “It’s right there,” Stamkos says of the Cup. “You can taste it.”
Stamkos, who arrived in Tampa Bay as a teenager, once found the sunny, serene Floridian lifestyle to be “a culture shock.” Now, he feels rooted there. He’s lived in the same gated community for eight years, even though all the other hockey players had moved out. He likes that neighbors at the dog park know him as Steven. “It’s tough to picture yourself somewhere else,” he says.
But the longer his camp and Tampa GM Steve Yzerman remained apart on terms, the more change seemed inevitable. When the free-agency interview period opened, on June 25, the Sabres cast their nets first. The next day, the Leafs involved city mayor John Tory in their pitch, and San Jose and Montreal reportedly followed suit. Talks weren’t budging with the Lighting either. “Really at that point we had assumed he was going to free agency,” Yzerman says.
In reality, Stamkos was torn. “Something would come up, and he’d be like, I’m done, I’m leaving,” Purcell says. “Then they’d circle back.”
That Stamkos settled for $8.5 million annually, far below market value and reportedly equal to the offer Yzerman initially made in January, suggests that due diligence and gut feeling tugged him back. The morning of June 29, Stamkos faxed the signed contract from his home office. He and some buddies played Goodwood—or at least, most of Goodwood—in the afternoon. At night, they lit a bonfire in his backyard, poured champagne and toasted to eight more years in the same place. Purcell says his friend looked unburdened. “After getting courted,” Purcell says, “sometimes the grass isn’t always greener.”
The straw mat on the front stoop reads WELCOME, and sure enough the front door opens to reveal Subban, arms wide and smiling. He’s wearing a black T-shirt with a silhouette of his (metaphorically) trademarked shoot-out-the-lights goal celebration printed on the front; on the back is his (literally, in Canada) trademarked slogan: CHANGE THE GAME.
It’s a Wednesday, exactly 11 weeks PST—Post Subban Trade—and his third official day living full-time in Tennessee. Aside from some furniture left by the old tenant, the rental house, in the Nashville suburb of Brentwood, is relatively empty. But a decorator is coming tomorrow, and an 80-inch flatscreen will be installed in the man cave over the weekend. For now, Subban has only the bare essentials—a juicer for fresh fruits, a cooler for nice wine, a cowboy hat on the bedroom dresser.
“Dude, I’m telling you,” he says, wandering into the kitchen, “I’m so excited about what we can do here in this city.” Just ask the late-morning patrons at Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, an iconic honky-tonk along the main drag, who heard Subban sing Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” on his first visit as a Predator in July. Or the nighttime crowd, in August, who heard him belt Biggie. “I promise you, he’ll be singing at the Grand Ole Opry next,” Darche says.
Like Weber and his new team, the totality of Subban appears to fit in the Music City, a place where, as Weber notes, “people come to become famous.” In Peter Laviolette’s system he’ll be encouraged to lead rushes by carrying the puck, one of several sleek skaters on perhaps the league’s most dynamic blue line. “We don’t want to put on the brakes,” the coach told Subban after the trade. Poile, meanwhile, has hardly contained his excitement. “There hasn’t been a game I’ve ever seen P.K. play where I didn’t say wow at some point,” he says. The love resonates with Subban: “Listen, you’re replacing the guy who’s the leader of this team [in Weber]. Before I even play, to hear the GM is not only confident in my abilities to help this team win hockey games, but is a fan…it’s music to my ears.”
In mid-August, during Subban’s second trip to town, he and members of his “team”—a marketing manager, business manager and others—met with Predators staffers for two hours, batting around ideas for charitable events and promotions. (One involves the creation of P.K.-themed emojis.) It was a level of collaboration Subban always wanted. “I think it just opened the lines of communication,” he says. “If you want to be involved, be involved. Write a check, partner with me, whatever. Listen, the Nashville Predators said, ‘P.K., we want to be involved.’ That’s the most productive way to do it. I never did that in Montreal.”
He walks barefoot onto the back patio, plenty of room for the hot tub he plans to purchase. It’s just one of many tasks, big and small, that come with what he calls “by far the greatest change of events in my life.” Install cable. Memorize the route to the rink. Help Nashville past the conference semis for the first time in team history. CHANGE THE GAME for a market that’s never had a sports star this radiant. Perform at the Grand Ole Opry.
For now, in the late-summer heat, Subban tilts his head back and breathes in deeply. “It’s quiet,” he says. “It’s perfect.” June 29 was a long time ago.