The wording for the title of this piece was chosen very cautiously; at no point will I say to you that PK Subban should be your favorite player, or that he is mine, and I certainly will not pontificate to you that he is the best player in the league. However, what I will say to you is that he is a breath of fresh air that the NHL desperately needs, thus making him essential to the growth of the game south of the border.
Hockey, perhaps more than any other sport, loves tradition. It loves to remember its past, the teams, moments and superstars that paved the way for this generation of players. However, hockey and some of its fans have a habit of going too far with their tradition-loving, turning themselves into relics of the past.
Tradition in sports in something that should be honored and respected. It should be used to inspire and to guide the way for the new guard to take the reigns. However, hockey is the only sport where that old guard doesn’t seem to want the younger generation to change anything, to do things their own way, to blaze their own trail, and capture the hearts and minds of the viewers in a way totally unique and fresh. In every sport, legends are remembered for what they did, and enshrined for their accolades, but, at least most of the time, are not intentionally brought up to overshadow the current crop of athletes and personalities.
And this is where Subban comes into play. PK represents a new breed of not only NHL players but characters. A perfect example of what I was just talking about with the old guard trying to maintain their past status quo and not wanting the game ever to break the mold is Mike Milbury. Now yes, Milbury is, at best, a divisive figure in the sports broadcasting landscape. However, he is there nonetheless and can voice his opinions. During this past year’s Stanley Cup playoffs, Milbury tore into Subban during the intermission discussion. Now, this is the same Mike Milbury who hopped the glass in one of the most infamously cringe-worthy moments in hockey history and attacked a fan in the stands. So surely, if a man with the high level of dignity and grace that is needed to assault a paying customer with his own shoe is calling you out in such a fashion, then you must have done something pretty vile and despicable. Did Subban blindside an unsuspecting member of the St. Louis Blues with a dirty, cheap hit to the head? Nope. Actually, Blues’ defender ended the postseason for Subban’s teammate Kevin Fiala after a hit to the back. Oh, the irony. Anyway, did Subban use a homophobic slur against an opponent or referee? Nope. Though there is a lot of back and forth and likely some profanity and f-bombs on the ice in the heat of battle, surely, all there is to be heard is bad breath comments, right Ryan Getzlaf and Kevin Pillar? The point is, Subban did neither of these things, so what exactly was the deplorable act that prompted Milbury’s tirade calling Subban “a clown”? He lightly danced and bobbed his head during warmups to the music being played in the arena. That’s it.
I don’t want to give much credit to Milbury’s comments or skills as a broadcaster because, well, he deserves about as much respect for those skills as a dog deserves for his skills to pilot an airplane. However, there was a lesson to be learned from these comments and the reaction. The response to these comments was largely anti-Milbury, thankfully, with the majority of people not having any issue with Subban enjoying the tunes at Scottrade Center during the pregame skate, accepting it as his way of getting himself ready. However, take a look at almost any NHL player sometime during an interview, or just in everyday life. There doesn’t seem to be too much exciting to them or their personalities, aside from their skills as an athlete. However, a select few players are unable to hold back their giant personas, and the NHL and its supporters need to start seeing that as a good thing.
Think back to the 2016 NHL Entry Draft, which was headlined by Auston Matthews and Patrik Laine. The latter came out before the draft and said that he felt he was going to be the best player out of his draft class when it was all said and done. He did not mention that Matthews, Jesse Puljujarvi, Pierre-Luc Dubois, Olli Juolevi or Matthew Tkachuk would not be great players, he only said he thought he would end up being the best. What happened? To put it mildly, he got some heat for it. So many people through their arms in the air, saying he is disrespecting the rest of his draft class and that he was too arrogant, despite the fact he said nothing to the detriment of anyone else in the class. Secondly, in regards to him having an ego, I will say this, I am not an NHL head coach, clearly, however, if I am, I do not want a player, especially one of such a high caliber, to come into a season doubting himself, or not feeling like he is ready to make an impact, or not believing he is good enough. I want a player who is going to work his tail off, but who also believes in his abilities and that if he executes his game, he will have tremendous success. To me, Laine’s comments were something I’d want to hear from each one of my draft picks, especially my first rounders.
Anyway, back to PK, this is where I present the thesis of my argument based on my reasoning. I believe that you could make an argument for Jonathan Toews, Sidney Crosby, Connor McDavid or Carey Price as the best player in the league. However, the most important? The most crucial to the growth and long-term success of the game? The one you want every other player to be a little more similar to? Well, my friends, that should be PK. Firstly, let’s clear something up; just because you are flamboyant, fun-loving and a little cocky, does not mean you are a bad person. In fact, if you are going to criticize PK for who he is and the bold personality he has, then you are the arrogant one for trying to control a free spirit and tell him how he should act, dress, talk and think. I’m looking at you, Michel Therrien and Marc Bergevin.
In Montreal, PK was the same guy he is now; he had the bright suits, the fancy hats, and the suave swagger. However, while he loved to be overzealous in the locker room, which may have rubbed some guys the wrong way, he was an incredibly beloved figure within the community. No matter what anyone says about him, though, he is one of the most generous guys I have seen, at least in the NHL in a while, after pledging to donate $10 million to a local children’s hospital. He has an aura about him that makes people gravitate towards him. And when the Habs decided that they had the pieces to contend for a championship (oh yeah, by the way, they don’t, not even close), the traded Subban to Nashville for veteran blueliner Shea Weber. Now I love Weber, I think he is an incredible leader, one of the best in hockey, and still, in his mid-30’s is contributing at a high level. However, there are several issues with Weber on Montreal. Firstly, even though he’s still great, he isn’t quite on the level he was even just a couple of years ago, which is mainly due to age. And that is something that will continue to happen, especially now that he is in a place where his responsibilities are a lot greater than they were in Nashville. After Weber, the Canadiens de Mont Royale just do not have very much talent on the blueline. Karl Alzner is a fine top four guy but is like Weber in that his defensive game is better than his puck-moving ability, which is the case for virtually everyone on the back end, which isn’t good for a team that has what I can only describe as an anemic offense. Not to mention that the game of hockey is going to a more skills-based, fast-paced, high-tempo style. Does such a style of play sound familiar? It might because that is an excellent description of the game that Subban plays. On a team where he had some actual support with the likes of Mattias Ekholm, Roman Josi, and Ryan Ellis, Subban could play his game and not have to do everything himself, which ended up taking the Predators to the Stanley Cup finals riding the wave of their defense leading the offensive charge.
Which brings us here, where Subban not only solidified the high-octane style of play on the Preds’ backend, but whose personality captivated the folks in Nashville and turned that city that was long thought to be a dead market into one of the craziest buildings in the league. Sure, it isn’t just Subban, of course, but he is a big part of this equation. And that is what the league needs, that is what those dead markets need. You can have as a good a team as you want in Arizona; people just don’t have the interest in hockey there. However, what if you plopped PK Subban in Arizona? Maybe it wouldn’t make as much of a difference considering the Coyotes likely will never work in Arizona no matter what Gary Bettman wants, but winning certainly didn’t do much because the Coyotes made it to the Western conference finals in 2012 and were kicked out of Phoenix less than three years after. What if Aaron Ekblad had the personality of PK in Florida? Or Jeff Skinner in Carolina? Or Nikita Kucherov in Tampa Bay? These markets that struggle to keep fans around would their fortunes be turned around if they had that guy that transcends through the TV screen and pops out at you while on the ice? It’s impossible to know for sure either way. However, I do know it worked in Nashville.
Pernell-Karl Subban may not be the best player in the NHL, and may not ever be in the same category as the legendary defensemen like Nicklas Lidstrom, Doug Harvey or Bobby Orr. However, that doesn’t mean he cannot be one of the most influential personalities in the game. PK is a creature totally unique and original from anything you thought you knew about hockey players. He embodies how the game is going to be played for the next decade or two and represents how personality if saved for the appropriate times, can change a team for the better. And lastly, he shows us all that you don’t have to, with all respect to Toews, be captain serious all the time. That every now and then, you can be yourself, express your unique character for the world to see, and that, as long as you don’t go over the line into arrogant, it’s okay to have fun playing in the NHL, and in every pro sports league. Tradition is to be respected, honored and remembered for what those teams and athletes did for the sport. However, to use it as a cheap excuse to live in the past and to prohibit progression and individuality because of some cowardly fear of change is not only disrespecting the players and clubs of today but also the tradition you claim to hold so dearly.