Hockey still can’t seem to recognize its need for a rockstar. While not the biggest problem with hockey’s culture at the moment (hi there Hockey Canada), the ethos that no player can stand out or be above the team keeps the game from having vibrancy or personality. And vibrancy and personality are what sell the game. And also the need to blend in as the first priority keeps players from speaking out against things that are wrong, but we’ve been down that road and will do so again soon. But people tune in for vibrancy and personality. Instead, the best player in the world has this house, where if he’s not doing Patrick Bateman cosplay (and only cosplay we hope) he’s eating white bread and American cheese.
P.K. Subban could have been that guy. There were moments when he did seem to rule over the game, and for fans it was joyous. Don’t let the HOCKEY MEN fool you. Fans in Montreal, and Nashville — especially the former — loved PK. Almost every hockey fan did, and those who didn’t had their very obvious and abhorrent reasons for it. It was impossible not to. He was planet-sized magnetic. And he had the game to match. Sadly, that kind of game came just a bit too early in the way the NHL game evolved.
Subban drove three Montreal coaches absolutely nuts, though two of those — Michel Therrien and Jacques Martin — were the decidedly flat-earth-brained (hockey-wise, we think) with his high-risk, high-reward, yeehaw style of play. Habs fans, who always have romanticized players who simply streaked up the ice with the puck (there are roughly 12,000 sonnets about Guy Lafluer’s hair flowing behind him as he tear-assed across the neutral zone), couldn’t get enough of Subban cowboying all over the ice. Subban’s signature was to wheel around behind his own net, getting such a lean that he would take one hand off his stick to balance on the ice, and risk the worst possible turnover. But he rarely would, and he’d beat two forecheckers and send the Habs the other way with possession and speed. He was a human centrifuge.
Subban’s crowning season was sadly the lockout-shortened one of 2013, when he took home his only Norris Trophy, and collected 38 points in just 42 games. Subban was no worse the next year, with 52 points and metrics well above the team rate as the Habs got to a conference final, the best they would do in his tenure there. It earned Subban a call to the Canadian Olympic team, though yet another asshole coach Mike Babcock wouldn’t trust him with more than one game in the tournament, where he sat behind jamokes like Jay Bouwmeester or Dan Hamhuis. There were blubberings about “responsibility” and “trust,” but the lines were awfully easy to read between. Fucking Dan Hamhuis. For fuck’s sake.
That wasn’t all that endeared Subban to the Montreal faithful. Subban was just a supreme person. If you can find a hockey fan who wasn’t brought to tears by videos of Subban’s charity work, he opened his own children’s wing at a hospital, then you found someone who couldn’t be saved.
But that’s as good as it would get for Subban in Montreal, and as things deteriorated at the Centre Bell, it was far too easy for coach and captain, Max Pacioretty, to point a finger at a guy who was always on the screen or couldn’t be “corralled” on the ice. Well, Patches hasn’t done shit since either, except get hurt and watch his team disappoint, which is exactly what he deserves for driving Subban out of Montreal. Subban also stuck out in another way, which hockey has always found easy to settle for as a reason to ostracize.
So Subban was traded to Nashville, who immediately embraced him, allowed him to turn their game up to 11, and they made their only Stanley Cup final on the back of their ability to turn the volume up beyond what most any team save the Penguins could handle (it was also the only season where “top” center Ryan Johansen could stop eating).
But much quicker than it did in Montreal, things went south in Music City, mostly due to the Predator tradition of never having more than one genuine top-line forward on the squad. Subban’s body couldn’t quite hold up, though his metrics were still pretty glittering. Which allowed the Preds to combine both a Southern tradition and hockey tradition when things go wrong — blame the black guy. And off to New Jersey he was shipped just two seasons later, to be irrelevant like the Devils have been for a decade or more now.
The funny thing is now, with the way hockey has sped up in the past few years, every team wants a Subban. There isn’t time to pass the puck around your zone to exit. You need a guy who can wheel it out on his own feet. Every team is looking for their own Cale Makar or Victor Hedman. Roman Josi and Quinn Hughes are as prized as anyone and are completely let off the leash every night. Had Subban been 10 years younger, he’d be right amongst them.
And in a TikTok era, Subban would have attracted more eyes to the game. Hockey still isn’t ready for the rockstar that Subban could be or was, but it’s slowly getting there, most begrudgingly. The Trevor Zegras generation wouldn’t have iced out Subban for being Subban. They would have been asking how they can get on to his social media following.
PK Subban was a view of what hockey could be, and in some ways what it did become. Maybe one day it will follow in all the ways he flashed. God knows it could use it.