Four years ago, P.K. Subban made his home debut for the Montreal Canadiens at the Bell Centre. His presence was already in the building long before puck drop. The sweaters with “Subban 76” on their backs jumped off the racks just as quickly as they went up. A seamstress worked overtime to satisfy the horde of Quebecois children who had made the pilgrimage to downtown Montreal. The fathers swiped their credit cards willingly, an approval of Subban and a gesture that would keep the Habs in the family for at least another generation. P.K., Pernell Karl by birth, was tasked with carrying that legacy.
In his first moments on home ice, he didn’t disappoint. Subban, a precocious 20 at the time, darted from goal line to goal line, often involved in his own skating drill. He would corral the puck, spin off forwards and dash the other way in what has now become a trademark move of his. He drew penalties. He collected his second career assist. More importantly, he inspired the first “P-K! P-K!” chants that still engulf the arena to this day.
In the closing minutes of the game, a 6-3 loss to the Philadelphia Flyers, Flyers veteran defenseman and notorious bully Chris Pronger flipped a puck at Subban in the neutral zone. It was a case of an old hand welcoming a rookie. The puck bounced in front of Subban, allowing a Flyers forechecker to take a run at him. The youngster was irate. At the next stoppage, he strode toward Pronger and motioned his stick at the lumbering blue liner’s face. Pronger shot him a look that would cage a bear. Subban barked right back.
The incident was the first of many that have come to define the defenseman. He is loud, arrogant, confident to the point of cockiness and above all else talented.
In an era of comparative futility — nearing 20 seasons without a Cup or even a strong playoff run — Montreal desperately needed his spark.
Four years on, Subban and the Canadiens have woven a compelling story in a Stanley Cup Playoffs full of them, one that has seen them advance to the Eastern Conference Finals with a Game 7 victory last night. The Los Angeles Kings rallied from a 3-0 deficit to overcome the San Jose Sharks in the first round. The New York Rangers trailed 3-1 in their series with the Pittsburgh Penguins before sending Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin to the golf course with three straight victories. Patrick Kane added two more overtime goals to his burgeoning postseason legend. The second one gave him his third series-clinching, sudden-death winner. He is still just 25 and in search of his and the Chicago Blackhawks’ third Stanley Cup in five seasons.
These playoffs have also gifted us some welcome irony. More teams from California (three) qualified for the postseason than from Canada (one). The two neighbors of the group, the Anaheim Ducks and the Kings, are currently squaring off in the first freeway series. Game 7 comes Friday.
The Donald Sterling fiasco also seeped into the hockey world. Following the release of the tapes, Los Angeles Times columnist Sandy Banks suggested that Sterling should “take his millions and buy a hockey team. Then he won’t have to worry about black superstars showing up for games on his girlfriend’s arm.” Two nights later, Wayne Simmonds, an African-Canadian, scored a hat trick to force a Game 7 for the Flyers in their series with the Rangers. Subban, also of African descent, closed the week with two goals including the overtime winner in Game 1 of the Habs’ series with the Boston Bruins.
It’s an appropriate thought to close with. Through all of the story lines, all of the star turns, no one has embraced the spotlight quite like Subban. Of course, it rarely leaves him.
Following his Game 1 heroics against the Bruins, a collection of ignorant fans took to social media to hurl racial epithets Subban’s way. While the media thrust fingers in the direction of the idiots, Subban remained poised. He praised the Bruins organization and the city of Boston rather than focus on the negative.
Subban endured a different sort of abuse from the Bruins during the series. Boston’s players hit him every chance they got. Shawn Thornton squirted water on him. Milan Lucic scrummed with Subban in the corner before flexing for him on the bench. In the meantime, Subban kept producing. He scored four goals in the seven games. Two came on blistering slap shots from the point, the last of which in Game 5 had Bruins netminder Tuukka Rask ducking for his life.
Subban has 12 points total in 11 postseason games, good enough for sixth best in the league and first among defensemen. He has also averaged over 26 minutes of ice time per night. But it’s not just his production that demands attention. Subban plays with a joy that is both infectious and obvious. Prior to unleashing the near-decapitator he sent past Rask, Subban jumped on his skates, demanding the puck come his way. After it rang off the crossbar and settled in the net, he celebrated emphatically by others’ standards, coolly by his own. He leisurely paced by the Bruins bench as if reminding them that he was still there. I doubt they needed it. We certainly didn’t.
Even in non-scoring plays, Subban captivates his audience. The denizens of the Bell Centre rise in anticipation every time he collects the puck. They burst into the familiar “P.K.” chant with every positive move. Die-hard hockey fans chuckle at his often perilous play. Casual fans ask who he is.
On Wednesday night, the Habs eliminated the Bruins in Game 7. Subban had a quiet night on the ice. Off it, he made headlines by kissing Pierre McGuire on the cheek in a post-game interview. Dale Weise, Max Pacioretty and Daniel Briere scored Montreal’s goals in a 3-1 victory.
The win ensures that the Subban show will continue for at least four more games. While Carey Price has been stellar in goal, number 76 on the blue line has come to carry the proverbial torch for the Habs. In the process, he’s made a team in search of its 25th Stanley Cup endlessly enjoyable. That might just be Subban’s greatest feat yet.