It seems counterintuitive for a professional sports team to attempt to quiet the popularity of one of its players but such is life for P.K. Subban, a brilliant young defenseman defined by his unlimited confidence and panache with the puck. Since his debut in the playoffs three years ago, P.K. has been one of the NHL’s most public and controversial figures. Subban skates between legions of dedicated supporters and the squawks of hockey’s old guard, maintaining his resilient smile through it all. On Twitter, fans are entertained by P.K.’s “Joel” pose in photos; on television, greying, xenophobic analysts rail against Subban’s showmanship. No matter how loudly or subtly the talking heads jab at P.K.’s individuality, his star power continues to grow. Montreal street artist Rupasboy pasted graphic stickers of P.K.’s face all over the city as a sign of his cult status and Will Smith recently took in a Habs game at the Bell Centre, holding up Subban’s number 76 jersey.
Shortly after Subban ended his holdout and re-signed with the Montreal Canadiens, the team’s coach Michel Therrien announced that Subban would no longer be permitted to engage in the tradition of “triple low-fiving” goaltender Carey Price after victories. Therrien cited a desire to “pay more respect to the game” as the reason for his strange stipulation. During training camp, fans of Subban had protested against the frugality of Montreal’s front office and the Canadiens came to the realization that the cult of P.K. was too powerful. Bob McKenzie, the most respected member of the hockey media, reported that the Canadiens were making clear that their preference was for Subban to be referred to as plain, old Pernell.
Now, with Subban and the Canadiens winning hockey games, the petty noise that surrounded the contract negotiations is dead. The teammates who responded frigidly to questions about Subban’s return to the locker room are happy to have their backend spark on the ice. P.K. has answered the critics by playing like a man who deserves respect, if not adulation. At 23 years of age, Subban is pulling the trigger on the Habs’ power play, learning to limit his mistakes and solidifying his reputation as a premier defenseman.
Towards the end of the summer, before the prolonged lockout, I encountered Subban under the air-conditioned shelter of a hockey depot store in Don Mills, Ontario. P.K. was making an appearance at the release of his friend and Hockey Night in Canada analyst Kevin Weekes’ “No 5 Hole” clothing line. I didn’t see an oversized ego or a purposeful radical. I saw a self-assured young athlete, the son of strong parents, the eldest of three talented siblings. Subban is aware of his iconic status but he won’t let celebrity interrupt his drive to reach the height of his profession. That’s his decision alone. Before I got a chance to speak to P.K., a female store employee shyly approached her famous crush and gushed about watching his fights repeatedly on YouTube. The girl was almost in tears and, for a final show of affection, she presented Subban with her P.K. doll. Subban held up the puppet, looked his Sesame Street reflection in its fuzzy eyes and laughed, in awe of his image’s reach.
How do you feel about Montreal’s new players and the team’s ability to bounce back this season?
Alex Galchenyuk is a great player. I watched him for a few years before this season and had the opportunity to skate with him. He’s a real rising talent and I’m looking forward to seeing him develop. The playoffs should be realistic every year. In every season there are teams that you don’t expect to make the playoffs that do. It just goes to show that you have to have a good start, and that starts in the summer with training and making sure that you’re in shape.
You’re one of the faces of the franchise now. Though you’re still young, are you taking on a bigger leadership role?
I think that at this point I’m just focusing on getting better every day. Since I’ve been in Montreal I’ve been welcome there, it’s been a warm reception for me these past two years and I’m just trying to continue that as my career goes on. The next step for me is winning a championship and I hope that I get that opportunity in Montreal.
My favourite part of visiting Montreal is the food. I know you frequent Moishes steakhouse. What’s your favourite restaurant in the city?
There are so many to choose from, but I’ve got to go with Garde Manger. The food’s great and I love the atmosphere.
You spend your off-season training in Toronto. Do you ever miss Toronto during the season?
Toronto’s home for me and no place in the world will ever truly feel like home. I love Montreal but coming back to Toronto and seeing my family and friends is a great feeling.
Your brother Malcolm was drafted by your rival team, the Boston Bruins. Do you have any bets with him about whether you’ll snipe one on him?
He’s still got to make the team [laughs]. He’s got a lot of work ahead of him. He’s still young, only 18. I’m sure a lot of people are anticipating his first game in the NHL but I don’t know when that’s going to be and really, he doesn’t. He’s just got to get prepared and give himself the opportunity to make the NHL sooner than later.
Who would win a pond hockey game between the Staals and the Subbans?
[Laughs] Well there’s more Staals than Subbans right now – they’ve got four, we’ve got three, so they’ve got the advantage, but I have to say that we’d probably win because we’ve got a goalie. [laughs]
What sort of individual goals do you set heading into a season?
To be as strong as I possibly can. I was ahead of the curve in my training because I started in May. I’m always trying to improve my fitness level.
I’ve seen you be criticized for your fashion and for standing out. How do you respond to analysts and even opposing players who go at you over your style?
Everybody’s got their own style and reference and at the end of the day, I go to the rink dressed appropriately. It’s my job to come to the rink and look like a professional – I think I’ve done that. I’m a different person just like everyone else. Everyone’s entitled to wear different coloured suits. We don’t have two options – it’s not just black or white. Everyone’s going to have their own opinion about me and I don’t really care. I’ve never cared about what people think. That’s why I’m in the NHL in the first place. People are always going to have things to say. At the end of the day I just play hockey.