America at Large: Subban’s latest moves has hockey divided on usual lines
Those who love him enjoy his antics, others say he doesn’t take hockey seriously enough
PK Subban against the Anaheim Ducks in the Stanley Cup playoffs in Anaheim, California. Photograph: Sean M Haffey/Getty Images
The Nashville Predators’ PK Subban was warming up before a recent NHL play-off game when he started dancing to the music playing in the arena. For briefly throwing minor shapes and busting subtle moves, no mean feat on ice skates, Mike Milbury, a television commentator, denounced him as a clown, and suggested his coach needed to give him a rap on the head to get him focused.
As is the way with Subban, the hockey world reacted by dividing along the usual lines. Those who love him enjoyed the spectacle, those who don’t saw more evidence he doesn’t take the sport seriously enough.
The man himself thought it all very amusing.“He’s kind of right, I do look like some sort of a clown with these play-off beards we have going on,” said the 28-year-old defender. “I blame the St Louis Blues. They had great warm-up tunes and I got into it. I put it on them.”
That jocular response was out of kilter with how others viewed the incident. Some wanted Milbury censured because they perceived racism in him asking for a black player to be put in his place by the boss for merely showing a smidgen of character and personality. Although Willie O’Ree broke hockey’s colour barrier with the Boston Bruins back in 1958, just 32 players of colour saw game time this season. Against that background, in a game struggling for diversity, it’s easy to see why such a ridiculous comment about one of them could provoke so much anger.
With a Jamaican father and a mother from Monserrat, Subban has, over the past eight years, been one of the most flamboyant, entertaining, and, eh, unorthodox presences in the sport.
On a Canadian talk show once he was asked about how he goes about putting off opponents on the ice. His answer included a dissertation on consuming certain protein-rich foods and quaffing coffee before a match so that he can then pass the most noxious gas in the vicinity of those he’s charged with stopping from scoring.
While his swagger and brashness have drawn casual sports fans to the sport, he has also been, far too regularly, the victim of racism from opposing fans.
His stellar performances in the victorious series against the St Louis Blues provoked just the latest hate crime on social media.
And that was small-scale compared to an infamous episode involving an outpouring of prejudice and bigotry from Boston Bruins’ fans after he scored a play-off winner against them a couple of years back. The dignity with which he has responded to all these incidents has been a mark of the man.
There are those who argue Milbury’s outburst was nothing to do with race and was more about the conservative old men of the hockey establishment chafing against the young un’ with his new-fangled ways. Constantly accusing him of “disrespecting the game”, they despise his trash-talking, his tendency to excessively celebrate goals and his frequent exaggeration of fouls against him (quaintly described as embellishment). This is the very stuff that younger fans love about him.
Critics also bristle when he confesses there’s far more to his life than playing a game that pays him $9 million per year. A fashion icon off the ice, rarely seen without a Windsor knot, Subban likes to travel around Europe soaking up culture every summer.
Stunned the sport
Indeed, he was having dinner at a restaurant in Paris last year when he received the news the Montreal Canadiens were trading him to the Nashville Predators. The hockey equivalent of going from Manchester United to Stoke City in your prime, it was a move that stunned the entire sport. The Canadiens’ in-house analytics man was fired after protesting that getting rid of an incredibly skilful defender who scores and passes made absolutely no sense.
Eleven months on, the Predators are battling the Anaheim Ducks for a ticket to the Stanley Cup finals and, with nothing else to cheer for, Canadien fans are rooting for Subban. Some are even travelling south of the border to attend his games.
Why wouldn’t they? During his stint in the hockey capital he was a larger-than-life presence in the community, playing street hockey with kids, and pledging to donate $10million to a children’s hospital.
Although the switch to Nashville has, injury problems aside, worked like a dream for Subban so far, the lack of a decent, rational explanation for the trade continues to spawn conspiracy theories and unanswered questions.
“With very few exceptions, professional hockey is played by [less conservative] Millennials but coached by and commented upon by [more conservative] Baby Boomers,” wrote Martin Patriquin in Maclean’s , Canada’s most influential current affairs magazine.
“Was Subban’s exuberance more of a liability because he’s black? Or, to answer a question with a question: why, in the wake of a disastrous season, was the team’s best defensive weapon traded, while its coach was spared?”
With all the insouciance of somebody who was once shocked and thrilled just to discover that Magic Johnson actually knew who he was, Subban appears less affected by swapping Quebec for Tennessee than those still mourning his departure. His shirt is the best-seller in Music City, his play at both ends has a 19-year-old franchise that has never won a championship suddenly harbouring genuine title aspirations, and, with each fresh gyration of his hips, he continues to dance to his own tune.