It’s a sleepy, sunbaked morning in Las Vegas, hours before the 2018 NHL Awards, where P.K. Subban will be unveiled as the cover model for EA Sports’ new video game, NHL 19. He saunters into the lobby of the Encore Tower Suites, shorts and T-shirt, wide-brimmed hat covering his eyes, the kind of outfit famous people wear to avoid detection. But that’s impossible for Subban. He’s unmistakable, and not just because he’s one of the NHL’s few black stars. It’s the smile, the raspy voice and, of course, the league’s most gregarious personality that make Subban pretty much allergic to hiding.
And so, when he enters the lobby, it takes about 0.4 seconds for a kid to notice him. He’s scheduled for hours of interviews upstairs to talk about the video game, and he’s arrived early to take a breath and prepare, but that opportunity disappears. Subban flicks the virtual “on” switch. He gives the youngster several minutes of his time, cracking jokes, taking selfies. Soon after that, he’s sprawled on a couch in a suite, snapping off one-liners, claiming he’s the best-looking guy to grace the video-game cover, sharing memories of cheating at PlayStation as a kid, hitting his brothers Malcolm and Jordan with pillows and mini-sticks.
He’s built such a brand as the game’s most interesting talker that people have grown to expect that out of him. It seems Subban never gets a chance to just…be. Table that idea to him, though, and he quickly fires it back, like he’s clearing a puck from his zone while patrolling the Nashville Predators’ blueline. “People who maybe aren’t like me might see it that way, but everyone’s got to be themselves,” he said. “So, what would be ‘on’ for someone is just normal for me. If I need a break from people, I take a break. If I don’t want to post something on social media, I don’t. But when you are with me, you’re going to get P.K.”
The whole world gets P.K. – not just his Predators teammates or fans watching him play Norris Trophy-caliber hockey year after year. If one word defines his personality, even more than funny, it’s “giving.” In a literal sense, he’s peerless in his philanthropic efforts, having famously pledged to donate $10 million to the Montreal Children’s Hospital while he played for the Canadiens. He’s also generous with his time every day. As Predators coach Peter Laviolette explains, he wants his troops at the rink ready for game-day preparations by 5:00 p.m., and Subban arrives at Bridgestone Arena at 4:45 p.m. on the nose to run Blueline Buddies, a program he created to unite an underprivileged youth and a Metro Nashville police officer before every home game in the hopes of building a positive relationship between at-risk kids and law enforcement. In addition to giving them tickets to the game and a meal, Subban carves out time to chat with the kid and the cop. He never misses it.
There aren’t a lot of players that have come through the game
that want to be themselves
– P.K. Subban
He’s a charitable man yet also a highly public man, and that doesn’t jive with typical hockey culture. No matter how beloved Subban is by people who watch the game from afar, snippets of evidence pop up throughout his career suggesting the old-guard inner circle rejects him. He was a much louder leader than Max Pacioretty in Montreal, but the majority of teammates voted Pacioretty over Subban for the captaincy in 2015. Less than a year after Subban’s pledge to the Montreal Children’s Hospital, Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin traded him – two days before his no-movement clause kicked in July 1. After a game between the Predators and Habs this past season, former teammate Brendan Gallagher ripped Subban for always “trying to make it about P.K. Subban.” After Subban joked about Sidney Crosby telling him he bad breath and tweeted a picture of a Listerine bottle during the 2017 Cup final, Subban was infamously unavailable to media before Game 6, prompting accusations the Predators had gagged him.
He’s a fun guy who loves to show his personality, and not everyone in hockey is comfortable with that yet. “Look at Jeremy Roenick, a guy who had a ton of personality, but he’s one of the best American-born players to ever play the game,” Subban said. “But people talk about his personality all the time. Maybe that’s just hockey. There’s not a lot of players that have come through the game that want to be themselves. It’s very easy to fall into the culture of how everybody talks and the way they walk. It’s a great culture, by the way, I love the game of hockey, but I’ve chosen to be myself.”
Subban believes NHLers are starting to show more exuberance. He singles out Connor McDavid’s on-ice displays of emotion as a sign that players are cracking open their shells. And if you talk to anyone from the Predators, who have one Cup final appearance and one Presidents’ Trophy since Subban arrived in the 2016 one-for-one Shea Weber trade, they have no problem accepting his grandiose presence because it doesn’t get in the way of his play. “You always hear P.K. talking,” said Predators goaltender Pekka Rinne. “But through the game he’s very focused, and he’s a very driven person. He’s not the loudest guy during the game, but in the locker room or anywhere like that before the game, he likes to stay loose and keep everybody else loose and have fun. So, he has a positive effect on us.”
For Laviolette, no one is immune to criticism, and that includes Subban. Protective of his player, he won’t reveal exactly what he and Subban talk about, but Laviolette insists it’s just standard hockey stuff, no different than what he discusses with any of his players about what they can do differently, how they can improve their game-to-game play and so on. There’s no sense he views Subban as a distraction. “He’s done a really good job of trying to manage his life, and it’s a busy life,” Laviolette said. “The things he does are different from other people. But for me, it always comes back to: Is he putting the time in during practice? Does he practise hard? Does he play hard? Is he a good teammate? And he’s been all those things in Nashville.”
Subban won the Norris Trophy in 2013 as the league’s top defenseman and has been a finalist two other times, including this past season. He’s a two-time first-team all-star, and he’s played in three All-Star Games. Yet most conversations about Subban concern who he is off the ice. It’s easy to forget what he’s capable of on it.
Since 2010-11, his first full NHL season, Subban is fifth among blueliners in points, trailing only Erik Karlsson, Brent Burns, Dustin Byfuglien and Keith Yandle. He ranks seventh in goals and eighth in points per game, too. This past season, Subban finished top-three in the league in primary points per 60 minutes 5-on-5. That’s particularly remarkable considering Ryan Ellis’ injury meant Subban played the first half of the season without his regular partner, Mattias Ekholm, and instead had to drag around a significantly older and slower Alexei Emelin. Those words may seem harsh, but the truth is right there in the numbers. Emelin’s 5-on-5 Corsi was three percentage points higher with Subban than without. He takes real pride knowing Laviolette can look at the whiteboard and pair him with anybody, whether it’s Emelin, the 32-year-old banger, or Ekholm, 28, the talented, rangy shutdown defender who forms a truly elite tandem with Subban.
Subban is known as an offensive juggernaut, but, among the 133 defensemen who played at least 1,000 minutes 5-on-5 in 2017-18, he had the 11th-highest defensive-zone start percentage and ranked in the top third for quality of competition. He generates tons of chances but also battles the opposition’s scoring lines. “For me, what has been really great about him has been his ability to defend, his ability to go back under pressure and break out pucks, his ability to take on other teams’ top performers and shut them down,” Laviolette said. “Defensively, he’s been a huge part of our team, and that’s probably a little underrated for what it is. He’s a terrific offensive defenseman, but his game on defense is equally good.”
The new guard, the millennials, the fancy-stats advocates know that about Subban, and the Norris Trophy voting tells us his excellence isn’t exactly overlooked. But there’s no denying conversations about him usually nudge aside his play and focus on his antics, like his trademark bow-and-arrow goal celebration. He’s a rare high-end player for whom the analysis doesn’t always involve actual hockey, and he notices it. “I would have to agree with that,” he said. “There are times when people like to talk about the personality and the celebrations and stuff like that, but before you can be that way, you’ve got to be able to back it up. We’re not talking about celebrations if I’m not scoring. A lot of times, when people pay attention to that, those people are just sloppy and don’t do their research. It’s very easy to say, ‘LeBron James has got to control his emotions.’ Well, yeah, but he’s getting emotional at a crucial point in the game, and he already dropped 44 points, so maybe you should talk about the fact he has 44 points, and he’s complaining to the ref because he hasn’t been on the foul line once the whole game.”
Attention anyone not doing homework on Subban: he’s doing homework on you. He reads what people write about him. He respects some of his detractors and dismisses others. Whether he takes criticism to heart depends on who it comes from. “It’s very easy to know people who do their research in the media and people that don’t,” he said. “You can just follow the trend of what people are saying, or you can actually do your research, get to know someone, follow their career, look at the numbers. The numbers don’t lie.”
So Subban will keep burying pucks with his heavy slapshot and rubbing it in haters’ faces, pulling arrows from his imaginary quiver. He knows he’s one of the sport’s highest-impact players on the ice. At the same time, he realizes he’s different. As he said, “on” is his normal. He follows more of an NBA athlete template, not because of the color of his skin but because he’s willing to build a brand for himself.
You always hear P.K. talking, but through the game he’s very focused, and he’s a very driven person
– Pekka Rinne
Subban takes that part of his career seriously. When Nashville’s season ended with a second-round Game 7 home loss to Winnipeg, he headed to Harvard University for a course called The Business of Entertainment, Media and Sports. Also present for the class: Boston Bruins’ Zdeno Chara, ex-NBA star Chris Bosh, former NFL defensive end Michael Strahan and U.S. Olympic gold-medallist skier Lindsey Vonn, who happens to be Subban’s girlfriend. They met at the ESPY Awards a year ago, “and the rest is history,” as he puts it.
The Harvard course is aimed at anyone in the talent industry looking to grow a business across multiple digital platforms, from actors to musicians to agents to athletes, and it introduces students to various case studies showing why some ventures succeed and others fail. A star-studded class roster spawned some fun photos and Instagram videos, naturally, but Subban was committed. He recognizes his potential for a long post-hockey career. Strahan, who became an analyst and talk-show host after retiring, is a great example to follow. “In today’s world, with pop culture, everything crosses now,” Subban said. “Nothing is in a specific lane. Unless it’s television for children and television for adults, everything else is sort of crisscrossing, and even that does, too. So, in the world of business, the more you know, the better, and I just had the opportunity. Hopefully for the next couple years in the off-season, I don’t have as much time to do things like that, but it was really, really good. I’m glad I did it.”
That statement is quintessential contradictory Subban. He’s devoted to having fun but obsessed with pursuing the Stanley Cup. He’s carefree and fun-loving while understanding his personality is a commodity he can market. He clowns around in the dressing room but also sacrifices his free time for noble causes. There’s no other P.K. Subban. Maybe that’s why he refuses to flip his ‘off’ switch. Being anything less than special would make him someone else.