|This story appears in full in the May/June 2013 issue of CANADIENS magazine. Subscribe today!
By Shauna Denis
Loved at the Bell Centre and loathed just about everywhere else, why is P.K. Subban the NHL's most polarizing player?
There is no middle ground when it comes to the topic of P.K. Subban. Love him or hate him, everyone seems to have an opinion on the 23-year-old blue-liner. When he’s scoring, his animated celebrations irk hockey purists and cause Habs fans to chant his name. When he’s hitting, his targets take exception to winding up on the wrong side of highlight-reel hip checks while his followers curate Top 10 Hit Lists. Even something as harmless as a smile can simultaneously win over his home crowd and make opponents line up to throw the first punch.
In just two-and-a-half years in the league, Subban has already embraced his dual role of hero at home and villain on the road.
“I think it’s great for the game to have that much passion; it adds a spark to the game,” explained Subban, who can inspire arenas conference-wide to erupt in a chorus of boos by simply touching the puck. “Fans on both sides enjoy it – and I know Habs fans have got my back. It makes for a great show. When we’re playing Boston on a Saturday night, the buzz in this city is unbelievable. People are just waiting for something to happen.”
More often than not, Subban is quick to oblige, giving opposing players and fans something to jeer about on almost every shift.
“I don’t take it personally. If I played for the Bruins, I’m sure they wouldn’t treat me the way they do,” offered Subban, whose brother Malcolm was drafted 24th overall by Boston in 2012. “If we weren’t beating Boston and I wasn’t a factor, we wouldn’t even be having this conversation. Because we’ve had success against them in the past and because of the style I play, it’s irritating. It’s irritating to the fans. They don’t like it when I’m hitting their players, they don’t like it when I’m scoring goals, they don’t like when I’m skating around the ice or doing spin-o-ramas.
“That’s the way I play the game. I think there are things in my game that can irritate people – maybe there are things in my game that I do that other players can’t do,” he added. “Maybe that’s what irritates them; I don’t know. I don’t dissect my game trying to figure out why it’s irritating. If it is, that’s great. As long as I’m doing my job and my team is winning, I don’t care.”
Subban may not be giving much thought to why his particular brand of hockey brings out its share of haters, but his former Team Canada teammate-turned archrival, Brad Marchand, has a few ideas in mind.
“A big reason people either love him or hate him is he’s a great player and that aggravates people,” admitted Marchand, who won a gold medal at the World Junior Hockey Championships alongside Subban in 2008. “But there’s a lot that comes with his game. He’s very vocal and he does a lot of extracurricular things people may not like and it gets under the skin of some people. When teams play Montreal, guys focus on P.K. and want to run at him. He brings a lot of attention to himself and draws a lot of penalties because of that.”
Even more frustrating to opponents than his ability to draw penalties is his knack for capitalizing on their indiscretions. Leading the league in power play points for the majority of the season, Subban has developed a habit of getting guys sent to the box only to free them before their full two minutes have expired.
“It’s definitely effective. He’s been a huge factor for Montreal all year. A guy with his talent and his capabilities is definitely someone you want on your team,” conceded Marchand, who has been outspoken in his criticism of the Habs blue-liner since Subban broke into the league in 2009-10. “If he came here, we might have to talk to him about some things, but for the most part he’s definitely a guy you’d rather be with than against.”
No one knows that better than Brandon Prust, who spent the past two seasons lining up opposite Subban as a member of the New York Rangers. While he would have loved to have added Subban’s name to his fight card in their eight games as opponents, he’s developed a soft spot for the flamboyant blue-liner since his arrival in Montreal last summer.
“P.K. would never fight me – he talks a big game now that he’s on my team and he knows I’m not going to hurt him,” joked the Habs heavyweight of his new teammate. “He’s a good-hearted kid and he wants to win. He’s got a great competitiveness and he brings another aspect to this team that you don’t find too many places. The way he plays, he can definitely get under the skin of the other team, but he’s got a ton of skill to go with it. I love his personality. He’s always happy and always keeping guys up. It’s contagious. He’s been playing great hockey and that’s the most important thing for us.”
Coming off a solid sophomore season in 2011-12 that saw him rack up 36 points in 81 games to go with a plus-9 differential – despite the team’s 28th place finish – Subban has found another gear to his game in 2012-13. A point-per game player with a similarly sparkling plus/minus differential, he’s been putting up Norris-worthy numbers throughout the lockout-shortened campaign.
Despite hitting the gym for two-a-day workouts in addition to the countless cameos he made in the media throughout the lockout, even Subban couldn’t have anticipated the level of success he and his teammates have savored this year.
“I had a chance to play with Duncan Keith a little bit before the World Championships last year and one of the first questions I asked him once I got to know him was, ‘Did you ever think you would have won the Norris Trophy?’,” he said of the Blackhawks’ 2010 Norris Trophy, Stanley Cup and Olympic champion. “He said, ‘No, I didn’t, but that year, everything was in the right place. We had a great team, I was having a great year, we had a great power play, and I was getting the bounces. A lot of things came together for me and for the team and I was just a beneficiary of that.’ I think he’s spot on.
“I don’t think you ever go in thinking about winning a Norris Trophy or an MVP or a Rocket Richard Trophy; it’s about your team,” offered Subban on the Canadiens’ ascent from the bottom of the Eastern Conference toward the top one year later. “I’m having a great year, but look at our team. Everything I shoot, guys are tipping in or putting in rebounds. If our forwards don’t finish, I don’t get points. If Pricey [Carey Price] isn’t playing well, I don’t have a good plus/minus. There are a lot of different things that go into it. Probably the most enjoyable thing about this year is I haven’t had time to think about anything; I’ve just been playing hockey and enjoying being part of this team.”
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