In defense of P.K. Subban

The resentment toward the Habs rookie highlights how prissy hockey has become

They called him an original, but Dave “Tiger” Williams was, in truth, the logical product of his era—a clowning marauder who understood that hockey’s sideshow had become, on many nights, its main event.

And better to star in the sideshow, he reasoned, than take a non-speaking role in the feature presentation.

That evening in December 1980 when he rode his stick down the centre of Maple Leaf Gardens might now be regarded as Williams’s apogee: he’d just scored his 17th goal in what would be a career-best 35-goal season, and though not important in the context of the game, it meant a lot to him. It was his first game back in Toronto since the Leafs had shipped him off to Vancouver, and the Canucks were on their way to an 8-5 romp.

So after shoving the puck past Leafs’ goalie Jim Rutherford, Williams climbed aboard his fibre-ply and rode it pony-style down the ice, firing imaginary six-shooters into the crowd. “Hey, you’ve got to put on a show for the folks,” he later told the Toronto Star. “After all, this is show business, and there’s no business like show business.”

Right, that. But the reaction to Williams’s celebration seems noteworthy today for its mutedness, considering the newfound standards of decorum in the National Ho-hum League. There were no scolding opponents, no clapped out coaches-cum-commentators preaching to Williams about “respect for the game.” Gardens fans—harbouring residual affection for their old jester—actually cheered. But you’d never know it from reading the morning papers: neither the Star nor The Globe and Mail mentioned the crowd’s reaction at all.

Flash forward three decades, to a game last week at the Bell Centre in Montreal. P.K. Subban, a dynamic young defenceman with the Canadiens, pops a badly needed overtime goal against the Calgary Flames, and electrifies the crowd by sliding on one knee across centre in an archer’s pose. He mimes a couple of arrow-shots at the sky, and turns toward his teammates. Then, inside of 24 hours, he’s been yanked out to the hockey woodshed: René Bourque, a moderately talented forward with the Flames, whines sullenly in a post-game interview that the display was disrespectful. Sports talk shows pick up on the topic the following day, posing questions like “should P.K. Subban be apologizing?”

Even some inside the Canadiens’ tent seem put out by his jubilation. Scott Gomez, an overpaid veteran (whose ill-timed penalty the following evening would cost the Canadiens in overtime), cold-shoulders Subban during the post-game celebration. Forward Mike Cammalleri shrugs when asked about Subban’s display: “Maybe that’s why we call him Primetime,” he says cryptically. The next day, team broadcaster Rick Moffat gives former Hab Craig Rivet platform for a windy lecture about the proper behaviour of NHL rookies.

“There’s a way to present yourself to other players in the league,” says Rivet, who now plays for the Buffalo Sabres. “How you’re gonna act—hopefully he’ll learn.”

How much of this Subban invited is an open question. Before the goal against Calgary, he’d clearly been getting under his opponents’ skin with on-ice chatter, and the occasional post-whistle prod. And he is not a particularly clean player (indeed, he takes evident joy in humiliating opponents with tooth-rattling mid-ice checks). Moreover, the publicity he enjoys sometimes seems out of proportion with his on-ice contribution, which may explain the snarky asides from teammates. For the number of times he turns up on Sportscentre, smiling impishly and speaking as if he’d been in the league for a decade, you’d think he’d have more than four goals and 13 assists.

Still, the resentment toward a camera-friendly 21-year-old who happens to reject the “humble Canadian” archetype highlights how downright prissy the sport has become. Where is it written that players must exhibit the same personality during games? Or that they must “earn” the right to be themselves? Somewhere between Williams’s iconic stick ride and Subban’s OT winner, the game turned its honour for strength and humility into dogma—and you can forget the idea that Subban’s race is playing a part. Other black players, including Evander Kane and Wayne Simmonds, endure no such criticism. Those guys gladly play to type.

Some blame this stultifying trend on Don Cherry, with a certain amount of justification. A few weeks back, the Lord of Saturday Night used his CBC pulpit to “warn” Subban that he was courting physical retribution. It sounded suspiciously like an invitation for other players to do the rookie harm. Cherry has offered similar “advice” to Alexander Ovechkin over his hot-stick routine in 2009. He’s even gotten on the back of ultra-correct Sidney Crosby, who as a 16-year-old junior offended Grapes by using a stick-handling trick to score from behind the net (through Herculean effort, Crosby has since damped down his natural buoyancy and now makes Michael Ignatieff look like Liberace).

And all hockey phenomena leads at some point to Wayne Gretzky, who pretty much set the standard for off-ice blandness. In this case, though, the Great One probably deserves a pass. Though withheld himself, he appreciated more demonstrative players, from Theo Fleury to Esa Tikkanen. He was not the sort to judge.

Whoever you blame, this attachment to an imaginary, unwritten code has only strengthened those willing to shuck it off. The universal hatred for Rangers forward Sean Avery, for example, stems directly from his explicit rejection of behavioural norms—both on and off the ice. Avery’s moderate talent would never have won him the sort of fame he garnered by publicly ridiculing the NHL’s stodginess, or by screening a goaltender with his hands.

Subban’s bullet-ride to stardom, meanwhile, is in no small part due to the hyper-conventionality of the rest of his team. On many nights, he offers fans the only relief from the Canadiens’ low-risk, low-reward playing style, which is based on the hope that, at some point, some poor soul on the other team will make a game-breaking error. No wonder the crowd loves him.

But how much longer he can resist the pressure to conform? Unlike Avery, who is a happy villain, Subban exudes a desire to please. He’s sounded rueful recently after taking criticism from more established players like Philadelphia’s Mike Richards, whose complaints about Subban prompted Cherry to stick his oar in. After the Calgary game, the young Hab actually tried to head off the storm over his OT celebration, saying he hoped “no one on the other team gets too mad about it. I was just really excited to score that goal.”

The sentiment is understandable—who but Avery likes to be hated?—but unnecessary. It’s not like Subban rode his stick down the middle of the ice, shooting air bullets at the Calgary bench. He has bigger goals to score and bigger moments to celebrate. Subban should save his regrets, and hockey should learn to loosen the bone.

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