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Magazine > NHL ATHLETE
As seen in the Spring 2011 issue.

Rookie Blues
Montreal Canadiens rookie P.K. Subban wants you to focus on his skill, not his explosive personality.
By Michael Grossi | Photos by Matt Vardy

Admit it - you've heard the stories, yet you don't exactly know what to make of him.

But you could easily make the argument that this past season, Montreal Canadiens rookie P.K. Subban has made more headlines than any of his teammates. Some of those for the wrong reasons; his name has been attached more than once to descriptors like "brash," "cocky," and "arrogant," just to name a few. For a rookie on a team with its fair share of newsmakers, that's quite the feat. At the same time, while talking to P.K., I could hear the tiredness in his voice. He seems tired of the questions about cockiness versus confidence. He seems tired of those who want him to change his playing style just because he ruffled a few feathers. Most of all, he seems tired of the fact that he isn't allowed to just go out and play the game.

For Subban, the newsmaking all started when Philadelphia Flyers centre Mike Richards brought the rookie defenceman into the spotlight after a spat, complaining to the media: "Hopefully someone on their team addresses it, because, uh, I'm not saying I'm going to do it, but something might happen to him if he continues to be that cocky." The incident happened on November 16, 2010 and ever since, people have been looking at Subban's game and trying to decipher whether or not it needs to change.
 

Well, we can stop looking and deciphering, because P.K. isn't changing. "I really don't care what anyone says," the 21-year-old admits. "There's a small group of people that I really listen to and that's my teammates, my coaching staff, people within my organization, my parents and that's pretty much it."

For Subban, time to listen to his coaching staff came when Canadiens bench boss
Jacques Martin scratched Subban for two games in early December. Since then, Subban has played successfully on the ice for the Habs, and has hovered near the front of the pack for points by a rookie defenceman. Like most young players, Subban's scratching may have helped him regain focus and ignore the distractions that come with being an
NHL player.

Reflecting back on the situation, Subban seems to confirm the benefits of a chance to watch from the press box for a couple of games. "Sometimes in hockey, and in life, things happen to you and you don't know why they happen to you, but you don't have to know why, you just have to deal with it. To be honest, it was great for me. I know a lot of young players that are given everything right away and a couple years later you see that coming back to hurt them. I'm happy that I've had to earn everything I've gotten and deal through hardships. It's been good for me."

P.K. needed to be able to block out the distractions and get back to the game that he was criticized for playing earlier in the year. And so far, it seems to be working. Year in and year out, you see the same story of a young player getting sent up to watch a few games and slow things down, whether on or off the ice. While Subban's tribulations seemed to come from the outside, his game is one thing that he's always willing to defend.

"For me, it's a matter of just playing the game and not worrying about anything else," he says. "It's a simple hockey game: you go out there, you compete, you work hard. Do players trash talk? Of course players trash talk, everybody trash talks."

It's well documented that there are no angels in the NHL. So, what makes Subban's behaviour so controversial?

The defenseman has his own hypothesis: "I've heard a lot of that this year, whether it's swagger, or it's flash, or it’s cockiness, these are things that I've never heard before in my life. I don't know if it's because everything in the NHL is magnified, but I've never been called any of those terms before, except for maybe cocky."
 
It's by this distinction that Subban reminds everyone exactly what makes a player effective: To play without confidence is to play a style that will get you eaten in a dog-eat-dog game. "Everyone's been called cocky, in the NHL, if you play with confidence people are going to say that." He's got a point. Some of the best players in the game today play with flash and charisma and a confident edge, but playing outside fishbowl environments like Montreal this has largely gone unnoticed.

For a league that craves personality, as well as more players worth marketing, guys like Subban should technically be a godsend. In recent years, the NHL has become a young-man's game. With stars like Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews, Alex Ovechkin and Steven Stamkos all under 25, the League has been given the opportunity to market these stars as both fierce competitors and personalities to match. P.K. Subban having fun with teammates – while playing the game he loves – should be a part of this opportunity. That may be tough, however, unless the story-starved media that rules hockey-mad cities like Montreal lightens up and embraces the changing face of the game.

Subban hears the criticism that he and teammate Carey Price have come under for showing emotion and openly having fun on the ice, and he's quick to defend himself and his teammate. "We have fun, for sure. Earlier in the year (Colorado Avalanche stars) Matt Duchene and Paul Stastny do their dance, but I've never heard anyone say, 'They got swagger,' or, 'they're playing with brashness or cockiness.' It just seems that everything I do or Carey [does] in Montreal has been magnified. For guys like me and Carey, we just go out there and have fun. We go out there and play the game."

Having fun and talking trash are not things that Subban plans on stopping any time soon.
Considering his young age, the Toronto native's pre-NHL career has been too successful and he's played too well to even think about change now. In Junior, he won consecutive World Junior gold medals as part Team Canada's backend, and played a vital role in the Canadiens' defence last post-season. And if his past accomplishments aren't enough to reassure Subban to keep playing his way, the support he receives from his teammates should. Other than a brief issue with defenceman Hal Gill, teammates seem uniformly supportive of their young rookie. Despite that run in with Gill, both sides maintain that the relationship is "big brother-little brother" and that the issue was blown way out of proportion.

In that incident, Subban's jersey was on the floor after practice and Gill sternly called him, "a (bleeping) idiot." For the most part, everyone in the room could tell that Gill was joking, even if he was trying to impart a lesson to the youngster. For Subban the message was clear: take care of things with the Canadiens logo on it and maintain respect for the franchise. While it was a joke, Subban got the context. Unfortunately, something that should have stayed in the room blew up in the media around Montreal. Another Subban-centric item that made much ado about nothing.

Despite the hype, the question remains. Should P.K. Subban change the way he plays hockey? Should he conform to the box into which other people want him to fit? The bottom line for Subban is that whatever he's doing – both on and off the ice – has proved more than effective. He effortlessly gets under people's skin to the point that he's become a media sensation. In a league that seems to battle through endless calls of dirty play, a kid having fun and talking a little smack shouldn't get people up in arms.

"My whole life I've had people trying to tell me how to play the game. Fact is, a lot of them were wrong, and I just left them behind," he says.

So now it's time for everyone to make the decision: either see Subban as a young, hardworking player who's going to do things his way, or disagree and prepare to be left behind.
 

 

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