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The divisive superstar
P.K. Subban has garnered large swaths of fans, but often rubs hockey traditionalists the wrong way

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Saturday, February 10, 2018 – Page S10

OTTAWA -- It took all of 34 seconds for the music to begin for P.K. Subban.

Not the irritating, conversation-killing pounding of an NHL rink during warmup and breaks, but the rain of boos that fall from the stands if the Nashville Predators' defenceman so much as touches the puck.

In Thursday night's case, Subban had opened the scoring almost instantly with a harmless shot from the right boards that clipped into the Ottawa net off Senators' defenceman Cody Ceci.

Every time Subban rushed the puck up the ice they booed, and booed even louder when late in the third period, he scored on a signature rafters-high wind-up slap shot, forcing an overtime, which his team went on to lose 4-3 when Ottawa's speedy Mike Hoffman scored on a breakaway.

The boos aimed down at Subban drowned out the cheers, which came mostly from youngsters, some very young, decked out in yellow No. 76 Subban jerseys. To them, the big, smiling star of ice and Scotiabank commercials is a superstar to rank with Paw Patrol and Justice League.

In the hockey world, traditionalist to the point of absurdity at times, Subban's over-the-top personality is fodder for endless discussion. Rarely has the phrase "love him or hate him" applied so aptly.

In pure hockey measures, his stardom is undeniable. That dramatic slapper that tied Thursday's game in Ottawa was his 15th goal of the season. It matches his career high and is more than any other defenceman in the league.

His 43 points lead the Predators, a team that reached the Stanley Cup final a year ago and seems destined once again for a lengthy postseason. There is talk of Subban being on his way to winning a second Norris Trophy as the league's top defender.

Away from the scoresheet, however, he is a controversial figure. Kids adore him. Those adult fans not booing love to see the pure joy he exudes in playing. He takes chances, which can drive restrictive coaches - think of Mike Babcock in Sochi four years ago - to the point where they'd rather see him on the bench.

When the Montreal Canadiens shocked the hockey world by trading him to Nashville two years ago for sturdy, dependable Shea Weber, some Montreal fans were delighted, others were appalled with the swap of a young star (Subban is 28) for an aging veteran (Weber is 32). During last spring's playoffs, when the Predators were still playing and the Canadiens out after the first round, a popular Montreal bar, Chez Serge, temporarily changed its name to "Chez Subban" and packed in P.K. fans to cheer on the hero who had, in their opinion, been unfairly treated, perhaps even run out of town.

"I didn't ask to be traded," Subban told reporters earlier this year. "I never got an explanation for it."

The common theory is that despite his fine play and astonishing generosity in Montreal - only months before he was traded he committed to donate $10-million to the Montreal Children's Hospital through his foundation, a commitment he intends to keep - his over-the-top personality had become a distraction for the other players.

Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby noted how Subban loves the "attention" as the two sparred during last year's Stanley Cup final. He has been called multiple names for his emotional displays, both fun-loving and angry, on the ice.

He is, simply put, different. Not at all as hockey once was or is, at times falsely, remembered. During Thursday's match against the Senators, he was seen on ice having words with Senators captain Erik Karlsson. He was, it turns out, congratulating Karlsson and his wife on the coming birth of their first child. That's not the way hockey is considered in the land that created the game.

In some ways, Nashville was a blessing. While Montreal holds hockey sacred, Nashville sees it as entertainment.

Almost immediately on arrival, Subban, wearing a cowboy hat, took to the stage at Tootsie's and sang a passable rendition of Johnny Cash's Folsom Prison Blues. At Christmas, he disguised himself as a senior citizen he called "Eddie" and went about handing out candy canes and other gifts to strangers in the street. He established a "Blueline Buddies" program aimed at bringing police and under-privileged youth together for meals, a hockey game and autographs and photographs with the Nashville star.

Nashville, well used to flamboyant celebrities, loved it. When Subban made a Mark Messiertype guarantee of a playoff win last spring and pulled it off, they cheered all the harder.

The wider hockey world, however, has never warmed to largerthan-life personalities the way, say, basketball and baseball have.

Hockey has certainly had its characters: Eddie Shore, Lorne (Gump) Worsley, Eddie (The Entertainer) Shack. Howie Young, who played with multiple teams during the 1960s and 1970s, was so wild on the ice, and much wilder off the ice, that NHL president Clarence Campbell declared him "the greatest detriment to hockey that ever laced on a pair of skates."

Derek Sanderson won the Calder Trophy as a Boston Bruins rookie in 1968, jumped to the World Hockey Association for what was then the biggest contract in hockey history, bought a Rolls Royce, bounced back to the NHL, opened a New York nightclub with football star Joe Namath and ended up broke, drunk and sleeping on a park bench before he put his life back together.

Subban is far too young to have known Bernie (Boom Boom) Geoffrion, but perhaps he would relate best to a fellow former Montreal star. Geoffrion played for the Canadiens through the 1950s and into the early 1960s, once hitting the haloed 50-goal mark and once winning the league scoring championship. He also had a bit of a singing career, once appearing on national television with Perry Como.

He could not, however, win everyone over. He won the scoring championship, fans said, only because a greater hero, Rocket Richard, was suspended. When team captain Doug Harvey was traded to the New York Rangers, Geoffrion presumed that he, as assistant captain, would be handed the "C." Instead, it went to Jean Béliveau, who wasn't even wearing an "A" at the time. Geoffrion later admitted to being "crushed" by such an obvious rebuff.

More recently, Sean Avery was surely the most outrageous character in the game. The former New York Ranger even got a rule named after him when the league stepped in to prevent Avery-style goaltender screening. Off ice he was into fashion and even guestedited the website of Men's Vogue. He recently published his memoirs, Offside: My Life Crossing the Line.

"There is zero individuality in the NHL today," Avery told The Globe and Mail's Cathal Kelly last fall. "You don't see anybody in the league with any flavour."

Look no further than Nashville.

Associated Graphic

P.K. Subban of the Nashville Predators has a career-high 15 goals this season and leads his team with 43 points, putting him in contention for the Norris Trophy.


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