I’ve followed the NHL for nearly three decades, but it’s pretty safe to say that I have never seen anything like the P.K. Subban phenomenon, on and off the ice.
And that’s a statement that I could have made before, during and after last June’s shocking trade that sent him from the Montreal Canadiens to the Nashville Predators in exchange for two-time Olympic gold medalist Shea Weber.
In his six-year run in Montreal, Subban transcended the stereotypical image of the no-nonsense hockey player. You couldn’t have put a Subban figurine on one of those vintage table-top hockey sets, because he wouldn’t have settled for simply veering up and down the ice in a straight line. That wasn’t how he played.
He occasionally frustrated coaches with his willingness to take a chance to launch an offensive rush, but he more frequently lifted fans out of their seats – at the Bell Centre and in living rooms across North America – with astounding displays of puck possession and full-court razzle-dazzle not seen since the Bobby Orr days.
He played in two conference finals with the Habs in 2010 and 2014, arguably strapping the entire team on his back for the latter playoff run by almost single-handedly destroying the Boston Bruins in the second round. But after a disastrous 2015-16 season that saw Montreal miss the playoffs after opening the season 9-0 (and then losing all-world goalie Carey Price and several other regulars to injuries), Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin made what must have been the single most difficult decision during his five-year tenure in Montreal.
Now, I’m not going to go as far to compare Subban to Wayne Gretzky in terms of on-ice ability and transformative play. I will suggest, however, that you’d have to go back to the 1988 trade that sent the Oiler great south to the L.A. Kings to understand the level of shock, surprise and even sadness that accompanied the Subban-for-Weber swap. (I don’t even think Leaf fans took it this badly in 1997, when Doug Gilmour was sent to New Jersey.)
For better or for worse, the young man from Toronto symbolized a new era of skill and swagger, not only for Montreal but for the NHL in general. It almost seemed wrong to send him to an American team, in a questionable southern market like Nashville, the day before Canada Day, no less.
That brings us to Thursday evening, when Subban laced up his skates for the first time against the team that had drafted him in 2007 and seemed ready to groom him for greatness. The Predators had played the Habs a few months earlier, but an injury kept Subban out of the line-up for that December game, which Montreal won 2-1 in overtime.
At times, it almost felt like the circus was in town. The affable Subban conducted a slew of interviews, was awarded Canada’s Meritorious Service Award by Governor-General David Johnston, and made a visit to the Montreal Children’s Hospital, which received a $10 million donation from the veteran defenseman 18 months earlier. (One NHL.com article noted that he visited the hospital with two other Nashville Predators, marking the first time Subban had taken any of his teammates to the facility with him.)
To their credit, both the Predators and the Canadiens knew it was a special night for Subban. His fellow Predators formed a hockey-stick gauntlet as he took the ice for a solo spin in the pre-game warm-up, and the Canadiens organization put together a video tribute that ran prior to the national anthem performances. It all proved too much for Number 76 to overcome, and the tears streamed down Subban’s face as the crowd boisterously chanted “P.K. P.K.! P.K.!”
He blew a couple of kisses in the direction of one of his biggest fans, Elyse Belliveau, the widow of Canadiens legend Jean Belliveau. And then it was down to business, with a few reminders of the unbelievable puck control he had displayed on so many nights in this same venue while playing for the home team. One of those instances allowed the Predators to open the scoring, as Subban set up teammate Ryan Ellis for a power-play goal late in the first period.
The Habs would save their best for last on this night, tying the score on a Brendan Gallagher bank shot late in the third and then winning it on an improbable Paul Byron breakaway goal with 8.3 seconds left on the clock. It was arguably the most acceptable finish for Canadiens boosters – the right team won, and our old friend still got to have a memorable night.
And through it all, he did it P.K.’s way.