The Montreal Canadiens' most recognizable player is a trash-talking defenseman with a slap shot that tops 100 mph. He’s only 25 but has already earned a Norris Trophy — the NHL’s award for best defenseman. He’s also one of just 18 black players in the league — and he has a new, eight-year, $72 million contract. His name is Pernell Karl Subban — better known as P.K.
BL: Ben, P.K.’s parents were born in the Caribbean and moved to Canada when they were kids in the 1970s. When P.K. was born in Toronto, his father, Karl, decided his son was going to embrace Canada’s national pastime. What did Karl do to help that happen?
There is something that makes me uncomfortable about the fact that when the Montreal Canadiens [are on the road], the only player on the Canadiens that the fans are going to be booing is the darkest guy on the ice.Ben McGrath, The New Yorker
BM: Two things, basically. The first was he concluded, having arrived too late to become a hockey prodigy himself, he decided that his son was going to have to start skating very early. I think P.K. began skating when he was 2-and-a-half. The other thing that the dad decided was that P.K. should play defense rather than offense. Usually parents don't choose that. Coaches impose that on children. But P.K.'s father had heard that defensemen were always in short supply, and so he thought, "All right, my boys will play defense."
P.K. may have been playing defense notionally but he was sort of willing to go all over the ice, being dynamic, playing plenty of offense. He didn't really take it as any kind of confinement.
BL: One of P.K. Subban’s most notable traits is his personality. He’s smart. He's funny. He loves to needle his opponents. How has his trash talk shaped his career to this point?
BM: The word that hockey guys like to use is that he "chirps." And this has helped contribute to an idea from the beginning that he is disrespectful of tradition or of veteran players. It makes it easier for other teams and other teams' fans to identify him as a kind of enemy. So, he has been perceived from the beginning as a controversial or polarizing player who is both talented but also a bit of a loud-mouth.
BL: Don Cherry, the long-time, outspoken commentator for “Hockey Night in Canada” has said that Subban is too much of a showboater, but he's also said he’s the kind of guy you’d want to have for a son. Is that a perfect description of the dichotomy of this fella's character?
BM: Yeah, I mean, I think Don Cherry represents a kind of conservative, old-school philosophy of hockey. There's a little bit of a tricky issue when it comes to parsing how much of this criticism is being fairly applied individually to P.K. Subban or how much is there a tendency to see the "other" as problematic.
[sidebar title="NHL To Las Vegas?" width="630" align="right"]Las Vegas has a potential ownership group in place and an arena under construction. But will the NHL place a franchise in Vegas?[/sidebar]And yet I thought it was interesting that Don Cherry himself is also incredibly fond of P.K. Subban. And the more you let him talk, the more he'll say, look, he's great for hockey in spite of all these things he does. He's wonderful. He's nice. The thing about P.K. is he's pretty impossible to dislike, I find.
BL: Subban consistently deflects questions about race, but the NHL is almost entirely white. And when the Canadiens are on the road, fans love to boo Subban. That’s common for talented players, I suppose, but is there an undercurrent of racism in the jeers?
BM: I think there has to be. When the Colorado Avalanche come into town, people aren't going to boo Nathan MacKinnon, who's a very talented, young player just when he gets the puck. There is something that makes me uncomfortable about the fact that when the Montreal Canadiens go to Boston or they go to New York or they go to Philadelphia, the only player on the Canadiens that the fans are going to be booing is the darkest guy on the ice.
BL: In Montreal the top issue surrounding P.K. Subban and his teammates is not anything that we’ve been talking about so far, Ben. It’s whether Subban can guide the Canadiens to their first Stanley Cup title since 1993. What do you think?
BM: Well, they're off to a good start this year. If you said to me, "In the next eight years, will the Canadiens with P.K. win the Stanley Cup?" I'd like to think yes. And I think it would be a lot of fun to see if he can invent kind of a new way of hoisting the Stanley Cup or something. He's a different kind of player, and it would be fun to see.
**Editor's note: The Montreal Canadiens won their last Stanley Cup in 1993. An earlier version of this story incorrectly listed the year as 1996.
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This segment aired on December 13, 2014.