Karl Subban on racism, in-game protests and the power of sport

Karl Subban, the father of three NHL hockey players talks about how he built a great Hockey family and the influence Bob McCowan had on P.K. growing up.

When Karl Subban was 12 years old, he moved with his family from Jamaica to Sudbury, Ont. It was an enormous transition for an adolescent boy who spoke Patois, and grew up playing cricket and soccer on the Caribbean island where he was born. It didn’t help that most of the boys on his new street were Francophone.

But any isolation Subban felt didn’t last long.

He found a bridge to a new world watching a strange game played on ice on TV on Saturday nights. He couldn’t understand the French-language broadcast that described the action, but he was captivated. It was a game he’d seen local boys play on his street. In particular, he was drawn to Ken Dryden, the Montreal Canadiens goaltender who played the same position Subban had played on his soccer team back in Jamaica.

And so Subban began to play the game with a group of neighborhood boys. They couldn’t understand each other’s words, but sticks in hand, they found commonality as they chased a ball around their street.

“The one language we understood was hockey,” Subban says, recalling those long afternoons back in the early 1970s. “It gave me something to love…. That’s when I realized the power of [sport].”

Today, Subban is the patriarch of one of hockey’s most famous families. His oldest son, P.K. Subban of the Nashville Predators, is one of the game’s top defenseman and of the NHL’s most recognizable faces. His second son, Malcolm Subban, is a goaltender with the Vegas Golden Knights. And his youngest son, Jordan Subban, is a defenceman in the Vancouver Canucks minor league system.

Subban shares their remarkable story in his new book, How We Did It, co-authored by journalist Scott Colby. The book lays out a blueprint for fostering potential in youth, drawing on Subban’s experience as both a hockey dad and school principal in an at-risk community in north Toronto.

In an interview about the book, Subban fondly recalled his early days in Canada when hockey provided a way into an unfamiliar place. I asked him about the ongoing controversy surrounding NFL players who have knelt during the American national anthem to protest racial injustice and police brutality.

Subban’s son, P.K., has previously said he wouldn’t kneel during an anthem. Karl, who has yet to speak with his son about his stance, echoed the sentiment. But not out of lack of respect for those athletes who choose to, Subban says. He appreciates their message, and knows first-hand how important it is, he says — but he’s firmly rooted in the separation of sport and state.

“I don’t always agree with [P.K.], but I agree with him here,” he says. “I want to leave politics out of sports. Yes, there are injustices… but I would rather choose another venue, or another way of protesting, but not on the basketball court, or on the ice, or on the soccer or football field. I don’t want to lose that opportunity for my timeout from life. And sports unite us, like no other thing can in society.”

That’s not to say that racism — both latent and overt — hasn’t been an inescapable part of his family’s experience. As Subban’s sons rose through minor hockey, they were often the only black family at Herb Carnegie Arena in Toronto where they often played. The rink is named for the black hockey star in the 1940s and 1950s who was denied a place in the NHL because of his race.

More than half a century later, there were still times when the Subban brothers would occasionally face racist taunts as they played.

But Karl and his wife, Maria, raised their five kids — they also have two daughters, Taz and Tasha — to work hard to foster their kids’ potential to achieve their dreams, despite the obstacles they faced.

“You know who you are,” Subban told his kids. “Don’t let anything stop you.”

He knew that if any of his sons were to make it to the NHL, they wouldn’t get there because of the colour of their skin. Rather, he says, “They were going to make it because of their character.”

Subban scribbled that one down as we spoke.

“I like it,” he says. “I’m going to tweet it out later.”

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Subban speaks in the kind of inspirational quotes you’d find on posters in the halls of a high school, and you can imagine the positive impact his gregarious, sage personality has had on the students he’s influenced over the years.

Even in conversation, he’s able to pull every thought back to a neatly tied lesson: “No one gets better overnight; they get better over time,” he says. “Believe in your potential. It will not let you down. Your potential will never fail you.”

And: “Our children learn from us. Children don’t do a great job listening to us. But they do a fantastic job doing what we do.”

Today, the sport Subban first fell in love with as a young immigrant from Jamaica has provided wealth and fame for his family. But the goal has always been about much more than achieving success in the game, he says.

So, even with one son starring in the NHL and two others well on their way, Subban says his greatest hope for his children is still not satisfied. While he’s thrilled that they’re living their dreams, he says, they have a long way to go in areas that matter most, as everyday people who make a difference.

“It’s so easy for us as parents to get lost in our kids’ achievements, when they still haven’t made it in life,” he says. “I want to be known for how they do in life.”