Subban: ‘Hockey’s just a stage I’m going through’

Montreal Canadiens defenceman P.K. Subban is just one of three sons the Subban family put through hockey on a tight budget.

Hanging in the Subban family home is a trio of pictures on the wall. In each of the old photographs is a different NHL-drafted son — P.K., Malcolm, Jordan. All three boys are captured at the same age, and all three boys are wearing the same pair of hockey pants. It’s a secondhand piece of equipment that, with time and growth spurts, became third- and fourth-hand.

The gear Karl Subban’s holey trinity of future NHLers used was all used. If any family knows the financial strain of putting children through organized hockey, it’s Karl’s.

“We had people that stepped up and helped out, and we had family fundraisers as well. Still, it was challenging,” Karl explains. “For the cost of equipment and registration, there were sacrifices we had to make. I wish I could just go online to get money for registration and equipment. I wish it was there. I don’t know how we did it, but we did it.”

Hyundai and Canadian non-profit KidSport linked with idea of footing the hockey bills (full equipment and minor hockey league registration fees) for 1,000-plus kids nationwide who otherwise would be restricted to Sally-Ann hand-me-downs and outdoor shinny. They launched Hyundai Hockey Helpers, and the Subban clan couldn’t be a better fit to promote the confidential grant initiative.

“We fit profile of being a family that struggled to get their kids in hockey and keep them in hockey. We know the importance of giving back, too,” explains Karl, the most recognizable hockey dad since Walter Gretzky. “I’m an educator, and I’ve worked mostly in priority neighbourhoods. My life mission is to help people be better and help children to be better.”

Sportsnet.ca sat down with Subbans P.K. and Karl to talk about using hockey to help children. The mission goes beyond a free pair of blades and some rolls of tape.

SN: When did you first realize you could use your status as a talented hockey player to make a difference beyond the rink?

P.K. Subban: “I saw the way people responded to my success on the ice. Obviously people were very connected to me. People were interested in P.K. the person as well as P.K. the hockey player. Through my success on the ice, I was able to channel that into helping other people. The biggest thing I realized is, through hockey I won’t find the full fulfillment in life. It might be through something else. Hockey is just a part of my life; it’s just a stage I’m going through. And when I’m done with hockey, there will be another stage. I love what I do. By the same token, I’ve seen so many people that can benefit from me giving back, so that’s all I’m trying to do. It should be the responsibility of professional athletes around the world. Not everybody has to go to the extent I’m going to, but to some degree it is your responsibility to give back and help people. Whether they believe it or not, there was somebody who gave back to help them.”

SN: If, 10 years ago, someone were to tell you that you’d have three sons all drafted into the NHL, Karl, what would you say?

Karl Subban: “That it’s not going to happen. You don’t start out thinking your son is going to make the NHL. I call it loading their GPS at a young age. I wanted them to be good at something and to be involved in something, and that was hockey. And our daughters were (drawn to) basketball. I thought it was good for teaching them life skills, for becoming better people and better athletes.”

SN: What’s the secret? Why do you think they’ve been so successful?

Karl: “The most important thing is their passion for what they do. They love playing hockey. And when you love what you do, the sky’s the limit. That’s their fuel for working hard. It’s a famous saying: If you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life. They’re inspired by the game. As a parent, I love seeing them doing what they love to do.”

SN: P.K., is there another athlete you’re trying to model yourself after in terms of giving back?

P.K.: “I want to be my own player. I want to be somebody different. There’s no reason why you can’t be an elite player in the league and an elite player in giving back to your community. That’s what I strive to be – not just a great hockey player but also a great person. At the end of the day, that’s what people are going to remember you for. There are a lot of athletes who go on to have great careers but are forgotten about. I don’t want to be forgotten about.”

SN: Karl, why were your sons drawn to defence and goalie. Three sons, no forwards. How does that happen?

Karl: “Very good question. A friend of mine told me that if you want them to make the NHL, have them play defence because every team is looking for a good defenceman. Forwards are a dime a dozen. So I sort of steered them in that direction; I started them out there. But look at Malcolm — he wanted to be a goalie. So they followed their passion.”

SN: Were there any differences in how each son approached the game?

Karl: “It wasn’t just bringing them to the rink and saying, ‘Go and play.’ We’d go to the shinny rink and I was on the ice with them. I’d make the backyard rink, and I’d be there skating with them. The idea is to do with your child. That’s the beauty of organized sports – it involves the family. Plus, we know children love attention. So when you’re with them, you’re giving them all your attention. And they respond positively to it. I never had to drag them to the rink; they dragged me to the rink. You know the early stories about P.K. — if I didn’t take him to (the outdoor rink at Toronto’s) Nathan Phillips Square, he’d be upset.”

SN: Is there a specific beneficiary of Hockey Helpers that made an impact with you?

P.K.: “There’s a group of kids who sent me a letter in the mail. They’re from Kingston, Ont. For a school project, they had created a drop box for equipment for the program. These kids’ parents were fully capable of funding them to play hockey. That was the best part. It wasn’t like these kids didn’t have financial support; they had the resources. But they still chose to create something to help kids that didn’t have the resources. That’s amazing. Not only are you touching the kids that need financial support, you’re influencing kids. They’re learning that when you do have the resources, it’s better to give back. We’re teaching, we’re influencing, we’re changing who people are for the better.”

SN: As a hockey dad, Karl, what advice did you give the boys once body-checking was introduced?

Karl: “We focused really on skating and playing the game. If you’re afraid of getting hit, afraid of being hurt, it gets in the way of progressing. As parents and coaches, we have an important job of creating the right mind-set. The idea is not to be hit. P.K. and the boys have great agility and balance on the ice. They keep their head up – what a great life skill. Keep your head up.”