P.K. Subban has never bought himself a car, even after the cheques from his $2.625 million NHL entry-level contract starting coming in three seasons ago.
If it seems crass to begin a family story with money, then you don’t know how money can change a family. How not having it can be a barrier between boys and their father’s dreams. How finding a way to scrape together just enough of it can make those dreams as vivid as colours red, blue and white.
“The first car I purchased was for my father. I bought him a truck,” Subban says. “I didn’t want to see myself driving around in a nicer car than him. I wanted him to feel like he’s accomplished a lot, too, which he has. He’s put me in a great position.”
Despite facing a near-certain player lockout in 10 days, despite not having a contract, despite being in a boardroom talking to a reporter instead of on the ice, restricted free-agent Subban is smiling because of a commitment his mother, Maria, and his father, Karl, made more than 20 years ago.
“My family doesn’t know what vacations are, man,” P.K. says. “A lot of my friends nowadays tell me they wished they could have played hockey, but their parents just didn’t have the money. It’s not easy. What my parents have done for myself and my brothers and my sisters is not normal. For a family to have five kids and to have emigrated from the West Indies, my father from Jamaica and my mother from Montserrat — it’s not easy to provide for five kids let alone put three kids in AAA hockey, one being a goalie, and put two daughters through university.
“It’s unbelievable the amount of money that must’ve been transferred. My parents gave up a lot. They gave up getting their hair done and nails and going on vacation.”
Karl Subban (the K in P.K.) was 11 years old when his family moved from Jamaica to Sudbury, Ont., in a francophone community with decidedly colder winters and an ice rink at the end of the street. Despite their son falling head over heels for the Sudbury Wolves and Montreal Canadiens, Karl’s parents couldn’t afford to buy him hockey equipment or sign him up for minor hockey. His first pair of skates came from the Salvation Army, and he’d lace them up for outdoor shinny games and imagine he was Ken Dryden. But money prevented him from having a shot at becoming Ken Dryden.
So when Karl and Maria had their own children, the kids came first. And second and third and fourth and fifth. Raising their team in Toronto, Karl would drive his sons to the free ice at Nathan Philips Square on school nights so the boys could skate, and he poured a home backyard rink to give his three puck hounds more ice time. When team fees, equipment bills and travel costs mounted as P.K., now 23, and younger brothers Malcolm, 18, and Jordan, 17, the Subbans fundraised by hawking tickets and chocolates at minor hockey games.
“We’ve made a lot of those sacrifices. Now I don’t mind being able to send them on a vacation. This makes it easy to do those things, and I’m so happy to be able to do that for my parents,” P.K. says. “But what they’ve done for us is unbelievable.”
Malcolm, a goaltender, was drafted in the first round of the 2012 NHL Entry Draft by the Boston Bruins. He signed a three-year entry deal Thursday. Jordan, a defenceman, is valued prospect who plays for the OHL’s Belleville Bulls (P.K. and Malcolm’s alma mater). He also won a gold medal with Canada’s under-18 squad at this summer’s Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament.
What should have been as probable as lightning striking thrice is now just a matter of time: all three brothers in the big league. P.K. doesn’t buy that hockey lives in the Subban genes; when it comes to the nature-versus-nurture debate, he cuts hard to the latter.
“All three of us playing in the NHL is a product of us working hard. It’s work ethic. This thing about people being gifted — I believe people are (born) talented, but talent doesn’t get you to the NHL,” P.K. explained. “You look at the best players in the game — Wayne Gretzky, Bobby Orr — they didn’t sit on the couch and then one day join the NHL. They worked on their game. Their talent was perseverance, dedication. Those are talents to me; that’s what gets you to the NHL.
“And through my family, we’ve learned about hard work and dedication. It’s a trickle-down effect. It started with me, obviously, but now you can see it’s working for my brothers. I’ve been harder on them than anybody else was on me, and they’re going to benefit from that.”
Karl did not just put P.K. in the mental position of being driven to win or the financial position of being able to afford a non-wooden stick; he put P.K. in his very literal position on the ice.
“You know why you should switch to defence, P.K.?” Karl said to his eldest son one day.
“Why?” asked a young P.K., who frequently played forward.
“Because good defencemen are hard to come by,” Karl said. “There are a lot of guys that play forward and score goals, but there’s not a lot of guys that can play defence and still score goals. You have the ability to play defence, and I think you should start trying it and get really good at it.”
P.K. listened to his dad and loved it ever since: “Now I’m happy because the play starts and ends with the defenceman.”
Questions to P.K. about the pending NHL lockout are obligatory but secondary.
To furious fans: “Remember, I grew playing hockey. That’s all I’ve known my whole life. That’s the same for the 699 guys in the league. We all want to play hockey. But there is a business side to it. Right now I just hope that both sides reach a fair agreement and we can get back to playing hockey again. I’m positive that will happen.”
On his backup plan: “I haven’t thought that far ahead. I take one day at a time,” P.K. says. “You’re always eligible to go play in the AHL, but I just finished my entry-level, so I wouldn’t be down there.”
The jersey P.K. wears today has No. 76 stamped on the back, as usual, but Hyundai Hockey Helpers emblazoned on the chest. For the Subbans, ambassadors for a new youth program that launched this week, there will be no work stoppage.
“The work ethic hasn’t stopped. We don’t act like we’ve accomplished anything. We carry ourselves as if there’s more to achieve, and I think this program is a start for that,” P.K. says.
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.
“It’s going to help thousands of kids get into hockey and play the game,” P.K. says. “My only thinking is 10-15 years down the road (seeing) one of these kids playing in the national league and thinking I was a part of that program. Like, P.K. helped me get to the national league. What a good feeling that would be.”
June 23, 2007, was a good-feeling day in the Subban house, to put it lightly. P.K. was selected in the second round of the 45th NHL Entry Draft by the Montreal Canadiens.
“He was in tears. He was really happy. He couldn’t believe it; he was stunned,” P.K. says of his father. “To have his son not only get drafted to the NHL but go to his favourite team… it was the most special day of my life.”
In order to understand why contract-free P.K. isn’t interested in entertaining offers from other teams, rich teams that may have a better shot at a championship than the Habs, who finished dead last in the East and made a mess of 2011-12, you need to hear him tell it.
“I see greatness in that organization every day when I go to the rink. I see opportunity. I see an opportunity to win, to bring a championship back to that team. That city is so hungry for another Stanley Cup. And when I look around the dressing room, I see a number of guys that can do it, that want to do it. And I think that my influence on that team can bring a Stanley Cup back to that city,” P.K. says, his fervor for the topic rounding the back of the net and picking up steam. “Some guys get it early in their careers, some guys get it late in their careers, but I’m going to get it at some point. And I want to do it in that city because that’s my favourite team. I grew up watching them. It’s a personal thing. When I step on the ice, it’s a feeling.
“There have been times when I’ve been playing games and there’s tears almost coming out of my eyes because I want to win so bad there. It’s such an emotional city to play in, and I’m an emotional player, so I thrive off that. That’s why it’s so easy for me to go play 150 per cent every night. That’s why I get the response I do from that fan base — they feel that passion.”
After scoring eight points in 14 playoffs games during the Habs’ 2010 run to the Eastern Conference finals, and pushing eventual 2011 Cup champion Boston Bruins to a thrilling seven-game first-round series in P.K.’s proper rookie year, expectations were high for the Canadiens entering 2011-12.
“I learned right away that momentum is not carried season-to-season. It’s built from Game 1 to Game 82 — not individually but as a team. A lot of people thought we were going to roll into the season and make the playoffs and build on that seventh-game loss against Boston. But you have to build from Game 1 to Game 82 because you have teams gunning for you, coming for you. That’s the first thing I noticed,” he says. “You’re the Montreal Canadiens. You have the most Stanley Cups of anyone in the league. Nobody wants to see you win again. I really understood that last year. I understood the hate that a lot of teams have for seeing the Montreal Canadiens succeed.”
The hate was supplanted mostly by pity or prayer last season, as the Habs’ 51 losses were interrupted by GM and head coach firings, a bizarre mid-game trade of a marquee forward, and a comical goal drought by one of the league’s most handsomely paid players. All of which led to one of the busiest off-seasons in memory, an effort in getting P.K. that Cup sooner rather than later.
Asked which 2012 personnel decision will have the biggest impact — new head coach Michel Therrien, new GM Marc Bergevin, locking up all-star goaltender Carey Price long-term? — P.K. sides with toughness.
“The acquisition of Brandon Prust. I think he’s going to be a big part of our team, and he brings a lot of character to our team. Both he and Francis Bouillon and Colby Armstrong,” Subban says. “I hope people aren’t looking at them and undervaluing those acquisitions because they’re major. That’s a lot of what we were missing last year — character — and those guys are going to bring it.”
And, really, if you’re going to charge someone with evaluating character, you could do worse than a Subban.
P.K. hits all platforms at Sportsnet headquarters