DALLAS — Some 16 months after defencemen Shea Weber and P.K. Subban were traded for each other in a blockbuster that shocked the hockey world, this coming Wednesday presents a first opportunity for them to match up against each other at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville.
You can imagine how difficult it must have been for Subban to have missed his first opportunity to play his former team, when the Montreal Canadiens came to Nashville and walked away with a 2-1 overtime win on Jan. 2 of last season.
Naturally both players had that first post-trade meeting circled on their calendars from the minute the NHL’s 2016-17 schedule was released. Subban had made arrangements to have dozens of his friends and family members in attendance and had held out hope that he’d be able to recuperate from a herniated disc in his back in time to participate.
But as the game approached, it became clear to Subban that it wasn’t going to work out.
“It was really hard,” Subban said in an interview with Sportsnet last Friday. “But if you’ve never really been injured for a sustained period in your career and that’s the one time, you just have to bite the bullet and accept it. The way I look at it is that everything happens for a reason. It wasn’t my time to play. It wasn’t my moment.”
It was Weber’s. The six-foot-four defenceman had cast an enormous shadow in Nashville as a pillar of the Predators organization over 11 seasons—several of them spent as team captain—and he was going to get the lion’s share of the attention in his first return to the city, regardless of Subban’s participation.
Weber ended up scoring a goal in the game and certainly offered the most memorable moment of the night, when he got emotional watching a video tribute the Predators played for him during the first period.
“It was very hard keeping it together,” Weber told Sportsnet last Friday. “Very hard, I think. A lot of emotions going through those first couple of days there. Obviously, being back there and seeing familiar faces in a place I had lived for a long time and in a city I built my career in; going back there was a lot of emotions and watching that was no shortage of emotions, either.
“To be honest with you, I couldn’t wait for it to be over with. Not that I didn’t want to do it or go through it, but I think I’m not the kind of guy who likes it when all the attention’s on me. Everyone was building it up to be this big thing when I wanted it to be just another game. I wanted to win, get the two points and move on. Now that it’s over with, I don’t think it’ll be as big of a deal this time around.”
At least part of that will be due to Subban’s presence in the game. Another part of it will be about where these teams are currently at and how they’ve changed since that point in time.
The Canadiens were among the best teams in the NHL when they last arrived in Nashville, but the tide has turned for them this season after a six-game loss to the New York Rangers in the first round of last year’s playoffs. They got off to their worst start in 76 years, turned it around by winning seven of 11 games, and then took a couple of steps back most recently with losses to the Arizona Coyotes and Toronto Maple Leafs. Canadiens coach Claude Julien and his players characterized those recent losses as “embarrassing and unacceptable.”
“That team isn’t the same team I left over a year ago,” Subban said.
Canadiens goaltender Carey Price will be in Nashville but might not be able to participate after being sidelined by a lower-body injury on Nov. 2. Four of the team’s six starting defencemen were playing elsewhere last year. Defenceman Andrei Markov—who spent 16 years with the club—left for the KHL. Forward Alexander Radulov, who set up Max Pacioretty for the overtime winner in Nashville last season, signed a five-year deal with the Dallas Stars. And Jonathan Drouin was added via trade to become Montreal’s top-line centre.
“They’ve had a lot of changes,” Subban said. “I think last year when I looked at their team, I thought they were a team that got better in some areas.
“I had a chance to meet Radulov in Russia this summer. What an energetic guy. You could see the energy he brings. I know what it feels like to feed off the crowd and the energy in the Bell Centre, and I could see him doing that. I watched him pretty closely and was amazed at how good he was in tight and how good he was at making players around him better. I felt that he and Markov are two really skilled players. Those are two elite players that they lost, and it sucks when that happens. That’s a part of the game.”
Just as addition is a part of it, too.
The Predators may have lost captain Mike Fisher to retirement but they added third-line centre Nick Bonino as a free agent over the summer, former Canadiens defenceman Alexei Emelin came over via trade and is now Subban’s defence partner, and second-line centre Kyle Turris was most recently added after a three-team trade was consummated between the Predators, the Ottawa Senators and Colorado Avalanche.
They were on the bubble of the playoff picture when these teams last met in Nashville but are currently among the Western Conference’s best teams—and arguably much improved since falling just two wins shy of hoisting the 2017 Stanley Cup.
“Pretty special for them and the city of Nashville,” said Weber, who watched everything unfold after his Canadiens were dispatched from last year’s playoffs. “I think they deserve it after all they’ve been through—with bringing in a team first and then going through thinking they were going to lose it and people saying they can’t support a franchise.
“Just playing there, you know they can. There’s fans that love the team so much and love the game and love it there.
“And seeing some of the guys who I started with… I started in Milwaukee (with Nashville’s AHL affiliate) with Peks (goaltender Pekka Rinne), and he had an unbelievable playoffs. And just seeing these young guys I had played with and helped along the way in their careers, and seeing them win and go through to the final was pretty special. Maybe not special, but just a cool feeling seeing them do so well. You hoped that they’d win. I wasn’t there but those are my friends and guys that I went to war with before. You’re not hoping that they’d lose. I genuinely wanted to see them succeed.”
But it goes without saying Weber’s hoping success is on Montreal’s side when the Canadiens and Predators match up on Wednesday. Just as Subban is hoping his presence in the game can help turn things his team’s way.
“I’m looking forward to it,” said Subban.
You bet he is.
During our conversations last week, Weber and Subban each had plenty more to say… about each other and other topics.
Weber on Subban:
“He played great in the playoffs. Really simplified his game. He’s a good player, obviously very skilled. We need players like him, and he really sells the game. I appreciate what he does off the ice because I’m not like that. I can’t do that. His personality is important for our game. We’re very different both on and off the ice.”
Subban on Weber:
“Playing and practising with him at the Sochi Olympics was one my best experiences internationally. Everybody was great, let’s be honest. You go through the list of players. Out of a 22-man roster, probably 17 or 18 of them were captains or assistant captains of their NHL teams. So you know they’re all good guys. But Shea was just awesome for me. We got along great. We actually had the same interests in a lot of the music that was played in the room, so we kinda brought it there. But I also look up to him. He’s been in the league for a long time and was the captain in Nashville and a true leader, and was really, really nice to me at the Olympics.
It’s tough when you’re not playing, but he was great to me; talking to me every day. You can tell what makes him a great leader in the room and why he was so well-liked in Nashville while he was here.
“I want to see Shea do well, and I’m sure he wants to see me do well. How can you not respect a guy like that who’s played so long in the league and has played so well? I just think we’re such different players, both on and off the ice, and it’s not really fair to compare us. Is it easier to compare me with Drew Doughty or Erik Karlsson? Maybe, because we’re younger and came up a bit later. But with Shea Weber, every team would love to have a Shea Weber.”
Weber on which defenceman he admires:
“I was so happy for Drew Doughty when he won the Norris (in 2016). I think the game has so many great puck-movers and skaters, but he does it all. He’ll block a shot, throw a big hit, he can shoot it, start the rush. He does it all game after game.
“Ryan Suter is like that. I think he’s under appreciated. Does everything well and plays half the game. And he’s been doing it year after year. He’s one of the best, for sure.”
Subban on asking Duncan Keith for advice:
“I went to the World Championships in 2012 and I asked Duncan Keith what it was like to win the Norris. And he said, ‘P.K., you have to play with great players, have a great power play, have to have all kinds of help to do it.’
“That really stuck with me. I have so much respect for him.”
Weber on the last time he spoke with Predators GM David Poile:
“He talked to me on that game day (Jan. 2, 2016). Whatever time I got to the rink there—4 p.m.
“To be honest, I don’t remember a whole lot. At that point of the day I’m preparing for a game. I don’t want to be—obviously I’ve got a lot of respect for him and everything he’s done. It wasn’t a blur. I recall he was genuine and obviously he wanted to talk, but at that point I was really focused on getting ready for the game. It was a tough time, but the hockey world’s a small world and I’m sure we’ll have time to sit down or meet again.”
Subban on moving on from the trade:
“I’ll never know why I was traded. Until someone in management tells me outright—and I’ve heard a lot of things—I don’t know for sure. So I moved on because I had to. It sucked to have to do it that way because with the team we had I felt that we could all get on the same page, and a few other pieces would come in and we could have a really good team with a good chance. The reality is I’m on a team in Nashville right now that I feel has a legitimate chance to win a Stanley Cup. I’m excited about that.
“As a player, when I leave Bridgestone Arena and I can’t wait to go back and eat scrambled eggs in the morning and watch First Take and laugh at Stephen A. Smith on TV for 25 minutes before we have to go and stretch and get ready for a game. I look forward to that because we’re really like brothers and it’s just great. I don’t know why that it is.
“That whole time I was injured (in 2016), I was watching and noticing how special this group is. It’s so sincere. I was talking to my dad last year and this year about how good of a job management has done creating such a positive environment around the team. It’s so important. Really special. I can’t complain. I hate to talk about it because I don’t want it to sound like I’m putting down Montreal or my time there. It’s not that at all. It just is that we have a great group and I’m happy here. I really am.”
Weber on adjusting to life in Montreal:
“It was a lot easier to come here this year just knowing the management staff and trainers. Last year, just getting to know the guys in the room—it was like the first day of school. You come in and you have no clue about anything about the guys. When you come into the city as a visiting team, you’re usually only here for a day or two. You don’t know a whole lot about the city as well, and then all of a sudden it’s home. Getting to know it pretty well and starting to settle in and I’m feeling a lot more comfortable now.”
Subban on Montreal’s start to the season:
“The toughest thing about being traded is that there’s still guys on that team who are close friends of mine.
“I’ve been in Montreal in those years where we didn’t make the playoffs or had a tough start or went through a rough stretch, and I don’t wish that on anybody. I know how tough it can get in that city when things aren’t going to plan. It either makes you stronger, or makes you better, or it can crush you.
“A guy like Price, who I’ve known for so long; I want to see him succeed because he deserves that. He’s always been such a great player his whole career that he deserves an opportunity to win. A guy like Shea Weber deserves a chance to compete for it. Obviously I don’t want them to beat us or be ahead of us, but I’m still a fan of the Montreal Canadiens. Anyone who’s ever been a fan of them will always be a fan of them. It’s always great to see Montreal in the playoffs.
“I’m not rushing to judgment on them. A team can win four or five in a row and be right back in it. I wait until the 40-game mark.”