TORONTO — It’s a strange sight.
P.K. Subban is hustling up ice, spinning and slipping blind, backhanded passes thwack on the tape of soon-to-be goal scorers. He’s falling, laughing, and trying to trip contest-winning hockey hopefuls at Gatorade’s GCamp. He’s playfully battling Sidney Crosby, a fellow sponsored athlete, in the corners and dangling around teenagers that idolize him. Chirping, smiling, high-fiving — all gestures as blockbuster-sized as his trade one month ago. In short, P.K. is being P.K.
So that’s not the odd part. It’s what he’s wearing.
Aside from a G-splashed white-and-black sweater, Subban’s dekes and circle-backs are coloured in navy and gold. He’s rocking his official Nashville Predators helmet, gloves and pants. After nearly a decade representing Le Bleu-Blanc-Rouge, the visual is jarring.
“Very strange for me to see something like that happen,” Montreal Canadiens captain Max Pacioretty tells Sportsnet at GCamp, thinking back to one of hockey’s most climate-altering one-for-one trades in history. “P.K. is the person I got drafted with. He was the only remaining player I got drafted with.”
At the 2007 draft, Montreal took Pacioretty in Round 1 and Subban in Round 2, the offensive and defensive cornerstones of a repeated post-season threat just 21 slots apart. Since then, they’ve battled side by side through triumphant playoff series and nasty injuries and a reality series and, ultimately, the debacle of a winter that was Montreal’s 2015-16.
“I’d been with him for nine years, so it’s going to be very strange to come into the locker room and not see P.K. there, joking around with him all the time,” says Pacioretty. He remembers Subban snapping photos at his wedding, bringing a tripod and everything. “That’s what happens after you have a rough year: changes are made. I’ve talked to him a bunch since then, and a lot of emotions happen through trades.”
Pacioretty was at home in Florida when text messages alerted him to the breaking trade. He called Subban, who was dining in Paris, five minutes after the discovery, if not less. “Probably less,” he adjusts.
Was he OK?
“Yeah, he was. P.K. is the most… I don’t know what the word is. No matter what happens in life, he doesn’t let it affect him. He’s always had a glass-half-full mentality. I call him, and he’s like, ‘Hey! What’s up, Patch?’ ” Pacioretty recounts.
Subban arrives at GCamp one day after his former teammate, and we ask him about that first call with Pacioretty.
“Fazed and being unfazed…” Subban weighs. “If something happened to somebody close to me, I’d probably be devastated, but we know that in the business we’re working in, these things can happen. And it’s not as if it was a complete shock. There were rumours going around for two months of a possible trade. After a while you believe where there’s smoke there’s fire. And I knew there was a possibility because of my no-trade kicking in. The team made a decision, and that’s it.
“In that type of situation, it’s all about how you react. I chose to respond in a way that, listen, I owe it to the Predators and the city of Nashville to embrace them from the start. I had an opportunity to do that, so I did it.”
Pacioretty marvels at Subban’s eternal energy and unflappable positivity.
“You never see him down on himself. He was excited for the opportunity to play in Nashville. We wish we could’ve done better things in Montreal together. He knew how special it was to play in Montreal, and he always had that approach,” Pacioretty says.
The two players were officially the face of Montreal’s new generation in 2014-15, when they were each handed one-fourth of the Original Six club’s captaincy, Tomas Plekanec and Andrei Markov representing the established guard. At the beginning of 2015-16, Pacioretty was awarded the C, not Subban, in a decision determined by player vote.
Whispers of a rift in the Subban-Pacioretty relationship made the rounds as the Canadiens tumbled down the standings last season. Where there’s fire, there’s blame.
Most notably, TVA’s Louis Jean — the reporter who correctly brought Subban trade rumours to light way back in February — pointed to the club’s nucleus on Hockey Central at Noon.
“There is no question that the captain, Max Pacioretty, and Subban are not best of friends. There is no question that they don’t necessarily do things the same way,” Jean said. “[Subban] is a guy that does rub others the wrong way.”
Hard evidence of turmoil between the two never surfaced.
Subban went to dramatic lengths (by hockey standards) to squash those rumours once and for all at the Habs’ season-ending press availability in April, wrapping a bear hug around “Patches” as flash bulbs lit.
“I can say till I’m blue in the face: We like each other, we play together, we respect each other,” Subban said at the time. “But what? Do I have to go over there and make out with him? Katia [Pacioretty’s wife] might have a problem with that.”
Other alterations to the Canadiens roster were made, but the Subban trade dwarfs them all.
Those changes have weighed on Pacioretty, who registered his third consecutive 30-goal, 60-point season but is wrestling with how to elevate as a captain.
“I would think about how Saku Koivu would handle that adversity. You have to be yourself. It’s hard to not make the playoffs, especially in my first year as a captain, but I’ve been through adversity before and I’m willing to do what it takes to become the best leader to my teammates,” Pacioretty says.
“We weren’t able to handle [Carey Price‘s injury] the right way. Carey is the best player in the world. When we lost him, obviously we weren’t able to recover from it.
“That experience of last year alone should make us more determined to bear down in tough times like that.”
Pacioretty, 27, is reluctant to reveal specific lessons he gleaned from last season’s 22nd-place finish, but they exist, and he’s hunting for more.
Two weeks ago, he attended a Team USA players-only golf retreat in Wisconsin for a little bonding time in advance of September’s World Cup. He looked at his foursome and it hit him: they were all current or former NHL captains. So he swapped stories with David Backes, Joe Pavelski and Ryan McDonagh. Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, too. He wants to know how other organizations handle players, how other rosters navigate tricky situations.
Shea Weber — a 20-goal scorer, Pacioretty reminds us — will be a frequent guest speaker at this unofficial leadership course. Pacioretty has already spoken with the newest Hab a couple of times over the phone.
“It’s a bit of a fresh start. I think he can help me out with the captaincy and the leadership side of things. He’s a guy that’s been there, a guy who has a lot of experience wearing the C, and that’s something very valuable to our team and for myself,” Pacioretty says.
“I’ll make sure my teammates know that everything I do is genuine and for the team. If we all have that mindset, we really like the future of our organization.”
Subban is the past, as awkward as that still-fresh truth sits for Canadiens fans. The colours have turned, the rumours no longer relevant.
“It’s going to be a different feeling Day 1 at camp,” says Pacioretty, who had no prior knowledge of the summer’s biggest deal.
“As a friend, I feel Nashville’s going to be a very good opportunity for him as a player and as a person. Looking forward to our team, we have a chance to play with one of the best in the league as well. It’s hard to make one of those trades.
“We lost a friend, and hopefully we gained another.”