The Subban Effect

He’s the most exciting black player in NHL history, and its number one punching bag

By: James Di Fiore

Before the playoffs began, in a game between the Montreal Canadiens and the Ottawa Senators, Habs coach Michel Therrien showed PK Subban how much he respects him. Subban was caught out of position a couple times, not uncommon for any aggressive defenseman, and these errors contributed to one goal by the Sens. In Coach Therrien’s world, this was enough to bench Subban for close to an entire period even though he averages the most minutes on the team. Therrien has been pretty consistent all season long regarding his lack of respect towards his star defenseman, but with one series under their belt in this post season, a series where Subban’s contributions have been front and center, Therrien may want to reexamine his attitude towards hockey’s most exciting black player.

It’s worth pointing out that Subban’s errors are not always the sole contributors to opposition goals, and there are other players, most notably Habs captain Brian Gionta whose mental errors are as bad or sometimes worse than Subban’s.

However, when Subban made an error in the regular season, he was either benched, ridiculed, intentionally embarrassed or exhaustingly lectured during practice or when Therrien is speaking to the media. No other player who has made an error on the ice – and every last player has made a few errors – receives this kind of relentless badgering. And I would wager no Norris trophy winner in NHL history was treated like a rookie after they won the hardware.

So, contrary to hockey pundits and their politically correct sensibilities, the reason for all the negative attention and overly critical reporting is, wait for it, because PK Subban is black. It isn’t overt racism, but it is nestled inside a common problem many institutions have; the tendency to be more critical of people who are not typical representatives of the institution but still make mistakes like everyone else.

An enormous amount of ink has been spilled deconstructing the identity of PK Subban. The critics line up around the block and methodically take their turns bashing his attitude, slamming his unforced errors and claiming his antics rally the opposing teams. Duncan Keith, a star defenseman known for dirty plays, diving and being cocky, still manages to get the ‘hard worker’ moniker from analysts and sports writers. Not PK though. He’s no Duncan Keith, after all.

With the exception of Montreal fans, nobody talks about PK’s enormous contribution to the NHL itself. If the critics, writers and pundits do heap any praise, repetitive analysis criticizing PK’s swagger and mental game usually surround it. But take a step in the opposite direction – make PK Subban a brand for the NHL to encourage young black hockey players to strive for greatness – and all of a sudden the impetuous, cocky black kid becomes a marketing tool, like the Yao Ming of the NHL. Why not? It’s better than being everybody’s whipping boy, no?

Well, it is not a very popular thing to say, but Subban’s critics are not constantly bashing him because he’s the league’s new Sean Avery. It is worth repeating, they are bashing him because he’s a black hockey star who isn’t conservative, reserved or cut from the same cloth as Bobby Orr. Only, he is cut from that same cloth. So far in these playoffs Subban has stepped up his game at both ends, and may have quarterbacked the best play we have seen in the post season thus far. Greatness isn’t measured by a missed assignment in the regular season, but by taking your game to another level in the playoffs. On the latter, Subban is clearly one of the league’s greatest players.

Just an aside here; what history does Subban have with Tampa Bay or their fans? He is booed every time he touches the puck by Floridians, but this kind of reaction is usually reserved for ex players, or players who have had bad blood with the home team. Not so in PK’s case.

Hmm…what could it be? Perhaps Tampa Bay fans are merely standing their hockey ground, who knows?

Fans aside, the critics don’t believe they are treating Subban differently. They are merely calling it like they see it. In fact, I bet Subban would be the first to say he isn’t being judged by the colour of his skin. He would certainly never say that about his coach, but if the rumours of a Subban-Therrien feud are true, the Canadiens organization may have to choose between their coach and their star player. And if they choose the coach, they’ve shortchanged the franchise and the Montreal fans for years to come.

However unintentional, the constant criticism of this young black hockey player is unparalleled. He dives once in a while, acts a little cocky after a goal here and there, and he makes a few mistakes that result in opposition goals, but just the fact that I can rattle off so many of his apparent shortcomings should be evidence that I know too much about one particular player.

We all do.


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