Any chance to interview P.K. Subban should be treated as an event. This is the hard-hitting defenceman for the New Jersey Devils. This is the 31-year-old Canuck who once inked a $72 million contract with the Montreal Canadiens, and later tied Kris Letang as the leading scorer in his position. This is one of the most dynamic and charismatic personalities in all of sport.
Still, today’s conversation feels especially noteworthy.
On one hand, we are speaking with an elite professional athlete in the midst of a global pandemic—a pandemic which has flipped the entire universe of professional sports upside down. It’s been a period of recharging his body—one of reflection and maintaining accountability to both his craft and himself.
On the other, we’re speaking to a Black hockey player in a league with only a few dozen players of colour—he is incidentally the first Black player to win the Norris Trophy, awarded to the NHL’s best defenceman—and during an international anti-racism uprising where jocks protesting injustices have taken on new historical significance.
“Oh, and you’re speaking to one of the better-looking athletes in the world,” Subban chimes in. “Don’t forget that. Everybody always forgets that point. You can’t forget that.”
He’s kidding, he claims. Except mere minutes later, when we hail the fawned-over fashionisto for being the most stylish man in the NHL, he doesn’t thank us because we’ve flattered him with some surprise compliment. No, he appears to thank us because we’re stating the obvious, at least in his estimation.
If you weren’t already familiar with Subban’s ever-forthright nature and self-promotional flair, chastised by some as brash, you’d be forgiven for presuming that after their recent, much-publicized workout together, a little bit of “The Rock” had rubbed off on him. The biggest movie star in the world was famed for his braggadocious demeanor throughout his professional wrestling days. And let’s not pretend it didn’t have a huge influence on the kid who grew up idolizing him.
“I don’t know Dwayne Johnson as the guy in the Fast & Furious movies. I don’t know him as the guy in Gridiron Gang. I know him as ‘the most electrifying man in sports entertainment,’” Subban declares, referring to one of Johnson’s many monikers.
“I was that seven- or eight-year-old boy that would run around the house. My mom would say, ‘Why haven’t you cleaned your room yet?’ I’d say, ‘Mom, why do you think I haven’t cleaned my room?’ And she’d say something and I’d shout, ‘It doesn’t matter!’ And she chased me around. I did that for years,” he says. “That was my script.”
This script has served Subban well since entering the ice hockey’s paid ranks in 2009, earning him a welcome presence outside of his game and within the mainstream consciousness. But for as much as he channels the swagger of “The Great One”—another of Johnson’s notorious nicknames—it’s his activities in the realm of philanthropy that have us drawing parallels to a similarly boastful phenom: “The Greatest” himself, Muhammad Ali.
Though Subban would certainly reject the comparison, as would any superstar athlete under the weight of such lofty expectations, stick with us here. There is indeed some merit to this. Categorically, like several of his contemporaries, he fits the social-activist Ali mould in one very distinct way: as a difference-maker.
Putting in the Man Hours
According to Subban, to become a difference-maker—a title he delights in—you have to be willing to put in the man-hours. “You don’t understand what it is to make a difference in someone’s life until you’ve gotten your hands dirty,” he contends, “and you’ve put in the time and you’ve seen it happen.”
Having spearheaded a $10-million, seven-year pledge to the Montreal Children’s Hospital Foundation—what the health-care facility described as the biggest philanthropic commitment by a sports figure in Canadian history—Subban knows what it’s like to get his hands dirty, to put in the time, and to make it happen. Subban also created Blueline Buddies to build better relations between law enforcement and inner-city youth. In fact, during Nashville Predators home games, he not only hosted the program but brought together a member of the Metro Nashville Police Department with a mentor from a local organization and an underprivileged youth.
And having launched his Subban Defence League, dedicated to helping and guiding tomorrow’s leaders, you guessed it: Subban knows what it’s like to get his hands dirty, to put in the time, and to make it happen. The Subban Defence League itself offers young players a premier hockey training experience, giving them a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to learn how to be a champion in sports, as well as in life.
Through these exploits, Subban has already helped more than 30,000 families. Credit the man for pinpointing the need for charitable endeavours like these long ago. Or for identifying that there’s always something that deserves to be addressed in terms of communities, hospitals, and kids, and what’s transpiring socially. Because, in his opinion, hockey isn’t just a game on the ice anymore. In the era of social media, everybody has a platform and a voice.
But sometimes, as Subban concedes, just using your voice isn’t always enough.
“It’s actions that have worked well for me in terms of change; that have done a lot of kids and a lot of families good.”
The Concept of Opportunity
To understand the genesis of Subban’s inspired efforts to improve the lives of others, you must recognize how deeply rooted it is in the concept of opportunity.
Subban isn’t just the son of immigrants who came to Ontario from the Caribbean in the 1970s, raising him in Toronto’s Rexdale neighbourhood. He’s a member of a hockey family. One brother, Malcolm, is a goaltender who was selected by the Boston Bruins in the first round of the 2012 NHL Entry Draft, and currently plays for the Chicago Blackhawks. Another, Jordan, was drafted by the Vancouver Canucks in the fourth round of the 2013 NHL Entry Draft. All three played for the Belleville Bulls during their junior career.
While siblings in the NHL is nothing new, at the end of the day, Subban argues the situation with his own brothers is a lot different than some of the others that have played in the NHL, be it the Staals or the Sutters.
“For us, we had a dream to just make it to the League,” he explains. “We didn’t have a lot of role models that looked like us. So, to have a Black family have two boys in the NHL? We saw Chris and Anthony Stewart do it. But to have three boys in our family drafted to the NHL? Three boys playing pro? It truly is special.”
What does it most represent, he reckons? That everybody out there has opportunity. And he wants to see more of these opportunities for other families that maybe look like his; who look different from most traditional hockey players.
“I want to continue to make sure that everyone has an opportunity so that we can see more stories like [mine and my brothers.] The only way to do that is through education. Through educating people that we need to continue to break barriers in our own communities, whether it be in Canada or the United States.”
More Than a Movement
As part of a mightier discussion about race, civil unrest over police brutality is carrying on across the world. And as a Black man, when George Floyd was killed by police in Minneapolis on Memorial Day, Subban had to accept that it meant one more Black child who was going to be without a father. He was additionally forced to acknowledge the speed at which these revolts tend to be forgotten, despite maintaining that Black Lives Matter isn’t a flavour-of-the-month movement to him.
“It’s what we live with every day as Black individuals. This has been my life. This has been someone else’s life. And another person’s life,” he proceeds. “This is not just something that has happened over the past few months. Now, maybe it’s been brought to the forefront and it’s been talked about more, but this is something that I live. That many other people live. It’s a human rights situation.”
And whenever you have human rights, “everybody has to get on board.”
With the NHL operating as a borderless powerhouse—an entity so much bigger than just him playing in New Jersey, or a Connor McDavid playing in Edmonton—Subban figures that he has the agency to try and spur the change he wants from within. And to that end, he deems the exchanges he’s so far been privy to as being overwhelmingly positive.
“Looking at the history of the League,” he notes, “if we’re talking about moving the needle, I think we are heading in the right direction.” What exactly that means is yet to be seen. What we do know for sure is that, in seeking out these exchanges, it hasn’t been part of a performative stunt by Subban to increase his own social capital.
Instead, it’s about pulling people along with him. It’s about bringing his peers in—his teammates, the front office at the NHL, League executives, the New Jersey Devils. You get the picture.
“I get enough TV time. I get enough time on my Instagram. I get enough time on ESPN and all these platforms,” he stresses. So, the statement he prefers to make these days is that when he and his cohorts collectively make a play to make a difference as a group—whether it be the NHL, or all the sports leagues, or just his internal team and sponsors, whoever it is—it’s going to be felt.
“Making everyone a part of this has the biggest impact. And the most important thing in all of that? Education.”
The Reward is Personal
There’s that emphasis on education again. Why does Subban keep circling back to it? Because he doesn’t believe you can be critical of people that aren’t educated. Thankfully, he is observing an awakening.
“Of the phone calls that I’ve received—not just from those in hockey, but all walks of life—many are from people wanting to understand and educate themselves,” he beams. “Whether you’re Black or white, Brown, purple, or yellow, or whatever your colour is, everybody has to be educated on all the things that are going on. Because only then do you understand where the real change needs to happen.”
In order to achieve that, Subban suggests we need a superior comprehension of how we can cater to what’s improving in communities. He doesn’t imply there’s anything easy about it, either. “It’s going to take work and time. I understand that because I’ve been doing it for years. It’s hard. It’s a marathon, it’s not a sprint.”
With all of this talk about education, it does beg one particular question: What has Subban learned along the way, himself?
“That the reward is personal,” he states unequivocally. “That if you see the reward as anything other, then you’re doing it for the wrong reasons.”
You can take him at his word, since he’s been on the receiving end of the public recognition which comes with the territory. There’s the P.K. Subban Atrium at the Montreal Children’s Hospital, of course. And in 2020, Subban was revealed as one of three finalists for the 2019-20 King Clancy Trophy, presented to the NHL player who best exemplifies leadership qualities on and off the ice, and has made a noteworthy humanitarian contribution in his community.
The pats on the back won’t cloud his intentions, though.
“Success to me is trying to be better at not just hockey, but as a person. I believe that the rent we pay on Earth to be here is the service that we do for other people, and the service that we give to other people. My dad used to tell me that quote all the time,” he confides. “It resonated with me.”
Subban further feels that service boils down to how you treat people. He’s always favoured embracing others with compassion, with inclusivity and dignity, regardless of the colour of their skin, who they are, or what they do for a living. None of it has ever mattered to him. Nor should it to you. That’s precisely the message that he wants to spread.
“Specifically to the kids, because a lot of my sensitivity comes around children and communities, and what children go through,” he proclaims. “A lot of the work that I’ve done is geared towards that. What I try to do is to simply just empower children and families.”
In other words, abolishing barriers in the way of their development and their advancement, or will affect them being able to live a healthy, simple life. A life where they wake up in the morning and don’t have to worry about their well-being.
“Every child deserves to live out their dream and see through their full potential. It’s not just Blacks. It’s everybody.”
The Most Electrifying Man on the Ice
We already know P.K. Subban as the most electrifying man on the ice—and on grounds that would make his sports-entertainment icon, ‘The Rock,’ proud. That much we established from the get-go. However, more and more, we must now appreciate that he is also the most electrifying man on the ice for reasons that shatter our initial interpretation of the term.
Subban isn’t the most electrifying man on the ice because of the way he shoots and skates, or styles and profiles. He isn’t even the most electrifying man on ice because he told you so.
He’s the most electrifying man on the ice because of his ability to charge up the youth, all while stirring sudden senses of great determination and upward mobility in them. Because of his ability to be a difference maker.
And, yeah, because nobody else would dare argue otherwise.