What are we going to tell the children? The thousands that flock to the Bell Centre in 76 Subban sweaters? The millions who cheer from afar, glued to their couches, the ones that can’t afford the $200 seats of the NHL’s most venerable franchise? The countless not yet helped by P.K. Subban’s $10 million pledge to the Montreal Children’s Hospital?
Subban, 27, is a hell of a hockey player. And that’s important. But it’s his joy and selflessness that resonates so much to the citizens, especially the young ones, of Montreal.
On Wednesday, the Montreal Canadiens traded Subban to the Nashville Predators for veteran defenseman Shea Weber. Weber is a perennial Norris Trophy candidate and a power-play specialist. He intimidates goalies with a booming slap shot and forwards with a barrage of crosschecks. He is a good player.
But he’s not Subban. And he never will be.
The quintessential P.K. story starts tragically. In a 2014 game against the Ottawa Senators, Subban attempted to ring the puck hard off the glass. He missed. His slap shot, well over 90 miles per hour, flew into the crowd and struck a little boy named Thomas. Thomas and his father had to leave the arena with barely half the game played.
Later in the week, Subban called the family to apologize. He invited Thomas to Montreal’s next home game. Afterward, Subban met his young fan in the halls of the Bell Centre. He handed Thomas the very puck that hit him in the ear just a few days prior.
Oh, and the game against the Senators? The Canadiens trailed 4-1 deep into the third period before Subban took over. He produced three assists in the last five minutes and overtime as Montreal rallied for an unforgettable 5-4 victory.
Fans chanted “P-K! P-K!” every time he took the ice. I know, because I was there. My friend’s father, a longtime season-ticket holder who grew up with the dynastic Habs of the 1970s, called it the best game he’s ever seen. A near miracle even, and Subban made it happen.
In the context of hockey, this trade doesn’t make sense. Nearing 31, Weber is on the downside of his career, while Subban is in his prime. The former's infamous contract makes it even more one-sided in favor of Nashville.
On the flip side, the Predators get one of the best 10 defensemen in the game, a former Norris Trophy winner in his prime. They barely missed the Western Conference Final this past season. With Subban’s flare and speed in place of Weber’s slow-footedness, Nashville immediately becomes a Cup contender, not to mention one of the NHL’s must-watch teams.
But this isn’t about hockey. Subban could score zero points and skate to a -80 rating next season, and it would still be an awful trade for Montreal.
This is a franchise that became a symbol of resistance against the oppression of English Canada in the early to mid-20th century. Behind the likes of Maurice "Rocket" Richard, Jean Beliveau and Jacques Plante, the Habs made Montreal the capital of the hockey world. That meant something. That made Francophones proud to cheer for le Bleu, Blanc et Rouge on their way to a record 24 Stanley Cups.
Now the Canadiens are in the midst of a title drought 23 years long and counting, the longest their fans have ever endured. And still, the front office did all it could to please the Quebecois. In the 2009 Entry Draft, which Montreal hosted, the Canadiens selected hometown kid Louis Leblanc 18th overall, one spot ahead of current New York Ranger Chris Kreider.
Leblanc played all of 50 games for the big club before leaving the organization acrimoniously following the 2014 season.
Then there was the Randy Cunneyworth fiasco. When Montreal fired head coach Jacques Martin in 2011, Cunneyworth took over on an interim basis. The only problem was, beyond his shortcomings as a bench boss, Cunneyworth didn’t speak French. This angered the fan base to the point of protest. Eventually general manager Marc Bergevin replaced Cunneyworth with Michel Therrien.
Where is that loyalty to the fans now? Subban is somewhere between a hero and a god in Montreal. He is black star in a white sport, an outsider like a French-Canadian in an overwhelmingly English-speaking country.
Bet that when kids take to the city’s numerous outdoor rinks, they all pretend to be 76 in red. Who else would they be? Max Pacioretty? Tomas Plekanec? Alex Galchenyuk? They're all nice players, but none has the talent or charisma of Subban. Hell, none has as much fun as Subban.
And now we’re forced to answer the question of “why?” Why would Bergevin trade his top defenseman and his team’s top ambassador? Why would he ever dare question the character of someone who dedicated his time and money to children? Someone, who in the face of racism, took a deep breath and responded thoughtfully, when he could have been forgiven for any outburst he could conjure.
P.K. Subban was the best thing to happen to the Montreal Canadiens in the last 23 years. Don’t ask what the worst is. You know that answer.
Philadelphia born. Raised in God's country aka Duluth, Minnesota. Give me a frozen pond and an open pitch and I'll be happy. Follow me on twitter @noclassfriday