Last night (February 2), I went to see the Canadiens and Flyers in Philadelphia. It was the first time I've seen the Canadiens live this season, and the first since I became a goalie writer for their largest fan website, Habs Eyes on the Prize. It turned out to be a choppy game that the Flyers won 3-1, but it got me thinking. Since it was a #TBT Thursday game, I found myself thinking back to March 2015, when we planned a trip to Montreal around a Saturday evening Canadiens game. We sat high in the Bell Centre, the loudest building I have ever been in, and watched the Habs defeat San Jose 2-0.
I had this strange feeling that night, as I discovered that I was fulfilling a lifetime dream that I had never even known I had. It made me think of when I was very young, and my father and I saw Yvan Cournoyer and the Habs play the Rangers in Madison Square Garden. It made me think of my few failed attempts at pond hockey, wondering if my hair looked as cool as Guy LaFleur's. I love to watch hockey, and I realized that night that I love to watch the Canadiens. I love their history and mysticism, and I love the image in my head of those red blurs flying around the ice.
We were surrounded by hockey families that night. Grandparents, children, even infants. Everyone - yes, even the babies - watched every detail of the game. The smallest of plays were met with appreciative applause or understanding groans.
The most visceral memory I have of that game was the anticipatory hum of that enormous crowd whenever PK Subban touched the puck. If he carried it, the sound rose. If he created a scoring chance, the building shook. Absolutely no one in the building was hoping he would do less.
Watching the Canadiens without Subban in Philadelphia, I felt his absence. Not because of his off-ice persona and charitable work, but because of the excitement he brought to the ice every night, win or lose.
The Canadiens called the hockey world’s bluff on June 30, when General Manager Marc Bergevin traded Subban to Nashville for the Predators’ Captain and Hockey Canada stalwart, defenseman Shea Weber. There have been many theories about the trade, ranging from not-so-subtle innuendo about a divide in the locker room over PK’s outsized personality, to others that don't need to be repeated. I’m not positioned to speak about any of that from my outsider perspective. I do think that for several years, the Canadiens were undecided about what they were, largely because of PK Subban.
PK’s presence alone led to organizational uncertainty. His creativity and playmaking ability clashed with Coach Michel Therrien's conservative defensive philosophy. The single play that came to represent PK’s relationship with his employers occurred in the offensive zone of a tied late season game in Colorado. He moved laterally to elude an opponent, lost an edge, and lost the puck. The turnover resulted in an Avalanche rush, and the game-winning goal in a contest between two teams ultimately bound to miss the playoffs.
Afterward, Michel Therrien called out Subban specifically, blaming him for the loss and saying that his play was too “individualistic.” Never mind that the play in question was 160 feet from the Canadiens net. Never mind that all three forwards on the ice failed to backcheck at full speed to bail out their defenseman.
Subban accepted responsibility for the play, but didn't just acquiesce. He was upset that he had lost an edge, not that he had tried to make a play to help the team win a game. He went as far as to say that he would make the same decision again, and just try not to lose that edge.
Clearly, in retrospect, that was the end of his time in Montreal. Every athlete in every sport at every level faces a particular specific choice, particularly if you're a superstar like Subban. At some point, you have to reconcile what kind of a player an organization wants you to be with what kind of a player you are going to be. In that moment, consciously or subconsciously, Subban decided.
Sports organizations face the same kinds of questions. What kind of team are we going to be? How are we going to play this sport? What are we going to value in our players? Whether the direction comes from the owner, the president, the general manager, or any combination thereof, there have to be consistent answers.
When the Pittsburgh Penguins fired Head Coach Mike Johnston last December and promoted Mike Sullivan, they decided that they were going to be fast, aggressive, and versatile. They made subtle personnel changes, revamped their playing style and on-ice expectations, and won the Stanley Cup. Good decision.
The Canadiens made their decision last summer. Frustrated that Subban wouldn't play like a traditional defenseman - Shea Weber, for example - the Canadiens finally decided just to trade him for the real thing.
To be clear, I didn't object to this trade because I know for sure that PK Subban is going to end up being considered one of the greatest hockey legends who ever lived, or because I think Shea Weber is a bad hockey player. PK has had some injury problems recently, and Weber's initial season in Montreal is going just fine. All I know for sure is that PK is in Nashville, not Montreal, and I missed seeing him as one of those red blurs.
There are a few athletes in every sport that are worth every penny to see in person. I never saw Michael Jordan or Magic Johnson. I saw Allen Iverson. I did see Reggie Jackson several times. I saw Lawrence Taylor. I saw Wayne Gretzky in an All-Star game. Watching those athletes in their prime is just... different.
Like him or not, PK was worth it.