By: Norman Yallen
At TD Garden in Boston he is booed resoundingly every single time he touches the puck. Commentators constantly point out what he does wrong. Zdeno Chara literally crosschecked him to the face, which only made the announcer proclaim he was diving and threatening the integrity of the game. Don Cherry said that everybody in the league dislikes him. What makes this immense hatred of Montreal Canadiens defenseman PK Subban noteworthy is that he is the son of two Jamaican parents meaning that he is a black Canadian. This has made many people question whether PK Subban would be as disliked if he were an Irish Canadian or any white Canadian. Is the hatred of PK Subban racially motivated or is it something else entirely?
In examining the question of why people hate PK Subban, I at first rushed to the most basic explanation, that he is the Montreal Canadiens new young star player, and he has been hyped accordingly. The Habs are the most successful hockey team in history, which my father relishes reminding me. Accordingly many people hate them and don’t want to hear about their young star. So they boo him, and they boo Carey Price, the young goaltender. But why isn’t Don Cherry criticizing Price and other Habs constantly? I don’t hear commentators alleging that Price deserved goaltender interference. There has to be another factor motivating this widespread disapproval. Perhaps that something is the way he plays the game.
PK Subban on the ice could be described as a whirling dervish, he constantly is moving around the ice in search of the puck, of a scoring chance, of a play to be made. He is not a defenseman that is content to stay in the zone and that is bothersome to many in the hockey community. I remember myself as a young hockey player who played defense, after the coach asked if I wouldn’t mind playing the position for the playoffs. I was a player concerned mainly with his defensive play, but I liked to go all over the ice. I fancied myself as a Bob Gainey, but I was probably more like a shitty player who liked to wander all over the rink. During the playoff game whenever I took two or three steps forward, I would hear from the bench, “GET BACK ON DEFENSE!” I can almost hear that in the commentators’ voices as Subban goes on the attack, “get back on defense.”
Boston, the city where Subban has been jeered the most, is a city with a complicated past. Bill Russell, arguably the greatest athlete ever to play in the city, declared it a “flea market of racism.” When he retired he wanted nothing to do with New England, moving to an island off the coast of Seattle to be as far away as possible. Although I cannot know if any of the fans hatred is racially motivated, I suspect Bill Russell would be fairly certain than it is. Darren Pang urged Subban to play the game, “the white way.” It is interesting that other black players such as Jerome Iginla and Evander Kane are not subject to the scrutiny and criticism that Subban is subjected to. The reason for this may lie in Subban’s demeanor.
In addition to his aggressive style of play, Subban has made a name for himself as being a confrontational player, a guy unwilling to take crap from anyone. When many hockey fans watch this player who is attacking all over the ice and getting into confrontations with other players, they see a punk who doesn’t play the game the right way. The fact that he looks different from other players on the ice only serves to further his status as a pariah. Don Cherry professes that he prefers English Canadian players to French Canadian or European players. He will criticize every non-white Canadian who doesn’t follow his code, which has become the code of many across the game. Players shouldn’t celebrate goals; they should play hard but not emotionally. They should fight, but not attack other players in a way we deem cheap. After a confrontation with Mike Richards, he expressed that Subban has to earn respect around the league. It is interesting that Mike Richards, a player who’s been accused of drinking and partying to excess, a player who’s boycotted the Philadelphia media, feels Subban needs to earn respect. If you don’t look the way a hockey player is supposed to look, then you have to prove to people like Mike Richards and Don Cherry that you have the proper attitude when you play hockey.
This belief that there is only one way to play the sport will ruin the game of hockey, and only one type of great player will ruin the game of hockey. In the late 1960’s a young defenseman dared to rush the puck almost every time he touched it, playing dangerously and exposing his body to harm. Bobby Orr became the greatest defenseman of all time as well as Don Cherry’s favourite player. In the late 1970’s a scrawny young player began to play his own way, holding the puck behind the net and slowing the game down to make the passes he wanted. Wayne Gretzky went on to set just about every single scoring record the NHL has. However, when these players would trash talk or fight, it was considered okay. Don Cherry says Bobby Orr was great because he would stand up and fight his opponent; yet when Subban does the same thing he is disgracing the game? The sad reality is that bigotry has always played a role in hockey. Willie O’Ree integrated the game in 1958 and would hear chants of, “go back down south.” When Don Cherry took control of the Mississauga IceDogs in the OHL, he only played North American players. That means that in my back yard this decade there was a team that certain players were banned from based on ethnicity alone. With Don Cherry running said team, to believe his and his supporters’ criticism of PK Subban doesn’t have something to do with race or ethnicity is dangerously naïve.
I would like to sit here and say that racism has nothing to do with the hatred of PK Subban, but that would be untrue. Don Cherry may be the most outspoken in his opposition to European players, but he is not alone. Many people assert that you need North American players to win the Stanley Cup, although I’m sure Niklas Lidstrom would disagree. People are willing to discriminate when it comes to the game of hockey. It is as though if you don’t look like a “good” Canadian, you have to prove that you play like a “good” Canadian. Since PK Subban does not follow this unwritten code, he is hated. What is unfortunate is that with this hatred, the game is the main party that loses. The game becomes a little more boring every time someone puts aside his personality to conform to what traditional commentators want. Hockey right now is Canada’s pastime; there is no doubt about that. Canada is also one of the most diverse countries in the world. Therefore I have to wonder that if we maintain the current approach of encouraging all players to act the same and stifling differences, how long Canada’s love for the sport will last.