It seems that every two or three games, we get to hear from one jilted player or another bemoaning the behaviour of PK Subban, Montreal’s pugnacious rookie defenseman. We hear how he’s disliked, how he doesn’t respect the game or his elders and how he’d better watch his back.
According to the NHL’s authority on gentlemanly play—Mike Richards—PK needs to earn the respect of his opponents before he is allowed to play the way he does. “It takes a lot. You can't just come in here as a rookie and play like that. It's not the way to get respect from other players around the league.”
This is a valid point. It is the responsibility of every young player to abandon any attitude or edge they may have had before they entered the league. This may even be in the CBA, but don’t quote me on that. Richards, clearly vying for his first Lady Byng nomination, then went on to make a veiled threat, pointing out, “I'm not saying I'm going to do it, but something might happen to him if he continues to be that cocky."
What is this, golf? Since when does showing a bit of passion, playing with a little reckless abandon and having a boatload of confidence offend the very principles of a game that holds a soft spot for people punching each other in the face? I suppose, in defence of Mark Messier, he wasn’t a rookie and had “earned the respect of other players” before he started knocking them out with his legendary elbows.
Maurice Richard had also banked a nice bit of respect before he slapped a linesman, and whole lot more before he knocked one out. Ah, but they did so in a manner respectful of the game—they knew that being cocky could inflict lasting emotional damage on their opponents, and so chose the more respectful, physical route, because those wounds heal.
Vincent Lecavalier is the latest victim of Subban’s outlandish behaviour. Showing a blatant lack of respect for the 12 year vet, Subban had the audacity to both chirp AND check Lecavalier closely as he attempted to gain position in front of the net. As play progressed, Subban once again tossed all regard for the sanctity of the game out the window as he slashed Lecavalier during an attempted wrap around. Slashes happen all the time—but should not from the likes of this impetuous Montreal rookie.
“Myself and probably most of the guys don't respect a guy like that. He's the type of guy who doesn't respect anybody.” And so, like a well-respected veteran might, Lecavalier summoned his inner Paul Bunyan and applied a two-handed chop to the thigh of Subban. The thigh because, as a veteran, he respects the game.
There have been more than a fair share of NHL players throughout the years who have made a living not only playing at a high level, but also playing with an edge. They are those players about whom we hear that oft repeated adage, “You hate to play against him, but you love to play with him.” Some of these players made more of a career crossing the line than walking it—guys like Tiger Williams, Dale Hunter, Ulf Samuelsson and of late, guys like Dan Carcillo, Sean Avery and Matt Cooke.
But is PK Subban in the same category as these nefarious characters?
Among the major sports, hockey players definitely have to be counted among the most humble. They are certainly the most bland and colourless. With exceptions like Esa Tikkanen, Jeremy Roenick, Guy Carbonneau and Theoren Fleury, NHLers are bred to be boring.
And when they aren’t—see Linus Omark’s totally "classless" shootout goal earlier this year—they are disrespectful, petulant, and need to be straightened out. As the old saying goes, “The nail that sticks up gets hammered down.”
As well, for a sport that values toughness perhaps as much as humility, there seems to be a disconnect between the physical and the emotional realms. Broken nose? Miss one shift. Cut for 40 stitches? Back next period. Get chirped by a rookie? Whine like a child with an overinflated sense of entitlement. Have players become so sensitive they feel the need to go out of their way to say how hurt and disrespected they feel? Will someone please give that man a hug?
As the starched collars of the NHL establishment continue to push against the possibility of young PK having a personality (at least until he earns some respect), we have to speculate how long he can hold out against the pressure to conform. Getting under his opponent's skin is clearly a gift, and it provides tangible benefits to go along with his tremendous skill level. But are there long term benefits to forfeiting that aspect of his game in the altruistic pursuit of virtue a la Stan Mikita?
Or is better to continue to rage against the system and retain the edge that helped make him an elite athlete in the first place?
I, for one, hope he chooses the latter, and remains the straw that stirs the proverbial drink. At least, as long as he plays on my team.