P.K. Subban & How Racism Has Changed Its Stripes

Montreal Canadian P.K. Subban   - Photo By Andy Martin Jr

It’s been an emotional but wild ride in the NHL so far for the Canadiens’ P.K. Subban, from his beginnings as a brash young kid with lots of upside to Norris-trophy winning defenceman in 2013.

He’s been called all sorts of things: “on the bubble;” “selfish;” “a defensive liability;” a “lightning rod;” even Sportsnet’s Billy Jaffe recently referred to him as a “wildcard game changer.”

Finally after much speculation, debating and second-guessing, the world learned this past January – in probably the most debated and contested selection process in history  – that indeed P.K. Subban would be on the Canadian Men’s Olympic Hockey team, joining his teammate Carey Price for the games in Sochi.

Everyone seems to agree that Subban is an extremely talented player with a terrific shot from the point. He’s a gifted skater who can headman the puck and make a great first pass. And unlike some of his other offensively-gifted defensive colleagues from around the league like Letang or Karlsson, Subban also plays a strong physical game and is ready and able to use his body.

Winning the Norris trophy last season brought Subban into elite status.

So why was he considered “on-the-bubble” for the Olympic team? Why wasn’t he considered a “shoe-in”? Is he not one of the top defencemen Canada has to offer, along with Duncan Keith, Shea Weber and Drew Doughty? What does he have to do to convince his skeptics?

The answer is nothing. There’s absolutely nothing he can do.

Because there’s deeper things at work here.

The Elephant on the Ice

Subban’s critics say he’s a defensive liability. He gives up the puck, he takes unnecessary risks, he gets caught up ice too often – he tries to do too much alone. That may once have been true. In his first full season in the NHL, he scored 14 goals but was a minus 8. Since that time however, he’s a combined plus 33.

Then after the game when the cameras appear, Subban is there, eager to smile and give the media a good quote. It’s like he’s everywhere. Essentially, he’s for the Canadiens what Gary Carter was for the Montreal Expos: a happy-to-be-there kind of guy who just wants to win and have the freedom to be himself.

P.K. Subban
P.K. Subban is for the Canadiens like Gary Carter was to the Montreal Expos: camera-ready smile and eager to please. (Eric Bolte-US PRESSWIRE)

Some criticize Subban as an enthusiastic showboater, eager to rub his good fortune into the faces of others. But when Danny Brière does his signature fist pump after scoring (a somewhat rare thing these days), nobody bats an eye. Instead the focus is on how good it must be for Brière to get the monkey off of his back and put a slow start behind him. Not about how he embarrassed his team.

Yet Subban is the reigning Norris trophy winner. So what gives?

Racism, that’s what. It’s the elephant on the ice nobody wants to discuss.

What else could explain why people don’t like P.K. Subban!? Why does he get the brunt of the negativity from around the league? He regularly gets booed every time he touches the puck in many opposing teams’ rinks.  When the Habs recently played a road game against the Flyers, the Philadelphia faithful gave him the rails each and every time he touched the puck. For what? Supposedly for some altercation he had a few years back with former Flyer captain Mike Richards!? Give me a break.

Richards accused Subban of being someone who has yet to earn respect in the league. You know what? It’s Richards who is the whiner.

A Shift in Prejudice

Subban isn’t a dirty player. He isn’t Brad Marchand shoving his hand in Henrik Sedin’s face in the Stanley Cup finals a few years back. This isn’t a guy who slew-footed a defenseless player and to then pummel his head against the ice like “tough guy” Shawn Thornton did. This isn’t even a guy who intentionally kneed another player to the head while he was on the ice like James Neal did. These are players who should legitimately be booed. Not Subban.

Dr. Michael Inzlicht, Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Toronto, believes it’s a form of racism:

The basic idea is this: Blatant racism, although still around, is not around in public discourse. No one today admits to being racist… you’ll see a lot of this on anonymous internet chatrooms or as anonymous comments, but anyone who is visible and not anonymous claims to be egalitarian. Hell, even Don Cherry shies away from admitting to being xenophobic. 

But this doesn’t mean that prejudice has gone away; instead it has merely shifted forms… So now people don’t admit to their real feelings; worse, people may not even realize that they have these feelings in the first place (unconscious prejudice). However, prejudice still comes out, and one way in which it comes out is when people can hide their antipathies behind some more “legitimate” complaint.

You can see how all this might relate to Subban. Is he disliked because he’s Black and people either don’t realize or don’t want to admit it? (please feel free to share your opinion on this in the comment section below)

One could even say his own coach is subject to this kind of behaviour. Why else would he have benched Subban for the first half of the third period in that same recent game against the Flyers after taking a bad penalty to end the second? The Canadiens were behind in the game and could have used their best player. Instead, Subban was nailed to the bench. Would Sydney Crosby have been treated in the same way under similar circumstances? You be the judge.

Fortunately for Subban and for Canada, those picking the Canadian Men’s Olympic hockey team are looking at talent and not skin colour.

Let’s celebrate and cheer for the guy because of his outstanding play and instead put bias and prejudice not just on but “outside-the-bubble.”

Ari Grief is a writer/producer and some may say, an “on-the-bubble” hockey writer. Up to you to decide. Find him on Facebook or on twitter: @HabsFanLeafLand

18 thoughts on “P.K. Subban & How Racism Has Changed Its Stripes”

  1. Total BS. He’s a dirty player. If anyone has a problem with him because of his race, it is an EXTREME minority. The guy has a history slew-footing, and what’s worse is that he is never called on it. He is a dirty, trash-talking prick. THAT is why people hate him.

  2. I completely agree, as a penguins fan I’m disgusted how he’s booed every time he touches the puck in the igloo! Amazing player, would love him on my team for sure. He’s a free spirit and truly a loveable guy. He plays the game with more passion than anyone else I’ve seen in a long time. I love it, keep it up, hopefully many more Norris trophies to come! (let Letang get 1 though, ok??)

  3. This is the same guy that sliced Jordan Staal’s foot open “accidentally” lifting his foot and stepping on him with a skate – between that and the NUMEROUS slew foots we’ve seen from him, you cannot tell me that he’s not a dirty player. I read that paragraph thinking that it was the setup for a joke – it wasn’t – you were completely serious. Wow. Race doesn’t matter – player actions and their reputations do. It’s no wonder he gets boo’ed everywhere.

    • Wow. This is your evidence? Staal? You just proved the whole point of the article. That, my friend, was not intentional. .

      • And YOUR evidence that the foot-stomp was “not intentional”? Yeah, that’s what I thought… Watch the incident again.

  4. Hand in hand with racism is also cultural bias. When a label like “showboat” or “brash” is attached to someone, one can forget that it is us that is judging someone based on our norms.
    I agree 100% with the article. Placing judgement on someone will always say just as much about oneself as the one being judged, for good or bad.
    Thanks for naming the elephant.

  5. Boo-hoo. PK is basically Ott on D. The guy gets booed because he’s a prick. Yes, maybe some people don’t like him because of his race, but I’d be willing to bet it’s primarily because he’s a prick.

    I think it’s time to step into the 21st century and not hasten back to days where this topic was coupled with ignorance and violence.

    This story is just the type of self-serving rubbish that’s looking to get likes and angry comments. I’m sure it’ll pry some racists out of the woodwork, but it won’t help anyone. This is one person on one side of the room that wants everybody to come on his side, and if you don’t, then he’ll respond and call you a racist. My way or the highway, right Ari? There’s no meeting in the middle… no common ground.

    Irresponsible journalism…

  6. Die hard habs fan, die hard Subban fan. Nothing to do with Racism though in my personal opinion. The big hits you refer to are often poorly timed and cost the habs, he pinches at poor times and he often takes poor shots into traffic that have no chance of getting through on the PP. He tries to skate the puck out of the zone far too much, when as you mentioned his first pass is always magnificent. It is not about skill or racism, it is about decision making. PK makes bad decisions on the ice quite often. if this part of his game was gone he would be without doubt the best defenceman in the NHL. Over the course of this year though I personally think that his decision making is improving game by game and I personally believe that is why he was picked to the Olympic roster.

    On a side note did you see the vancouver game.. he got nailed the other day by David Booth and when Nathan Bealieu tried to stand up for him Subban threw a fit on the ice. How embarrassing…..

  7. Being from Montreal you are just a bit biased are you not? I don’t see any other black hockey pros on that list at all. Think maybe just maybe he rubs people of opposing teams the wrong way? I hate Chris Neil of the Ottawa Senators just as much which further supports my position. To be completely honest until I read this article I had never even thought of him as a black hockey player but rather just a hockey player. Maybe it has something to do with the way he plays the game?

    Dr. Slewfoot at his best:



  8. You have to realize that hockey, more than any other major North American sport, is still regarded as a “White” sport. While Football, Baseball and Basketball embrace diversity, hockey is still dominated by the Neanderthal mentality that is fuelled by people like Cherry. He is the first one to target Subban and this set the tone for others. Referees pick on Subban more than other players committing the same infractions. Other members of the team and organization are more influenced by his skin colour than his abilities.

    Cherry has been shoved down our throats by the CBC and it is the reason I never watch that station. Here we have a dismal failure as a player, a coach, a manager, a Junior team owner, a restauranteur and a good friend of Rob Ford influencing the nation’s children, especially those who live in rural Canada. Cherry boasted that when he was called up to the Bruins as an injury replacement for a playoff game, he deliberately took a minor penalty so that his name would be in the records – in a playoff game!! What is more selfish than that? Furthermore, one of Cherry’s darlings, David Williams, would ride his stick and showboat around the ice on the few occasions that he scored a goal, but that was fine. In fact, one of the worst examples of a player taking a selfish penalty came the day after Subban’s “selfish” penalty. With his team down by a couple goals and on a 5-minute major, Mike Cammalleri took a needless swing at an opposing player with his stick and neutralised the advantage. No one spoke about that. And, as for Subban’s celebrating his overtime goal against Ottawa, if he were to do the same thing for Team Canada, he would be a hero.
    But ignorance prevails in hockey and, sadly, people mask or rationalize their racism rather than looking themselves in the mirror and acknowledging what they really are. And these people masquerade as experts in everything from politics to sport.

  9. Hi Joe, thanks for your comment and for sharing that list, which just further supports my position when the author of said SI list writes:

    “…Subban’s flashy personality on and off the ice is a break from hockey tradition, and that clearly rankles some people. Too bad. I think the game needs more characters like him.”

    • Thank you!! Absolutely race-independent! If it were, say, Mike Richards, he’d be treated and looked upon the same way.

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