On PK Subban and Controversy

February 27, 2014 § 8 Comments

Watching the Canadian Men’s Olympic Hockey team at Sochi, I couldn’t help but shake the feeling that there is no way that PK Subban is the 8th best defenceman in the country.  He’s the reigning Norris Trophy winner, an offensive threat, a hitter of big hits, a puck carrier, and he’s a rock solid defenceman.  In short, Subban’s skill set seemed to fit exactly with what Canada needed, especially in the preliminary round when it was having problems moving the puck.  And while Subban makes mistakes, so, too, do Drew Doughty and Duncan Keith, Canada’s golden boys of defencemen.  And surely, Subban was a better choice to play than Dan Hamhuis or Jay Bouwmeester, at the very least? But, no, not in the eyes of the coaches.  And, really, at the end of it all, what’s to quibble with?  Subban handled his demotion with grace, and Canada won the gold medal going away, making it two in a row for the men, and landing their first medal on the big ice of the European game.

Subban attracts attention and controversy wherever he goes.  A lot of it is racially charged, and a lot of it comes from people who should know better (which is everyone, frankly, this is the 21st century, not the early 19th).  Subban is many things that many hockey fans do not like: flamboyant, exuberant, and incredibly skilled.  As a result, aside from legitimate criticism, Subban attracts a lot of racist attention.  Let me be very clear: criticising Subban’s play for mistakes or boneheaded plays is not racism. But a lot of the static around Subban is race-based.

When Subban broke into the NHL back in 2009, a lot of the media discussion was about controlling Subban’s exuberance, about toning him down.  Oddly, when Maxime Lapierre played for the Habs, he was an energy player, who was always on the edge, running his mouth on the ice, irritating opponents, trying to goad them into penalties.  Sometimes he crossed the line.  But there were rarely discussions about the need to control or reign in Lapierre.  Unlike Lapierre, Subban can make an entire building of fans rise to their feet with a rush up the ice, the kind of thing we Habs fans haven’t seen since the glory days of Guy Lafleur, frankly.

And yet, Subban has been called out by nearly everyone in the hockey establishment for his allegedly cocky attitude, from  Don Cherry to Mike Richards, and everyone in between, including a few coaches of the Club du Hockey Canadien.

And criticisms are continually made about his play.  That he takes too many penalties.  That he gives away the puck too often. And so on.  Oddly, the Habs other young defencemen are not subject to this kind of criticism. It’s a given that defencemen take a long time to mature and they will make errors on the way.  And young players, especially, will be overly exuberant at times.  But they’re given leeway Subban is not, at least in the media and amongst some fans.

And yet, Subban’s penalty minutes are not egregious.  And, as far as his alleged poor defensive play, that’s just patently false, as this advanced stats discourse shows.  It even shows that Subban can more than carry his weight in relation to the rest of the dmen on the Olympic team.

I won’t even get into Darren Pang’s rather unfortunate mistake of referring to Subban not doing something the “white way,” as opposed to the “right way” (it was a slip of the tongue, he apologised immediately, but, we all know what Freud says of slips of the tongue).

Racism, especially in Canada, works insidiously.  There are certainly still loud mouth racists out there, but aside from the occasional offensive tweet or comment board post, that is not the discourse around Subban.  I could also point out that Winnipeg Jets forward Evander Kane is similarly targeted by the media for his alleged bad behaviour.  Kane is also black.  No, rather than outright racism, this works in a more callous manner, it creeps along, and we find Subban (and Kane) critiqued for behaving in a certain way when other, white Canadian players, are not.  We find the play of Subban (and Kane) under the microscope for alleged inefficiencies when others are not.  We see the the character of Subban (and Kane) under question, when white players’ characters are not.

Case in point.  After the 2011-12 season, Ottawa Senators defenceman Eric Karlsson won the Norris Trophy as the best dman in the NHL.  There were protests that Karlsson was a one-dimensional player, he was a defensive liability, etc.  That the likes of Doughty, Keith, Shea Weber deserved to win.  But the outcry died down pretty quickly when advanced stats showed that Karlsson is actually a pretty good defenceman.  And by the time the 2013 season finally began after an epic lockout, the controversy was over.  But here we are now, at the tail end of February, Subban won the Norris in June last year, and the controversy lives on.  Tell me that racism doesn’t play a role here.

The criticism directed at Subban is not of the ilk directed at other superstars, rather, it is unrelenting and often unfair and baseless.  It’s very hard not to come to the conclusion that PK Subban is resented by many in the hockey world (fans, media, players, coaches, managers) for something as simple as the colour of his skin.  And that, to me, is just stupid.

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