P.K. Subban’s head was in the clouds but his feet were very much on the ground, the Montreal Canadiens moments earlier having staved off elimination with a 4-1 victory against the visiting Washington Capitals in Game 6 in the 2010 Eastern Conference First Round.
Subban had just played his third NHL game, his first in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, having skated 40 minutes and 10 seconds in two games in as many days against the Philadelphia Flyers that February.
P.K. Subban takes a shot during his first NHL game, Feb. 11, 2007 in Philadelphia against the Flyers. Getty Images
But there was more looking forward than back by the 20-year-old in the Canadiens’ Bell Centre dressing room that April 26, a game-day emergency arrival from Hamilton of the American Hockey League to fill in for ailing veteran defenseman Jaroslav Spacek.
Subban wanted to talk about Game 7 two nights later, and a VIP spectator he hoped might be in Washington’s Verizon Center.
“Who knows? Maybe [Barack] Obama will show up,” he said with a thousand-watt grin, wondering aloud whether the U.S. president might be in the house.
Subban had just played 10:02 in an elimination game, 3:05 on the power play with two hits and three blocked shots for coach Jacques Martin.
In the end, Obama had other things on his plate. But his second-in-command, Vice President Joe Biden, was in attendance for the Canadiens’ 2-1 Game 7 clincher.
Life will be a little more glamorous on Thursday than it was that night in Washington, Subban squeezed onto a folding chair in the middle of the visitors dressing room because there wasn’t room for his stall.
P.K. Subban in his 2007 NHL Draft portrait. Getty Images
The Canadiens are set to lavishly salute their wildly popular 33-year-old former defenseman before playing the Nashville Predators (7 p.m. ET; BSSO, TSN2, RDS, ESPN+, SN NOW), a packed Bell Centre bound to raise the arena roof from which 24 championship and 18 retired number banners hang.
Montreal’s forecast for Subban’s homecoming calls for a hard winter storm to arrive Thursday evening. That’s only perfect, because precisely as news broke late afternoon on June 29, 2016, that he was leaving town, traded for Predators captain Shea Weber, clouds scraped over the city’s landmark Mount Royal and the skies opened with an almost biblical downpour.
Subban, the 2013 Norris Trophy winner as the NHL’s best defenseman, was vacationing in Paris at the time. His hastily convened conference call that evening was plagued with technical problems, Montreal’s media cut off when live French-language radio drowned out the call’s host.
P.K. Subban and fellow defenseman Andrei Markov with the Canadiens’ ceremonial torch during their 2014 home opener, and with the 2013 Norris Trophy, voted annually to the NHL’s top defenseman. Getty Images
But Montreal reporters will mob Subban during the first intermission Thursday, when he steps into a forest of cameras and microphones in the Bell Centre media dining lounge almost four months since he announced his retirement.
“Listen, when I was a Montreal Canadien, it was nothing but fantastic times for me,” Subban told Nashville reporters the evening of his trade. “I have to say out of all the fan bases in the National Hockey League, the Montreal Canadiens fans, the community and province of Quebec probably have embraced me more than any other player has felt in any other city.
“It’s give and take. I’ve done a lot of things in that community and they have supported me since the day I was drafted. I’ve always felt wanted by the fans and the community there. … Right now, I’m going to a (Predators) team that wants me and the Montreal Canadiens felt they had to take it down a different path.”
Whether Subban’s gigantic personality played a role in his exit, traded by then-GM Marc Bergevin, remains a topic of heated discussion in Montreal. There’s no doubt that the team’s second-round selection (No. 43) in the 2007 NHL Draft consumed a great deal of oxygen in the dressing room, knocked heads with a few teammates and was a player who sometimes was viewed as being focused more on his own burgeoning brand than the core business of the Canadiens.
Nashville Predators captain Shea Weber and Canadiens defenseman P.K. Subban during the 2016 Honda NHL All-Star Skill Competition at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville. Five months later, they would be traded for each other. Getty Images
But if Subban was a polarizing figure, so too did he galvanize. His magnetic personality and physical, often spectacular style of play thrilled fans from the moment he arrived during the 2010 playoffs.
For the next seven seasons, he ran neck and neck with goaltender Carey Price as the most popular member of the Canadiens, his No. 76 jerseys jumping off store shelves onto the backs of fans. Many will be at Bell Centre on Thursday.
“He’s a positive person, always smiling,” defenseman Andrei Markov, a regular blue-line partner, said upon Subban’s retirement from the NHL on Sept. 20, 2022. “Full of energy all the time, no matter what. It’s fun to see that. He brought a lot of energy to the dressing room.”
If Subban heard his critics, he never seemed concerned by them.
“I have no control over what the fans do or what the media say. I just do what I can — go out there and play hockey and have a smile on my face when I do it, just try to have a little bit of fun,” he said in May 2010.
P.K. Subban with the New Jersey Devils, his last of three NHL teams, and the Nashville Predators. Getty Images
That was a mindset that guided him through a 13-season NHL career — 434 games for the Canadiens over his first seven seasons, 211 for the Predators the next three and finally 189 his final three with the New Jersey Devils, having been traded on June 22, 2019, by Nashville to the Devils with Adam Helewka for two draft picks.
Subban scored 115 goals with 352 assists, adding another 18 goals and 44 assists in the postseason. He retired and moved behind an ESPN microphone two months later, signing a multiyear contract with the network as a studio analyst with other creative duties.
One of his biggest fans in Montreal remains Elise Beliveau, wife of late Canadiens legend Jean Beliveau. On Thursday, at home, she says she’ll be wearing her Subban jersey, watching the pregame tribute.
P.K. Subban attends the “Black Ice” premiere during the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival at Roy Thomson Hall on Sept. 10, 2022. Getty Images
Madame Beliveau was at the Montreal Children’s Hospital in September 2015 when Subban announced his support for sick children and their families, his foundation committing to help raise $10 million through P.K.’s Helping Hands.
The contract of Weber, who remains inactive due to myriad injuries, was traded to the Vegas Golden Knights on June 16, 2022, for forward Evgenii Dadonov.
The Canadiens surely wouldn’t be celebrating Subban had Weber still been in Montreal. But there will be no awkwardness when fans shower Subban with their love Thursday, reminding him that, warts and all, what he brought to the city on and off the ice has not been forgotten.
Top photo: P.K. Subban pauses during his first NHL playoff game, April 26, 2007 against the Washington Capitals. Getty Images