The smiling face behind Canada's 2009 World Junior Championship gold-medal quest belonged to defenseman P.K. Subban.
It's a smile that Subban, a defenseman with the Belleville Bulls of the Ontario Hockey League and a 2007 second-round pick of the Montreal Canadiens
, wears well, and wears often.
"He's a great guy," said teammate Eric Tangradi
. "If you're ever down in the room, need a smile on your face, P.K. is the guy that will pick you up. … He's a great character guy and he's awesome to have around."
"He has a very infectious personality," added Belleville coach George Burnett. "He's a guy that gets up with that smile on his face most days, and even if he doesn't feel good he's got a smile."
It's always sunny when Subban is around.
"You have to enjoy it," Subban told NHL.com. "You're playing hockey. I moved away from home at 16 to play junior hockey. My future, I look ahead and there's a lot of things I can accomplish, but you have to have fun doing it, though. This is something you love; you have to enjoy it.
"I don't come to the rink frowning because at the end of the day I'm playing junior hockey, I'm having my post-secondary education paid for. A lot of my friends back home are working at McDonald's or working at their local mall trying to scrape up change just to take a university course. We're very fortunate, and I don't think a lot of people understand that. They take that for granted and you can't because you're so lucky."
There's far more skill than luck, however, in Subban's rise.
A 5-foot-11, 200-pound puck-rushing dynamo of a defenseman, his play inspired one Canadian scribe to write that Subban is "single-handedly trying to resuscitate the 'rover' position hockey canceled nearly a century ago."
In 37 games this season, Subban is fifth among OHL defenseman with 44 points and third with 38 assists, and he's fourth among all skaters with a plus-32 rating. He had his breakout, though, at the WJC, tying for the scoring lead among defenseman with 9 points in six games. His plus-12 led all skaters.
Among those who noticed were his future employers.
"How could we not be (happy)?" Trevor Timmins, the Canadiens' director of player recruitment and development, told NHL.com. "He was one of the best defensemen in the tournament. He had a great tournament and hopefully he can take that as a springboard and continue his development and, hopefully, maybe do that at the NHL level someday."
It's not just Subban's performance at the WJC, though, that has the Canadiens excited.
"P.K. brings a lot of energy to the game," said Timmins. "He brings a lot of passion to the game. He plays that way on the ice. He has a tremendous upside. From a physical point of view, he has decent size, but he's really strong and he has good speed, good quickness. He loves to have that puck. That's important. He wants the puck and he's willing to go to the harder areas of the ice to get the puck himself, carry it up ice or disperse it up-ice quickly, and he's very good in the transition game, as well."
More than good play, though, Subban is renowned for being a good person and a leader. He serves as an alternate captain with the Bulls, and also was an alternate captain for Canada at the WJC.
"P.K. is a good person, comes from a good family, a good support system at home," said Timmins. "He's got strong values and that was brought upon him by his family."
Subban hasn't signed with the Canadiens yet -- Timmins said that should happen by the time Belleville's season ends -- but already he's trying to learn French. Don't think the Canadiens haven't noticed that.
"You don't need to be bilingual to play in Montreal," said Timmins, "(but) when you give an effort and you try, it makes people feel warm."
Making people feel good is a Subban specialty.
"He's a young man that handles himself tremendously well in the community," said Burnett. "He's very giving of his time. … He'll walk into the rink and if there was a minor hockey tournament in town, he takes the time to sign every autograph and learn more about the people who are around him. He's a tremendously bright young man."
Teammates also like Subban, who Tangradi affectionately called a prankster and "a goofball."
"The best he's gotten me with was he put icy hot all over my gear so during practice I was burning up," said Tangradi. "For me, I put clear tape on his blades once so he was slipping around on the ice out there. Pretty good joke."
Tangradi another way to get under Subban's skin is to call him by his given name -- Pernell Karl.
"Here or there, just when we're trying to be funny-serious, we'll say, 'Hey, Pernell Karl, take it easy,'" said Tangradi.
Subban brushes aside the verbal jabs. "A couple guys when they want to get under my skin will call me that," he said. The Karl is for his father, but Subban said his parents mostly call him P.K.
While he may like to joke around, Burnett says Subban's drive is limitless.
"He wants to be a pro and he won't accept anything less," he said. "He doesn't like to accept that he can't. I can remember the first conversation I had with him, coming into our league, other than saying hello and introducing himself, he said he was going to make our team, which few sixth-round (OHL draft) picks do."
Subban made the Bulls as a 16-year-old in 2005-06, and after scoring a goal in his first OHL game, he finished with 12 points in 52 games. The next season he had 15 goals and 56 points in 68 games. Last season he had 47 points in 58 games, and followed that with a league-leading 23 points in 21 playoff games as Belleville made the OHL finals and advanced to the Memorial Cup semifinal. His four points in four games tied for the tournament lead among defensemen.
"He's got a picture of the short-term and where he wants to be in the future," said Burnett. "I wouldn't want to be the person telling him he can't because I don't think he'll stop doing the things necessary to get there and do the things that will keep him there."
And he'll most likely do those things with a big smile on his face.
Contact Adam Kimelman at firstname.lastname@example.org.