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Subban's star rises entering prime with Canadiens

by Dan Rosen

As if Montreal Canadiens defenseman P.K. Subban wasn't already going to light up the red carpet at the 2014 NHL Awards with his gregarious and convivial personality, he turned it up a notch when he arrived in a bright orange linen suit with a glitzy gold watch on his left wrist and his lavish new Olympic championship ring on his right hand.

Subban didn't need a big slap shot or a wild goal celebration to grab the attention of the crowd outside the Encore Theater in Wynn Las Vegas on June 24. He was as flashy as ever.

But no one should have been surprised at Subban's suit and bling, or that he was there in a dual capacity -- as a finalist for the EA Sports NHL 15 cover vote and as a roving reporter for NHL Network to interview the stars on the red carpet and backstage.

Subban embraced his evening in front of the camera the same way he embraces everything in his life, on and off the ice, on and off camera -- he jumped into the spotlight, felt it warm him up and let his big, bold personality burst through.

According to Subban and some people who know him best, none of it was an act. None of it ever is.

"This is who I am," Subban said.

Subban is a rare commodity in the NHL, arguably one-of-a-kind. He's a crossover superstar, a player who is as comfortable on the ice as he is in orange suits, with a microphone in his hand, interviewing his peers and Hollywood stars, mingling in the fashion world, snapping photos with Magic Johnson and going out to dinner with Novak Djokovic.

While most of the stars wore black, blue or gray on the red carpet, Subban wore orange. The average ALS Ice Bucket Challenge video from NHL players involved a small bucket and a smartphone; Subban's featured a dump truck full of ice and a live television shoot.

Nothing about him is understated.

"Our League has never seen anything like him," said NHL Network analyst Kevin Weekes, who is one of Subban's closest confidants. "We have a fully black superstar with Caribbean parents, and he's one of the best players in our League, can play in any situation, against any player.

"Not only that, but I saw the way Djokovic was with him. Milos Raonic, same thing. Magic Johnson, same thing. We're talking stars in different sports, in entertainment, Hollywood, and he always handles himself well, reflects the League well, represents the Montreal Canadiens heritage well. He does it with class and with flair."

Weekes compared Subban's crossover appeal to that of New York Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist.

"He may be a little more outgoing and a little more high-energy than [Lundqvist], but just know you're getting a lot of the same character," Weekes said.

Subban's star is only getting brighter as he enters the prime of his career.

He's 25 years old and has a Norris Trophy on his resume and an Olympic gold medal he can wear around his neck. This season he's starting an eight-year, $72 million contract that binds him to a city he has adopted as his second home, a team he loves to play for and a tradition he admires and respects.

Subban basically has the world at his fingertips and an audience for everything he does.

"I'm not trying to change the game of hockey, I'm trying to be who I am, but the difference is when you're an impactful player it does change things," Subban said. "It does because there is a following in the NHL. Do I bring qualities that maybe the NHL hasn't had before? Maybe. And people might find that appealing. That's OK. But more than anything, I respect the NHL. I respect the game, the players in the game. That's why I'm able to carry myself the way I do, because I have a respect for the game that the players before me, the legends before me, the superstars before me will all appreciate."

Subban doesn't need to be told that his way isn't the traditional way and how that can be a turn-off to some.

He's not deaf to Don Cherry getting on his case for his goal celebrations or former Montreal forward Alexei Kovalev saying, as he did in an interview with RDS, that Subban isn't worth the money he's going to make because he's capable of scoring five goals and allowing five goals.

Subban is image-conscious enough to be up-to-date on what people think about him and what they're saying about him. Like anyone else he doesn't like it when people say negative things about him, but he chooses not to debate his detractors because he's not going to change his ways.

Like his personality, Subban's confidence is big -- big enough, in fact, that he feels he can always, as he said, "just skate past the noise."

"To be honest, if I cared about every little thing that somebody said about me I'd be spending a lot of time talking about a lot of other people, and I don't have that time," Subban said.

"If people choose to follow me, they're going to choose to follow me because they believe in who I am and what I do and how I carry myself," he added. "That's all I want. I'm not trying to attract people who don't believe in who I am. I'm not trying to fool people. What you see is what you get. For me, I'm happy to embrace followers. I'm happy for people to follow me. I want to win. I want to be the best hockey player I can be. The one thing that I'll promise people is what you see is what you get. I'm not hiding anything from anybody. I'm not trying to be somebody I'm not."

He never has, according to Weekes.

"This guy came to my hockey school as an eight-year-old," Weekes said. "I could see him through the full visor on the Cooper helmet with the same grin, the same eyes, the same hyper energy. As you see him now is as he was then. He's as authentic in every way."

Montreal forward Max Pacioretty said there is just one difference in the Subban he knows now and the one he met in 2007, when they were drafted together (Pacioretty at No. 22, Subban at No. 42).

"He's the same person, but he's really grown up a lot," Pacioretty said. "He's a lot more mature and he picks his spots now much better."

George Burnett concurs with Weekes and Pacioretty. As Subban's coach when he played for the Belleville Bulls in the Ontario Hockey League and someone who remains close with the Subban family, Burnett said he has seen the defenseman mature from a cocky 16-year-old to a supremely confident star at 25.

Burnett, who is still the coach and general manager in Belleville, wishes everyone else can see the Subban he sees, even though he knows it's impossible because there aren't many people who know Subban and the Subban family the way he does.

Since Subban left Belleville, Burnett has gone on to coach his brothers, Malcolm and Jordan.

"He's very unique and he wants to be the guy, wants to be in the tough situations and wants the pressure placed on his shoulders," Burnett said. "He continues to show that. He has always been a very confident young man and sometimes that rubs people the wrong way, but I think in the bigger picture he's clearly put himself in a situation where his confidence makes the people around him probably better. There are not too many guys like him that have come through our program or any program I would think."

P.K. Subban
Defense - MTL
GOALS: 10 | ASST: 43 | PTS: 53
SOG: 204 | +/-: -4

Burnett said people who criticize Subban misunderstand him.

"When he came here, did he rub people the wrong way?" Burnett said. "Well, it wasn't his fault that I played him on the power play as a 16-year-old. He's just doing it because that's what has been asked of him and he earned the opportunity or took advantage of the opportunity and did a great job, so why not?

"I think once everybody [in Belleville] had a chance to respect him for how hard he worked off the ice, to see him in the gym and how committed he is, he gained the respect of the older players at this level. I'm sure that's somewhat like his transition into the National Hockey League. Those that get a chance to know him recognize how much he cares and that there are a lot of special things about him. If you have an opportunity to do that, you realize there's more than just the flash you see on the TV.

"Sometimes he's maybe outside the standard clichés, the pro athlete you would see in many cases whether it is through interviews or his work on the ice, but I give him a lot of credit for sticking with his beliefs."

Pacioretty indicated the uniqueness of Subban is appreciated in the Canadiens dressing room, where the pressure can rise and the media scrutiny can be large. Subban usually stands in front of it all, deflecting some of it from his teammates in the process.

"I love having a guy like that on my team, especially on a team in a market where the face of the franchise is huge," Pacioretty said. "It's what brings people to our sport and to our games, but at the same time it's good for our team chemistry. You don't want to have 25 robots on your team. Getting jealous of P.K. for getting attention? It's not like that at all. P.K. is his personality and the other extreme would be [Andrei] Markov and his personality. We're glad we have both and we are glad we have people in the middle, because that helps us all gel together as one."

Subban would love the chance to marry his personality with the prestige of being the Canadiens' next captain. There is an opening now because Brian Gionta signed with the Buffalo Sabres this summer.

Getting the "C" would put Subban on the same list as legends Toe Blake, Maurice Richard, Jean Beliveau, Henri Richard, Yvon Cournoyer, Bob Gainey and more. That means something to Subban.

"Being just a great player isn't good enough," Subban said. "Being a great teammate and being a great leader; now you're talking about an opportunity to win the Stanley Cup. I pride myself on being a good teammate first and foremost, but becoming a great leader, now your value to your team is so much higher than just being a great player."

Regardless if he's given a letter to wear on his sweater this season, Subban will still be more than just a face in the crowd or someone who speaks in clichés and keeps his emotion in check on the ice.

He will wildly jump into teammates' arms and tug on his jersey during goal celebrations, even if the unwritten code in hockey says players shouldn't do that. He will talk trash on the ice, dress well and speak loudly off it. He will be bold and big, flamboyant and expressive.

What he won't be is boring. What he won't do is change.

"I'm not trying to be someone I'm not," Subban said. "I would never ask a player to talk the way I talk or walk the way I walk or play the way I play, because that's the way I am. That might not be who you are. I believe people should be who they are. If people don't believe this is me, well that's your prerogative, but you're going to see over time that I'm not changing. I am who I am. I can't change who I am."


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