Bigger Than the Team

A dad’s-eye view of the NHL’s most polarizing figure

If you’re someone who’s mothered a famous hockey player, chances are that you have not subsequently gone out and written a book about it. Is this because your parental pride is more private than, say, a father’s, your fulfillment so much the quieter? Or because you don’t feel the same urgent need to explain your son? Maybe. In the teeming library devoted to our beloved winter game, the books of hockey-parent lit may only fill a half-shelf, but this we know: almost all of them are written by fathers. There is something charmingly local about the fact that these books are published at all: only in Canada could there be enough oxygen to sustain such a sub-genre.

If hockey fathers antedate the birth of the sport itself, the dads of professional hockey players only started writing books in the early 1970s. First to the font was Murray Dryden, who, if he were a primary character in George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones, might be dubbed Father of Goaltenders. Dave and Ken’s dad was suitably satisfied when his sons both made the NHL, with Buffalo and Montreal, respectively—all the more so when they started against one another in a regular-season game in 1971. Dryden’s Playing the Shots at Both Ends (1972) is light and genial, a quick and agreeable excursion. At 156 pages, it set a standard of brevity that subsequent exemplars from the genus Pater librorum glaciem hockey have failed to follow.

The memoir Walter Gretzky published in 2001 was called On Family, Hockey and Healing. After a stroke threatened Gretzky Senior’s life in 1991, he faced a long and complicated recovery. As a spokesman for the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada, he was as focussed on advocacy and promoting awareness as he was on spinning hockey tales about his son Wayne.

Published in both French and English editions, Michel Roy’s Patrick Roy: Winning, Nothing Else (2007) ran to more than 500 pages. It was positively militant in its mission, which was to cast Patrick as a hero and correct the public’s faulty perceptions of his character. People thought the younger Roy was testy, aloof, selfish, and they were wrong. “I wanted to present Patrick as he is,” Michel told an interviewer soon after the book was published. “I wanted to defend the truth.”

The exception to the rule of mothers not writing books is the memoir penned by the late Colleen Howe. Wife to Gordie, and mother to NHLers Mark and Marty, she was a force in her own right, which you will already know if you’ve read My Three Hockey Players (1975). To my mind, it remains the most interesting of the parental hockey books: filled with anecdote and incident, it’s candid and bracingly caustic, knotty with grievance and criticism, holding nothing back.

The newest addition to the shelf, Karl Subban’s How We Did It: The Subban Plan for Success in Hockey, School and Life, fits in alongside Dryden and Gretzky, down at what we might call the more generous end of the shelf. With his son P.K.—at? nearing?—the peak of his game, Karl seems to be enjoying the moment as much as seizing an opportunity while his son is at centre ice to tell his own story and shape it as a platform for his ideas on parenthood and mentoring young people. Writing with an assist from Scott Colby, an editor with the Toronto Star, Karl is in a sharing mood. I suspect that theirs might be the hockey-dad book that finds a wider audience than those that have gone before. This has to do with P.K.’s compelling personality and his philanthropy, both of which transcend the game he plays. More than any other player of recent note he has also managed to unsettle hockey’s sense of itself, and there will be readers from beyond the rink who will come to the book curious about questions of race and racism, the snubs and the insults that Subban has suffered, and how they’re coded, or not.

A quick recap, for those who might have been exiled for a decade, on an atoll, far from wifi: Pernell Karl Subban is a vividly skilled 28-year-old defenceman who has been one of the NHL’s best since at least 2013, when he won the Norris Trophy. Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin, Connor McDavid: all of them can dominate a game and electrify a crowd. But is there a more consistently entertaining hockey player to watch, or one who seems to play with more joy, than Subban? “Like Roger Federer, or Kevin Durant, or Yasiel Puig,” Ben McGrath wrote in a persuasive 2014 New Yorker profile, “[Subban] awes less because of the results he achieves than because of the way he achieves them—kinetic charisma, approaching genius.”

He was still a Montreal Canadien back then, beloved to many, infuriatingly flamboyant to others—a polarizing figure, including (the rumours went) within his own dressing room; his own coach, Michel Therrien, was often critical of Subban’s defensive lapses. As a columnist from USA Today wrote during last season’s playoffs, “Subban has haters.” The adjectives that have crowded into mentions of Subban’s hockey exploits over his eight years in the league include dynamic; freewheeling; passionate; booming (his shot); dazzling (his rushes); jaw-dropping (his creativity), but they also run to the more hostile emotional; individualistic; cocky; arrogant; and bigger than the team.

The debate hasn’t stopped roiling in Montreal since he was traded in the summer of 2016 to Nashville, whose golden-garbed Predators he helped to attain a berth in this last spring’s Stanley Cup finals. The fact that they lost there to Sidney Crosby’s Pittsburgh Penguins didn’t do anything to change that: regret weighs heavily to this day with many Montreal fans who can’t—and don’t want to—forget the on-ice skill and exuberance that made him one of most exciting athletes anywhere, in any sport, or his astonishing 2015 pledge to donate $10 million over seven years for the city’s children’s hospital.

For all its flashing lights and bold embrace of new markets (hello, Las Vegas), the NHL remains a bastion of staid and conservative attitudes. Because he is anything but, Subban has been accused of arrogance and disrespect, of excessive self-regard, of not knowing his station. As a rookie with the Montreal Canadiens, he was called out by the then-captain of the Philadelphia Flyers. “It’s just frustrating to see a young guy like that come in here,” whinged Mike Richards, “and so much as think that’s he’s better than a lot of people.”

Never mind that Subban was better than a lot of people—as he always has been and will be. Hockey’s brassiest establishment voice, Don Cherry, would soon be scolding him for daring to play with verve and personality; another, Mike Milbury, called him a clown during the spring’s playoffs, berating him for courting too much attention, and for the mortal sin of overt enthusiasm.

There is no good gauge of which of or how much, if at all, the reproaches directed Subban’s way have to do with the fact that he is a black man in a sport that has been so glaringly white for so long. There are books about that, too, including Herb Carnegie’s instructive 1997 memoir A Fly in a Pail of Milk. A stand-out scorer in the 1930s and ’40s who couldn’t find a way through hockey’s colour barrier, Carnegie never played an NHL game. He had no doubt that it was racism that kept him from cracking the New York Rangers’ line-up in 1948.

Readers who come to How We Did It in hopes of a broader discussion of race and racism in hockey may be left wanting. It’s not that Karl Subban seeks to avoid it, exactly, more that he addresses the issue as he sees fit and moves on. Yes, his son has run into his share of ignorant morons and their abhorrent slurs in his time playing hockey. No, Karl doesn’t think either—the slurs or the morons—is worth engaging; they’re nothing but distractions. “Racism is a fact of life,” he writes. Why give it permission to get in the way of where you’re going? In the book’s final pages, P.K. endorses his dad’s approach. And that’s as far as it goes.

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ike the P.K. that fans see and hear, Karl is one to keep both his outlook and message unrelentingly positive. “Hockey matters,” he declares at one point, “but people matter more.” He’s an affable, even friendly narrator, even if he does reveal himself to have been intense and, occasionally, over-the-line hotheaded as a parent of minor-league hockey players. (The guilty chapter describing the time he yanked a 10-year-old P.K. from an elite Toronto minor team runs to nearly 17 pages.)

How We Did It is evenhanded: much as P.K. fans might wish for a narrative that emphasizes the middle-born son who spends his winters wearing number 76, father Karl makes time for his elder daughters, Taz and Tasha, as well as to for P.K.’s younger brothers, Malcolm and Jordan, talented players both, both on the verge of NHL careers of their own. (P.K. has said that Jordan is “going to be the best of us all.”)

Karl has no trouble conceding that his sons’ hockey careers are extensions of his frustrated aspirations. Born in Jamaica in 1958, he followed his parents to Canada in 1970, when he was twelve. He remembers feeling air-conditioning for the first time, and his introduction to the exotic Canadian cuisine known, outlandishly, as the hot dog. The family made a home in Sudbury, Ontario, where Karl’s mother started as a seamstress and his father worked as a diesel mechanic. An ardent cricketer, young Karl soon traded bats and wickets for a road hockey stick. He idolized Ken Dryden and dreamed of joining his Montreal Canadiens. Problem: he was in his mid-teens before he started skating and never got into an organized league. “Raising a hockey player,” he writes of his parents, “was not in their pocketbook.”

At university he was a talented basketball player and thought maybe that was a career he would court before turning to teaching. That eventually took him to Toronto, where he embarked on a 30-year career as an influential teacher and highly successful administrator in the public system. It’s where he would also meet (and eventually marry) Maria Brand. Then—well, “before you knew it,” is how Karl frames it, “we were blessed with five kids—our starting five, as I like to call them.”

For those waiting patiently for P.K. to make his debut, that comes on page 85, or almost a third of the way through the book. Pay attention, it happens fast. Where Michel Roy logs the minute of son Patrick’s birth, the delivering doctor’s name, and his inaugural weight (seven pounds, one ounce), Karl Subban lingers not at all in the delivery room. They grow up so fast: turn the page and P.K. is two-and-a-half and already skating.

Readers hoping for the dish on P.K.’s early years may be disappointed. He was, as you’d imagine, an energetic kid who was good at sports. There were good times (when the family went skating together on freezing Friday nights in Brampton) and mishaps (the time P.K. threw a beach ball and his sister was nearly blinded). Along with the rest of his sisters and brothers, P.K. pops in now and then with a paragraph of first-person testimony.

For anyone not inclined to keep diaries or write extensive letters, reconstructing the past from mere memories is hard work. You can do a certain amount of scrapbooking with anecdotes and make that work, as most of the hockey-father books do, more or less. The absence of more revealing details is understandable, and not unique to Karl Subban’s contribution to the genre. What none of the hockey-parent books really achieves is any kind of convincing explanation of just what it is that makes their sons so exceptional in their hockey talents. Walter Gretzky confides that he was strict about proper eating and early bedtimes before important games, and that when, as a toddler, Wayne watched older kids play hockey, “there was a kind of intensity there.” Gretzky Senior doesn’t really stretch himself beyond that: Wayne’s “life in hockey always seemed to be predestined.”

Karl Subban doesn’t really have any insight into the alchemy of P.K.’s success. Or, no—I guess what he would say is that it’s all about family. That’s what shaped his boys into NHLers: the crucible of family love and presence and pressure.

Hockey reporters might hope to plumb How We Did It for inside grist on the trade that so shockingly ended P.K.’s tenure with Montreal a year ago: What happened? Why? What were P.K.’s true feelings? Was the abandon with which he plays somehow an affront to the traditions of the sainted Canadiens? There is nothing much on any of that here. Karl takes two paragraphs to say how little the trade surprised him before handing over the page to Nashville’s VP and chief revenue officer for the corporate view on how welcome P.K. is in his new NHL home.

Are there fathers out there who will seize on How We Did It with the idea that it contains a foolproof formula for raising their own little NHL all-star? The title does pack more of a DIY imperative than most of those of the other books on the hockey-father shelf. I’m advocating caution. As any parent (and every hockey scout) knows, there is no recipe to any of this, and if you do try it at home, you’re mostly on your own. That’s not to say that advice from someone like Karl Subban doesn’t have its place. The Subban narrative is a positive one, and even at times uplifting. Everyone has potential, Karl counsels, you just have to find your gift. Dreams are important, so nurture them and never let them wilt. Occasionally the message veers off into banality: be a good person is a key tenet herein, because that’s the only kind that succeeds in hockey.

P.K. has five years left on his Nashville contract. Beyond that, it’s impossible to say where his career will go from here. It will be worth watching, and maybe at some point, the man will sit down and write his own book to help explain himself. In the meantime, we have something of a provisional statement in his 2015 announcement at the Montreal’s Children Hospital. “In life I believe you are not defined by what you accomplish but by what you do for others,” he said there. “Sometimes I try to think, ‘P.K., are you a hockey player or are you just someone who plays hockey?’ I just play hockey. Because one day I won’t be a hockey player anymore. I’ll just be someone who played hockey. So what do I want people to remember me for other than being a hockey player? Well, every time you walk into this hospital, you’ll know what I stand for.”