Not any more

P.K. Subban benching a shame as NHL conformity wins out

In Canada on December 10, 2010 at 14:54

VANCOUVER — There are few absolutes in life, but one is that if you are involved in the quaint sport of ice hockey and have somehow attracted the attention of the Huffington Post, you are about to cross the line from non-entity to laughingstock, if not pariah.

Otherwise, why would the giant U.S. online news blog waste valuable web space on you?

So it was when, in the middle of a TSN panel discussion on the trials and tribulations of Montreal Canadiens’ recently-benched rookie defenceman P.K. Subban (who is black), former NHL goalie Darren Pang (who is not) suggested that the flamboyant Subban might try to emulate St. Louis’s Alex Pietrangelo and do things on and off the ice “the white way.”

He quickly corrected it to “right way,” but it was too late. Within seconds, the slip of the tongue was being YouTube’d and Twittered and hooted at, and a mortified Pang — who is about a million miles from being any kind of racist — was issuing mea culpas and calling Subban to apologize, and generally turning himself inside out in embarrassment.

Beyond the furor, though, totally invisible to the amused viewers and long-distance critics of a guy they don’t even know, is the really sad aspect of what Pang was saying.

The crime of which Subban was so guilty that his benching required a TSN panel to analyze it? He had resisted hockey’s No. 1 law: conform or sit.

He was quotable. He was fun-loving. He was cocky. He chirped at opposing players more famous than himself. He refused to bow and kiss the hems of their robes just because he was a rookie. He drew the ire of Sidney Crosby and Mike Richards and eventually — though he was playing like a Calder Trophy candidate most nights — this outrageous non-conformity of his could no longer be tolerated by the world’s dullest hockey coach, Jacques Martin.

So off to the Habs’ press box went P.K. Subban, and let that be a lesson to him.

When he returns, hopefully it will be with no personality at all. Never will he speak another interesting thought, if he knows what’s good for him. He will spout cliches in the style of Jason Spezza or Richards or Dion Phaneuf or, yes, Ryan Kesler — and when asked what he has learned from his benching, he will say: “It’s not about me, it’s about the team.”

He will remain black on the outside, but as colourless, for all that, as everyone else in a game that has pretty much hammered all individuality out of its players, and values vanilla above all other flavours.

Talkativeness is held to be a character flaw in hockey, and our juniors learn this before they’ve ever set foot in the pros. Our heroes have been Bobby Orr, who preferred not to speak at all, Wayne Gretzky, who was pleasant but instinctively uncontroversial, Mario Lemieux — who hid from the public until he needed help building his arena, then quickly ducked back under cover — and now Sid The Kid, whose next verbal revelation will be his first.

Players like Jeremy Roenick and Brett Hull and Chris Chelios, who had things to say and didn’t hold back, were not only a dying breed, they were always viewed with suspicion by hockey’s conservative establishment. Probably because we media guys loved them.

Then, too, they were all Americans, and American individuality is notoriously more difficult to trample beneath an iron boot.

A Canadian who expresses himself at length is apt to be labelled a clubhouse lawyer (Willie Mitchell’s burden) or at least a selfish, non-team player (see Shane O’Brien) if not downright weird (Kyle Wellwood).

This behavioural law is occasionally waived in non-traditional hockey markets, where something more than the game itself is needed to sell tickets and players’ personalities are reluctantly cultivated in aid of marketing.

But not in our country. It takes years — often well past the age of 30 — for even outstanding NHL players toiling in Canada to feel secure enough to emerge from their cocoons and venture an honest opinion or two.

That’s why, if you are scoring at home, you will see that most of the interesting quotes in the paper, or on TV, are not coming from those young stars the league is (paradoxically) so keen to promote, but from secure veterans who are beyond caring whether someone, somewhere might conceivably take a remark the wrong way.

Europeans have frequently been quirky enough (Mikael Samuelsson) or goofy enough (Petr Klima’s “You need a long stick to score from the bench”) or mangle the language badly enough (Esa Tikkanen’s “We need to play like a team, right now we’re just playing with ourselves”) to provide good material — or just too darned pleasant to say no, like Teemu Selanne — but they are forgiven because they’re from faraway lands, and you know how those foreigners are.

The Guy Carbonneaus, the Craig MacTavishes, the Rob Blakes have always been rarities, and it’s no accident that most of the old-school guys who have filled reporters’ notebooks with cogent thoughts over the years have eventually gravitated to TV panels like the one that Darren Pang found himself on the other night.

No one ever asked Bobby Orr or Gordie Howe or Wayne Gretzky or Mario Lemieux to sit on a panel and light the place up with lively chatter. And no one will ever ask Crosby.

Somehow, they’ve always known that adjectives are someone else’s job. Colour is not a personal trait much admired by the Canadian hockey fan, for whom team is everything and sticking one’s head above the crowd is considered rude.

That is the lesson of P.K. Subban.

Conform or sit. He’ll conform.

Such a shame.

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