In 1970, when Karl Subban was 12 years old, he discovered hockey. His parents, a diesel mechanic and a seamstress, had moved him and his three brothers from Portland Cottage, Jamaica, to Sudbury. They were one of the few black families in a predominantly French neighbourhood called Flour Mill. Karl’s parents bought him a pair of skates at the Salvation Army, which helped him make friends. Soon he was playing pick-up games with the French kids, worshipping the Habs and imagining he was Ken Dryden.
As the years passed, Karl remained obsessed with the sport. He graduated from Lakehead University and began working as an elementary school teacher. He met his wife, Maria, a quality control analyst at CIBC Mellon, at a New Year’s party in 1981. Together, they bought a four-bedroom house on a winding Rexdale street just north of the Woodbine Racetrack and had five kids: Nastassia, Natasha, Pernell Karl (who goes by P. K.), Malcolm and Jordan.
Karl, built like a linebacker, six foot three inches tall and with a deep, booming voice, went on to serve as a principal in some of the city’s toughest schools, including Brookview Middle School at Jane and Finch. He earned a reputation as a strict disciplinarian who expected students to stand in military formation during assemblies.
When P. K. was two, not long after he learned to walk, Karl bought him his first pair of skates. Two years later, Karl enrolled him in a house league. Maria was reluctant to let her boy play an expensive sport that she considered dangerous, but changed her mind the moment she saw him skate onto the ice in his jersey. “He just looked so cute,” she recalls.
Family life soon revolved around the game. When P. K. was six, Karl resolved to skate with him once a day in the winter. Finding the time was tough—Karl was working two vice-principal jobs and didn’t usually get home until 10 p.m. Karl would wake P. K. up, drive him downtown to the rink at Nathan Phillips Square (it opened earlier in the season than the rink near their house) and skate until one or two in the morning. As a treat, P. K. would get a slice of pizza. To save time, Maria would put P. K. to bed in his snowsuit.
Karl eventually turned his backyard into a rink in the winter and even let the boys practise in the living room, using piano legs as a makeshift net. He was determined to give his kids the opportunity that he didn’t have—to become a professional athlete. He never expected he’d score three times.
Evidence of the Subbans’ hockey obsession is everywhere in their Rexdale house: goalie pads line the front hall and the walls are festooned with team photos, framed jerseys and championship medals.
All three sons are now drafted into the NHL: P. K. to the Canadiens, Malcolm to the Bruins and Jordan to the Canucks. P. K., the eldest boy at 24, is the most accomplished. He’s also handsome and self-assured—his handshake has the practiced grip of someone who’s greeted many, many fans.
He’s an offensive defenceman. It was Karl’s idea that P. K. should play this style of defence—he liked seeing his son fly past his teammates and score. P. K. has natural speed, brute strength and footwork as elegant as Patrick Chan’s.
By the age of 10, P. K. was showing signs of the star to come. He was bigger than other players and had more depth in his abilities, and more guts. He led his Toronto team to win a major international tournament, held at the West Edmonton Mall. In the final period in a game against a Winnipeg team, P. K. cradled a pass, hurtled himself around a phalanx of defencemen, fired the puck past the goalie and, overpowered by his own momentum, crashed into the boards as he scored. Even then, his signature, supreme confidence was on display. “It’s the best game I’ve ever played because I scored the winning goal in a really big game,” he said post-victory. “I put the puck in the net when it was really needed.”
Still, P. K. didn’t believe that a future in professional hockey was possible until he was drafted into the elite Ontario Hockey League, one of the major conduits for juniors into the NHL, as a member of the Belleville Bulls. He was 16. He had to move out of his parents’ house to train and practise full-time in Belleville, attending high school in the mornings and spending the rest of his time on the ice. The transition to independence, which would overwhelm most teens, was easier for P. K. because he was billeted with a Belleville city employee named Amy McMillan, who instantly assumed the role of surrogate mom, making his dinners, helping him with his homework and becoming his protector. (Later, when P. K. became famous, McMillan was asked by a reporter if she had been afraid to have a young black guy living with her. She hung up the phone.)
Although P. K. distinguished himself with the Bulls, his game still needed polish. He struggled to find the right balance between his defensive duties and offensive ambitions, and was ranked by the NHL’s Central Scouting unit as the 102nd best prospect in North America—good, but far from great.
In 2007, he was eligible for the NHL draft. Before the draft, each team vets the prospects they like in various ways. There are gruelling fitness tests—involving stationary bikes and endless push-ups—and also interviews to assess the character and mental strength of the player. The Habs’ director of player development, Trevor Timmins, and a scout named Dave Mayville paid a visit to the Subbans’ home to evaluate whether P. K’s family provided a good support system. When Karl found out they were coming, he was driving Maria home from a doctor’s appointment, and in his excitement almost crashed his car. The scouts left impressed by P. K.’s confidence.
The draft was held at the Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio, home of the Blue Jackets. Despite the roving TV cameras, pulse-pumping music and nattering sportscasters, the event shares the same cruel efficiency of any schoolyard hockey game. According to a recent study by Simon Fraser University, only the top picks ever have a serious shot of converting their draft status into a successful NHL career (success being defined as lacing up for a minimum of 160 games, the baseline required to qualify for an NHL pension). The top 10 draft picks have an 85 per cent chance of having a successful pro career. Top 30 picks have a 65 per cent chance. Picks outside of the top 90 have a dismal 15 per cent chance.
P. K. says that night was the happiest in his life. He held back tears as his name was announced over the speakers through the arena. The Canadiens had picked him in the second round, 43rd overall, far higher than his ranking predicted. He stood up from his seat in the stands, embraced his overjoyed parents and siblings, then walked down to the ice to shake hands with Montreal general manager Bob Gainey and don his red, white and blue jersey for the first time. The moment was particularly sweet for Karl: his son had been drafted by the club he’d idolized growing up in Sudbury.
Now that he’s playing for the Habs, P. K. trains relentlessly. He spends the off-season working out with a trainer named Clance Laylor at a gym near King and Spadina (during the regular season, they consult by phone). Laylor, who was introduced to P. K. by a family friend, is a former sprinter whose athletic career was cut short by an injury. The program he’s devised for P. K. is intense, including punishing, multi-hour weightlifting and cardio sessions. P. K. walks back and forth across a patch of grass in a downtown park while lifting 260 pounds of weights, pulls a weighted sled or works on sprint sets. Laylor also monitors his diet. P. K. follows a strict regimen of protein shakes, steak, salmon and steamed broccoli.
When he’s playing in Montreal, he calls his parents every day and regularly texts with his brothers and sisters. During the off-season, he lives in a condo in downtown Toronto, but drops in on his parents often.
I visited the Subbans’ home last June and met all three boys. Malcolm, who is 19, had just finished his final season in the OHL, and Jordan, who is 18, was about to attend his NHL draft. Karl made a simple supper of whole-wheat noodles and organic meat sauce. P. K. didn’t eat anything; he was just passing through, making some family time during his hectic day. His gym gear was slung over his shoulder when he came through the door, but he also had a suit bag in hand. He was about to catch a flight to attend the 24th annual Special Olympics Festival Gala in P.E.I.
After our plates were cleared, Karl, who recently retired, explained how he still organizes his life around his boys, even now that they’re basically grown. (Nastassia and Natasha are both teachers.) He attends many of the boys’ games, gets them to the airport, makes sure they’re eating well and checks in on them every day. The boys are his life. As Karl spoke, he was interrupted by P. K., who yelled from across the house, demanding his car keys. Karl had them—he was planning to drive P. K. to Pearson. “Dad! You should have told me. I was looking!” P. K. said, his expression that of a petulant teen. Karl said nothing but smiled at me as if to say “kids will be kids.”
From the start of his first full season with the Canadiens, P. K. has been a polarizing figure. His race makes him a novelty but also a target. His cockiness was interpreted by some sports analysts as arrogance. He was criticized for his habit of celebrating a victory by giving Habs goalie Carey Price what’s called a triple-low-five. Self-congratulation is the norm in head-to-head sports like tennis, where diva players seem to follow every other point with a holler and a fist pump. But in hockey, anything so individualistic is seen as unsportsmanlike. Teams should celebrate all together, or not at all. “Stop that silly stuff. You irritate the other players and all that,” Don Cherry lectured Subban on Coach’s Corner. “You can’t do that and expect the players to like you.”
P. K. likes to pick fights, even with his own teammates. During practices, he’s scrapped with Tomas Plekanec, Mathieu Darche, Louis Leblanc and David Desharnais. Some of his teammates found his aggressive attitude irritating, but Habs coach Randy Cunneyworth praised Subban, saying that he wants him to bring the same energy to training that he brings to games.
In P. K.’s rookie season, after he fought with several players of the Philadelphia Flyers in a single game, Flyers captain Mike Richards said, “he’s a guy who’s come to the league and hasn’t earned respect. Hopefully someone on his team addresses it, because…something might happen to him if he continues to be that cocky.” During a 2012 game, he tripped the Pittsburgh Penguins’ Chris Kunitz, knocking him into the boards, and was fined $2,500 by the league.
At the beginning of the 2012–2013 season, the anti-P. K. criticism became vitriol. He had just finished a three-year, $2.6-million entry-level contract with the Habs, then spent the summer, along with his agent Don Meehan, locked in negotiations. He wanted a five-year, $30-million deal. In many ways, he had earned it: his points totals were impressive, and his vigour on the ice helped galvanize the perennially underperforming Habs into action. In his time with the Habs, they’d gone from last to first place in their division. Yet Montreal’s management was unwilling to commit to such a lengthy contract with such a big payout. They felt Subban was still relatively unproven.
The negotiations were interrupted by a protracted lockout by the league. Subban spent the lockout training but also having fun. He was invited to appear in an episode of This Hour Has 22 Minutes, where he made jokes about Prince Harry’s sex life and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He attended the Rally for Kids with Cancer at Yorkdale, posting a picture on Twitter of himself with Lou Ferrigno and Kurt Russell. Wearing a custom-tailored blue tux, he partied with the prince and princess of Monaco at the Ritz in Montreal.
When the lockout was over, he still had no deal, and sat out the first four games of the season. Fans considered his sky-high demands and refusal to settle greedy. His teammates were reportedly perturbed by his selfishness as well.
The resentment didn’t subside even when he finally signed a new two-year contract worth $5.7 million. P. K. said he was just happy to be back on the ice, acknowledging his dad’s sage advice: be patient. On Hockey Night in Canada, P. J. Stock said simply that everyone on the bench disliked him. Sports Illustrated named P. K. the most hated player in the league.
The sports writer Jack Todd questioned whether Subban would be so disliked if he were white and rural, not black and urban: “Hockey is unique,” Todd wrote in the Montreal Gazette last May, “in that black superstars are as rare as—well, as rare as Subban. Because he’s unique, Subban faces a special set of problems. The hockey world is still getting used to the idea of the black superstar—and that’s where Subban has hit rough waters at times.” He has a point: many young players are cocky when they reach the majors, causing spats and running their mouths, but they usually don’t face such intense criticism. And other players of similar skill and standing have been able to sign much more lucrative deals at a similar point in their careers.
New Brunswick’s Willie O’Ree, the first black player in the NHL, joined in 1958—11 years after Jackie Robinson broke the colour barrier in major league baseball. Between then and 1991, only 18 black or biracial players joined the league. Even today, there are fewer than 30 visible minorities among the NHL’s 700 or so players.
In 2010, two misguided fans showed up to a Canadiens game wearing Afro wigs, blackface and jerseys with the word “Subbanator” emblazed across the chest. Last year, Florida Panthers forward Krys Barch was suspended for a game after he allegedly directed a racist comment at P. K. (Barch denies that he said anything offensive.) The criticism hasn’t affected his on-ice performance: 2012–2013 was his best season yet. He was a top-scoring defenceman and clinched the Norris Trophy, the prize awarded to the best blueliner in the league. When his contract expires at the end of the current season, his new payout will likely be a windfall. And all the attention has made him a veritable celebrity who hobnobs with actors like Will Smith (they hung out together at Montreal Fashion Week).
Malcolm and Jordan’s road to the NHL hasn’t been as smooth as their brother’s. Malcolm barely made it into the OHL after an underwhelming midget career. But he saw what his brother had accomplished and had the steady support of his parents. “I always believed I was the best,” Malcolm told me. “That’s how I could get on the ice with much more experienced players and prove myself.” He was drafted as a goalie by the Boston Bruins in the first round in 2012.
P. K. says his youngest brother, Jordan, is the most talented of the three. He was drafted fifth into the OHL in his year. A cerebral athlete, he spends hours studying YouTube videos of his favourite players to dissect what makes them great. During the summer, he trains with P. K. at Etobicoke’s Westwood arenas, often organizing and leading the drills. His challenge, though, is his size. At five foot nine and 175 pounds, he’s tiny for an NHL player.
Jordan was drafted in 2013 by the Vancouver Canucks. Despite a relatively high ranking of 55 from the NHL Central Scouting Service, he was picked 115th overall—a disappointing finish that can be attributed almost entirely to his size. But still, being a Subban, he’s confidant that he can work hard and overcome the setback. Jordan’s draft was only 15 days after P. K.’s Norris Trophy win—back-to-back victories for the family.
P. K. will likely be going to Sochi in 2014 with Team Canada. It’s also possible that for the 2018 Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, all three Subbans will represent their country.
They are already starting to run into each other on the ice. On September 16, P.K played his first professional match against Malcolm in a pre-season game between the Bruins and the Habs. Karl and Maria drove to Montreal to watch. The couple avoided wearing team colours so as not to inadvertently show support for one son over the other. Malcolm stopped all 12 shots he faced, including one from P. K. The Bruins won. Karl and Maria were mobbed by fans afterward, who congratulated them on raising such phenomenal athletes.
One of the first things P. K. bought with his NHL earnings was a gleaming black Ford Expedition, which he gave to his dad. He jokingly told me he bought it because he was embarrassed to be seen in Karl’s beat-up 1983 Corolla. The truth is, of course, the SUV is a thank-you present. He’s now helping his parents build a home near Nobleton. It’ll be surrounded by trees, with a big gym and room for an ice rink out back.
This story was originally published in the December 2013 issue of Toronto Life magazine.