Karl Subban remembers the days when he would take his young son, Pernell Karl, ice skating and look around the rink to see if there was anybody else there that looked like them.
“In those days if you saw a black parent or a black person in the arena you would look twice,” he told me recently. “And now you don’t have to look twice anymore, things have changed a lot. Every time I walk into an arena you see minority children and minority parents.”
Things are indeed changing at rinks across North America and around the world, and Karl Subban’s family is a major force helping to facilitate that
change. Young Pernell Karl simply goes by P.K. now and he’s grown into a Norris Trophy-winning, slick-skating superstar defenseman for the Montreal Canadiens.
Brother Malcolm is in the middle, a 2012 Boston Bruins first round draft pick who played his first year of pro hockey last season for the Providence Bruins, Boston’s American Hockey League farm team. Youngest brother Jordan is a defenseman and 2013 Vancouver Canucks fourth-round draft pick, who skated last season for the Ontario Hockey League’s Bellville Bulls – the major junior team that his older brothers played for.
Karl Subban can’t hide a patriarch’s pride that his sons are reaching hockey’s upper echelon. But then, that’s always been the plan.
“We had the dream for these boys to play hockey, not just house league, but at a high level,” the elder Subban said of he and his wife, Maria. “The hardest part is to make it their dream and make them want it more than mom and dad.”
Karl says he reminds P.K, and his brothers that they are “pioneers” who stand on the shoulders of players of color who went before them.
“I look at the work that so many people have done whether it’s Willie O’Ree, or Herb Carnegie and others – Mike Marson, the McKegney brothers, they also paved the way,” he said. “Maybe there was a gap in between. So whether it’s my boys or (Edmonton Oilers prospect Darnell) Nurse, we’re starting to close that gap, especially at the professional level. I say to P.K. ‘You’re a pioneer, you’re an inspiration and hope for so many.’”
Getting three boys to the pro hockey level isn’t an easy task for any family. For Karl, whose family moved to Canada from Jamaica when he was 11, and wife Maria, whose family arrived in the Great White North from the tiny Caribbean island of Montserrat, negotiating the sport initially had its challenges.
“Our connection to hockey is as far as the distances we traveled to Canada,” Karl told me. “That’s the way I sort of summarize it.”
Karl was bitten by the hockey bug as a kid. He learned to skate while growing up in Sudbury, Ontario, and enjoyed watching the Sudbury Wolves play. The team had a talented forward on its roster, Marson, who later became the NHL’s second black player when he was drafted by the Washington Capitals in the team’s inaugural 1974-75 season.
Karl went on to play basketball at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ont., and went into teaching upon graduation. But he still had hockey on his mind. He bought P.K. his first pair of skates when he was 2 1/2. By four, the tyke was playing in a house league. About that time, “Maria and I decided he’s going to skate every day,” Karl told me.
That often called for Karl to take P.K. to the rink late at night after he got home from work from two vice principal jobs in Toronto. It also meant that sometimes Maria would put an exhausted P.K. to bed after midnight still dressed in his snowsuit.
It’s a recipe that Karl followed with Malcolm and Jordan and with daughters, Natassia and Natasha, in their athletic endeavors. You see, Karl Subban is a firm believer in practice. He was “Outliers” author Malcolm Gladwell long before Gladwell wrote that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to master a task.
With that philosophy, Karl Subban isn’t a fan of Allen Iverson. You could almost feel him shaking his head in disbelief over the phone as he recalled the Philadelphia 76ers star point guard’s infamous 2002 rant after being questioned about his practice habits.
“We’re talking about practice?” Iverson said, repeating the P-word 20 times during the course of his discourse. “I mean listen, we’re sitting here talking about practice, not a game, not a game, but we’re talking about practice? Not the game that I go out there and die for and play every game like it’s my last but we’re talking about practice, man.”
Fingernails on a blackboard for Karl, a retired public school principal.
“What a wrong message to give kids who are looking up to him. You don’t get better by playing, you get better by practicing,” he told me. “With my boys…I wouldn’t be as upset if they missed a game, but if they missed an opportunity to skate, or to practice, or to shoot pucks, that didn’t sit well with me, that bothered me a tremendous amount.”
Practice and hard work have paid off for Karl’s boys – and will pay off handsomely for P.K. He scored 10 goals and 43 assists in 82 games for the Canadiens last season, ranking fifth among NHL defensemen. During the Stanley Cup Playoffs, he tallied 5 goals and 9 assists in 17 games, finishing fourth among defensemen in scoring.
As a restricted free agent, P.K.’s 2013-14 exploits – including logging a whopping 33 minutes of ice time in a Game 4 loss to the New York Rangers in the Eastern Conference Final - will likely translate into a long-term deal that exceeds $7 million per-season from Montreal or another team that bids for his services.
“Obviously, everybody wants a long-term deal, in a place where they like to play,” Subban told The Montreal Gazette last month. “But there’s a lot of different things to consider in a contract negotiation. There’s stability for the family. There’s what’s in the best interest of the player and in the best interest of the team, for the organization moving forward.”
“And,” he added, “proper compensation.”
While P.K. waits for an adjustment of digits in his paycheck, Malcolm is adjusting to life as a professional hockey player. In shifting from the OHL to the AHL, Malcolm went from being the main Bull to a back-up Bruin in net. He appeared in 33 games for Providence, won 15 lost 10 and sported a 2.31 goals-against average and a .920 save percentage.
He played in six Calder Cup Playoffs games for Providence and came away with a 2-2 record and 2.96 goals-against average.
“It was challenging, to be honest,” Malcolm told NHL.com. “When it’s something you’re not used to, like I’m used to playing a lot of games and being the go-to guy, so it was kind of tough being the secondary guy. But I just had to stay focused mentally. I think that was the hardest thing for me mentally, just to stay focused and earn my way. And you know you don’t play as much, so you know when you get a chance to play you’ve got to play well, and that’s what I tried to do.”
Jordan is waiting for his chance to show what he can do as a pro. He recently attended the Canucks’ prospect camp and impressed the team’s brain
trust. He played 66 games for Bellvelle last season, scoring 12 goals and 30 assists.
“Jordan has high-end offensive skill and you can see, when they do the offensive drills, his ability to handle the puck and get his shot through to the net,” Canucks General Manager Jim Benning told The Ottawa Citizen. “He has really good lateral movement and he can also move the puck up the ice either with a good first pass or skating it out of his own end.”
With his three sons busy pursuing their hockey careers, Karl Subban is still busy building the family’s hockey legacy. He takes his 3-year-old grandson - Legacy Bobb , son of Natassia Subban-Bobb - ice skating often. Legacy’s baby twin brothers, Epic and Honor, will get the same quality time with granddad after Santa delivers them ice skates this Christmas.
“We go out, no hockey stick, no games, use what I did with the boys,” he said of his time with Legacy. “I’m on the ice with him, he never cries. It’s funny, I want him to skate but we never talk about skating. It’s a beautiful thing to watch.”
UP NEXT: Meet the Vilgrains.