Say you’ve won the Norris Trophy as the National Hockey League’s best defenseman, lead your team in scoring as a defenseman, and are sixth among the league’s blue-liners in goals and assists.
Is that enough to earn a free round trip ticket to Sochi, Russia to represent your country at the 2014 Winter Olympics? Maybe not, if you’re Montreal Canadiens defenseman P.K. Subban.
One of the biggest questions heading into Hockey Canada’s January 7 announcement of its Olympic team is will Subban, the reigning Norris Trophy winner, make the cut?
“It would be silly not for a Norris Trophy winner to be on the team. I don’t even know why that’s a debate,” said Cyril Bollers, president and head coach of Skillz Hockey, a Toronto-based program and team that’s produced a bevvy of minority NHL and major junior hockey players. “You’ve won a prestigious trophy and you’re the best defenseman in the whole entire league, why would there be a debate for you not to be on the Olympic team?”
But questions about whether Subban will make it to Sochi have been brewing since October when media reports indicated that he appeared to be a long shot to play on an Olympics squad assembled by Tampa Bay Lightning General Manager Steve Yzerman and guided by Detroit Red Wings Head Coach Mike Babcock.
Babcock added fuel to the debate last month when offered what seemed to be read-the-tea-leaves comments about Subban’s game and his chances of making Team Canada.
“The great thing about playing on the Olympic team is you’ve got to be a 200-footer,” Babcock told The Toronto Star. “You’ve got to do it in both ends of the rink consistently and the coach has to trust you.”
“What I mean by that is, you don’t put people on the ice you don’t trust, so you have to be dependable,” Babcock continued. “So that’s the No. 1 priority. I mean, there’s skating, elite hockey sense, but you’ve got to be a trustworthy player – whether you’re a goaltender, defenseman, a center. That’s what we told (the players) at camp, I don’t think it’s different for anybody.”
Babcock’s comments were vaguely similar to the rationale given by Subban’s detractors for why he should be excluded from the Canadian squad.
Subban’s a high-risk, high-reward defenseman whose defensive deficiencies would be exposed on the larger international ice surface that the games will be played on in Sochi, his critics say.
He takes too many penalties, he’s too flamboyant and too cocky for a team-oriented sport, they add. Besides, Team Canada will have enough offensive firepower from the blue line with the likes of Chicago Blackhawks’ Duncan Keith, the Los Angeles Kings’ Drew Doughty, and Shea Weber of the Nashville Predators.
The “Whither P.K.” drama reached reached such a fever pitch in Canada that The Province newspaper of British Columbia wrote a scathing editorial last month headlined “With P.K. Subban, What Are They Thinking?”
“Some say that the hockey establishment’s snubbing of Subban is related to his strong personality and to the fact that he is black,” the op-ed piece said. “He plays the game on his terms and won’t conform to the code of expected behavior. If that’s the case, it’s the establishment and not Subban that should adapt.”
“Subban is one among the greatest defensemen in the world,” the editorial concluded. “He’s exciting to watch, has real joy for the game and is a terrific, entertaining personality. Leaving him off Team Canada would be unthinkable.”
Subban has taken all the Olympics talk in stride.
“Obviously, just like most of the Canadian players in the league, I’d love to have that opportunity to represent my country,” Subban said on Sirius XM’s “Hockey Night in Canada Radio” in November. “There’s a ton of players to pick from. The reality is that in Canada we’re so good we could send maybe even two teams over if we had to. I don’t think there are too many people who would want to be in Steve Yzerman’s position right now because there are so many great players to pick from, but I’m confident he’ll make the right decision in selecting a team, for sure.”
Putting together a hockey team to compete in the high-pressure Olympic tournament isn’t as simple as putting together an NHL All-Star team, said Darren Lowe, head coach of the University of Toronto’s Varsity Blues men’s hockey team.
Yzerman and Babcock must put together a team of players who fill specific roles and Subban could become a victim of numbers because of that, according to Lowe, who was the first black skater to play hockey for Canada in the 1984 Winter Olympics.
Adding to the roster anxiety is the fact that the Olympics is happening outside of North America and away from NHL-sized rinks. Team Canada and Team USA have performed poorly on the larger international ice surfaces used in Europe and elsewhere. Hockey Canada and USA Hockey are looking at players who they think have the skating skills and hockey sense to thrive on the 200 ft. long by 100 ft. wide international ice.
“He seems to have a very good offensive game, that’s without question,” Lowe said of Subban. “Based on how many offensive or power play guys they’re going to select for the team, and how many guys they’re going to have as shut-down guys, there becomes a debate. There are obvious guys who are going to make the team and then there are those who are that sort of in-between who are good at something. But how many guys will they have who are good at whatever he’s good at? That’s the only reason why I would think there’d be a debate.”
Subban’s advocates scoff at the claim that he’s a potential liability on big ice by reminding people that he played junior hockey for the Ontario Hockey League’s Belleville Bulls. They play their home games on a international-sized rink
Remember, they say, that Subban helped power Canada to Gold Medals at the 2008 International Ice Hockey Federation World Junior Championship – a tournament played on big ice in the Czech Republic – and the 2009 IIHF Junior World Championship that was played on NHL-size ice in Ottawa.
They debunk the Subban is penalty-prone argument by pointing out that he had 41 penalty minutes as of Dec. 31, 2013, only one minute more than the Kings’ Doughty.
John Paris, Jr., the first black hockey head coach to win a professional league championship, said the criticisms of Subban should actually be considered compliments.
“We go back to the best of them all, who was Bobby Orr by far,” Paris, Jr., told me recently. “Some of the most ridiculous comments we heard about him were ‘He can’t play defense, he can’t do this, he can’t do that.’ Bobby Orr did everything that was physically and mentally possible for a defenseman to do – the best one ever to put on a pair of skates. But they found a way to criticize him enormously. Doug Harvey was the same thing, Paul Coffey was the same thing. Nicklas Lidstrom, for a while they gave him a difficult time. Good hockey players are always subject to a little bit of controversy. Subban is in the same category. Being an extraordinary athlete, it’s normal they’re going to criticize.”
But Bollers believes the criticism aimed at Subban has a certain edge to it.
“I think the issue is if you watched when P.K. first entered the league he brought that sort of swagger, the low-fives and all that sort of stuff, and I guess the NHL wasn’t ready for that,” he told me recently. “At times he’s very confident about in how he plays and his ability and sometimes that rubs people the wrong way.”
It rubbed “Hockey Night in Canada” commentator Don Cherry rougher and tighter than one of his starched, high-collared shirts. The man with the flamboyant wardrobe wasn’t a fan of the player with the flamboyant game.
But Cherry has been one of Subban’s biggest boosters as the Team Canada roster announcement nears. So has Edmonton Oilers great Wayne Gretzky.
“I keep hearing a doubt that he’s going to be on Team Canada,” Cherry said on a recent “Coach’s Corner” segment during a “Hockey Night in Canada” telecast in December. “What are they, nuts?”
Cherry took it a step on “Hockey Night in Canada Radio” a few days later.
“But if they let him go, he could turn it on with that big ice surface, and that cannon (of a shot) he’s got from the point,” Cherry said. “I don’t understand how they can think about (not choosing him). I’m not knocking the guys that they’ve got, but good gravy. He’s supposed to be the best defenseman, you think he’d be there somewhere.”