Karl Subban kept a hockey stick in his car, just in case.
That way, once finishing his night school teaching job, Subban could call home to see if his son P.K. was up for a moonlight skate at the rink outside Toronto’s City Hall. Though many 4-year-olds are in bed before 9 p.m., Karl made this exception for an enthusiastic boy already displaying a passion for hockey.
Skip a night and the youngster was upset. And once he was on the ice, P.K. Subban didn’t want to leave, even for the pizza slice that usually followed.
“We would be out there until midnight, and many nights after midnight,” the father said. “I didn’t plan to stay late, but the hockey players would come out once the public skate ended. And P.K., he was so hungry for it. He would say, ‘Daddy, I want to stay and play.’”
Pernell Karl Subban is still hungry.
At 25, the Toronto-born son of parents with Caribbean roots has taken the NHL by storm entering his fifth full season playing defense for the Montreal Canadiens.
Subban’s exceptional puck-handling skills, cannon-like shot and over-the-top personality have turned him one of the league’s transcendent stars. The 2013 Norris Trophy winner is as recognized on the ice as the red carpet, where he recently befriended movie director Spike Lee.
Subban’s talent is occasionally overshadowed by his extraordinarily playful demeanor - and colorful goal celebrations - that some call brash.
“I don’t know why people would think that,” he said. “Just because you’re outgoing, doesn’t mean you’re selfish.”
The topic of selfishness was brought up by Subban while discussing the expectations that come with his new eight-year, $72 million contract.
“For a team to be successful, the best players have to understand that they’re not going to be the stars every night,” Subban said. “I think the selfish guys want to be stars every night. There’s nothing wrong with that. But you have to do your job and be the greatest player in your role, whatever that is.”
For Subban, that role includes a commitment to playing defense because of an unbridled playing style that led to him being called a threat - as a scorer but also as a defensive liability.
“If you want to win, then really it shouldn’t change how you feel. And it hasn’t for me,” he said. “At the end of the night we get two points, I’m a happy camper.”
By that measure, Subban is succeeding on a team that hasn’t won the Stanley Cup since 1993. The Canadiens have been near the top of the Eastern Conference standings all season.
Subban is still contributing on offense. Tied for second on the team with 27 points (eight goals, 19 assists) through 39 games, he is on pace to match the career-best 53 points (10 goals, 43 assists) he established last season.
And he’s become more responsible on defense. Subban’s plus-minus rating is a healthy plus-10, and he’s part of the NHL’s fifth-ranked penalty-killing unit.
Coach Michel Therrien’s objective is harnessing Subban’s talents to make him an elite two-way player. The challenge is tweaking Subban’s game - not the person.
“We go step by step. But one thing for sure is we don’t want him to lose his personality off the ice,” Therrien said. “He’s a fun guy to work with because we know where the potential is.”
Subban relishes the challenges that come with being the NHL’s top-paid defenseman and playing under the microscope in the dual-language hockey mecca of Montreal. He’s as comfortable discussing his new role as a first-time assistant captain as he is revealing on TV how his pregame diet gives him gas to gain an edge while near opposing goalies.
At his stall in the visitors’ locker room in Buffalo in late November, Subban is engaged in what appears to be a heated exchange with defensive partner Andrei Markov over a post-practice stretching exercise. As Markov shakes his head and leaves, Subban’s mood brightens. He looks up and greets a visitor with a smile.
It is this light-hearted approach that makes Subban a fan favorite in Montreal, where he is heavily involved in numerous charitable causes. His Twitter account (@PKSubban1) has more than 500,000 followers and features references to hockey and Hollywood, and a picture of him posing with Cleveland Browns quarterback Johnny Manziel.
In recent months, he made the cover of a Sports Illustrated issue distributed in Canada; was featured in The New Yorker; and followed around by “60 Minutes” for a profile.
Issues of race - Subban is black - don’t seem to affect him.
After Subban scored in double-overtime in the first game of a second-round playoff series at Boston in May, several Bruins fans posted racists comments on Twitter. Subban defused the controversy by saying he didn’t consider the comments to represent the Bruins or their fans.
“We’re so far past that,” Subban said. “What I said is exactly what I felt, that the game of hockey and the people in it are great.”
And yet, there have been detractors.
In 2010, former Philadelphia Flyers captain Mike Richards questioned Subban’s character as a rookie.
“He’s a guy that comes in the league and hasn’t earned respect,” Richards told a Montreal radio station. “It’s just frustrating to see a young guy like that come in here and so much think that he’s better than a lot of people.”
Now with the Los Angeles Kings, Richards wasn’t interested in revisiting those comments following a recent loss at Buffalo.
“It’s so far gone,” Richards told The Associated Press. “Honestly, my impressions, I don’t have anything either way. I’m not going to discuss that.”
Former teammate Daniel Briere called Subban genuine and “a perfect fit” to handle the pressures of playing in Montreal.
“A lot of guys sometimes crumble,” said Briere, now with Colorado. “He wants it. I think he feeds off that. … He’s very charismatic.”
Karl Subban has seen that in his son all along, and watched P.K.’s confidence sprout because of his ability to excel at hockey.
“The one thing I know is that the younger a child can become good at something, the better they feel, the better their self-esteem is,” Subban said, addressing his son’s critics. “They can say whatever they want, but they can’t change how he plays on the ice. When it’s all said and done, is P.K. able to get the job done on the ice? … The bigger the game, the better he plays.”
The elder Subban is particularly proud by how P.K. has handled himself when faced with adversity.
“The minute you take your eyes off your destination, you will never get to where you want to go in life,” he said. “We have seen how he’s handled himself from stuff around race or his contract and playing in Montreal when the team’s not playing well. He embraces all of that.”
AP Sports Writer Teresa Walker, in Nashville, Tennessee, and freelance writer Matt Carlson in Chicago contributed to this report.
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