Requited Love: P.K. Subban finds his groove in Nashville
The Predators have turned Nashville into an unlikely hockey hotbed and no one has played a bigger role this season than P.K. Subban. The Canadiens, his former team, choked in the first round, but the larger-than-life star plays on in Music City, writes Marty Klinkenberg from Nashville
Three weeks after his trade from the Canadiens, P.K. Subban arrived in Nashville with his usual flourish. Dressed in black, including a cowboy hat, he went straight from the airport to Music City's historic entertainment district.
When hockey's most charismatic player got to Lower Broadway, he was greeted by Jim Hill. A former merchandising manager for Merle Haggard, he is so beloved locally that he is known by his nickname, the Governor.
The Governor took the Predators' new defenceman on a brief walking tour through honky-tonk heaven, passing one bar after another where songs of love and heartbreak pour nonstop through tavern doors.
They passed the Stage, a venue where the house rules include "no dancin' on tables with your spurs on." They passed the Ernest Tubb Record Shop, where the singer of Walking the Floor Over You and The Yellow Rose of Texas was host of his famous radio show, Midnite Jamboree. Ernest is gone, but fans still come to buy records, postcards, Moon Pies and fly swatters that bear his name.
They passed the statue of Elvis outside the Legends Gift Shop, where visitors stop to take a picture of old swivel hips, and passed the boot store where business booms late into the night.
They stopped when they came to Tootsies Orchid Lounge, the club with walls painted purple where Willie Nelson got his first song-writing job and Haggard, Patsy Cline, Kris Kristofferson, Loretta Lynn and Roger Miller were among the regulars. Charlie Pride once presented a bejewelled hatpin to Tootsie Bess, which the owner used to stick unruly patrons.
Entering the bar, the Governor and the hockey star climbed three floors of stairs to a rooftop patio overlooking the Bridgestone Arena, Subban's new place of employment.
"That day, just by coincidence, there were a lot of Canadians up there," says the Governor, who oversees a handful of dining and drinking establishments along the entertainment strip. "They were sitting there drinking, and up the steps came one of their heroes. It was the greatest thing they had ever seen."
Retreating to the first floor, the Governor brought Subban up onto the stage and introduced him to the crowd.
"As you can see, I am wearing black," Subban told them. "That's because I am a huge Johnny Cash fan. Feel free to sing along if you know this one."
With that, and a band playing behind him, he launched into a rousing rendition of Folsom Prison Blues.
Standing elbow to elbow with barely enough room to hoist their beers, fans of country music more than hockey joined in, and cheered their city's new favourite son.
"He killed it," says Jeff Easlick, the marketing, promotional and events manager at Tootsies.
For Subban, whose entire career had been spent playing in Canada's most hallowed market, it was a bold first move in reaching out to an unfamiliar fan base. Nashville is a hotbed for NASCAR and football, but a place where hockey had been slow to catch on.
Few players would have the moxie to show up, and sing to capture people's hearts. There is maybe only one.
"It's not like anybody told me I had to go to Tootsies and sing," Subban says this week between games in the third round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. "I did it myself, for fun.
"I figured why not, and why not sing something by Johnny Cash? There couldn't be any place better to do it. The Johnny Cash Museum is a block away."
P.K. being P.K. likely cost him his job in Montreal
One of the reasons hockey lags in popularity in the United States can be found within the NHL's culture and old-school expectations.
The game's most talented stars – Sidney Crosby and Connor McDavid among them – are often its most bland. In hockey, understatement is valued more than individuality. Players learn that when they are young. Nonconformists roll eyes and ruffle feathers.
P.K. Subban plays with joy. He is outgoing and sartorially unsubtle.
When he scores, he drops to one knee and pretends to fire an arrow like Robin Hood. For that, he has been called a showboat. In the second round of the playoffs, he was caught dancing by television cameras during warmups before a game. NBC broadcaster Mike Milbury called him a clown.
P.K. being P.K. likely cost him his job in Montreal. Three years after winning the Norris Trophy as the league's best defenceman, he was traded to the Predators for Shea Weber, Nashville's captain and a hockey-playing robot.
The Canadiens' management never offered an explanation for trading their most likeable player, one who had become an icon through numerous charitable works off the ice. Even after a backlash from fans, Montreal owner Geoff Molson stubbornly stood by the deal. There were whisperings Subban didn't fit in in the Habs' dressing room.
Subban was stunned when the deal was consummated, two days before a no-trade provision in his contract would go into effect. He never envisioned playing anywhere but Montreal. He hoped that in retirement his No. 76 jersey would hang from the rafters at the Bell Centre.
In his first game back in Montreal with the Predators, he cried during a pregame tribute. Earlier that day, he received a Governor-General's award for his work at the Montreal Children's Hospital. On the same trip, he took time from his schedule to go back for a visit.
If somebody seems to be disingenuous here, it is not him.
"Until the Canadiens give an explanation, there will always be speculation for why it happened," Subban says this week at the Predators practice facility. "For me, I have moved on. I am not focused on it anymore.
"Ultimately, I think I am in a better place. I am with an organization that values what you bring every night to the team, and what you bring to the city. I am not somewhere where management doesn't want me.
"People have embraced me here. There is no better feeling."
It is an unlikely marriage – a gregarious Canadian hockey player finding love in a southern city where the sport has taken time to grow. It has worked fine so far.
The Canadiens underperformed in the playoffs, while the Predators, with help from Subban, are two victories shy of reaching the Stanley Cup final for the first time. Their series with Anaheim is tied, with Game 5 back at the Honda Center on Saturday night.
In Nashville's first game of the second round, Subban became the first defenceman in franchise history to have three points in a playoff game. In Game 1 against Anaheim, he assisted on the winning goal in overtime. On Thursday night, he sparked a two-goal rally that sent the game into extra time by firing a slap shot past Ducks netkeeper John Gibson with 6:27 left. The Predators lost when a puck deflected off Subban's stick by Pekka Rinne, but they wouldn't have likely got to overtime without him.
"P.K. has done all you could ask of him as a teammate and player," says Mike Fisher, Nashville's captain and husband of country star Carrie Underwood. "He has been great."
The trade that sent him to Nashville raised eyebrows around the league
The son of immigrants who came to Canada from the Caribbean, Pernell Karl Subban grew up in the Rexdale neighbourhood of Toronto. He began skating not long after he could walk, and learned to play hockey wearing second-hand equipment on outdoor rinks where the ice time was free.
He was chosen by the Belleville Bulls a few days after his 16th birthday in the sixth round of the 2005 OHL draft, and two years later was selected by the Canadiens in the second round.
After spending four years with Belleville and one with the Hamilton Bulldogs of the AHL, Subban made his NHL debut with Montreal at the end of the 2009-10 season. He was a stalwart on defence for the Canadiens for the next six years.
The trade that sent him to Nashville last summer raised eyebrows around the league. More than anything, it was a kick in the teeth to Subban and the Canadiens' rabid fans. Many remain angry.
Few athletes invest as much of themselves in a place as him. In 2015, he pledged to raise $10-million for the Montreal Children's Hospital over the next seven years – and promised to maintain that commitment even after his trade.
Two years ago at Christmas, he turned the hospital in Montreal into a winter wonderland for kids. Last December, he donned a top hat and tails and surprised young patients being treated for sickle cell anemia with a horse-and-carriage ride through the streets of Nashville.
Subban sat in the back of the white sled singing with the children until it stopped at Bridgestone Arena. There, the kids were taken on a shopping spree at the Predators' gift store, with one of Subban's teammates, Roman Josi, playing the role of elf.
"My 8-year-old son loves him to death," says Jon Taylor, a Predators season-ticket-holder. "I was born with a birth defect and spent a lot of time in a Shriners hospital when I was a kid, so I can relate to him.
"It is not easy to do the things he is doing, or to see the things he sees. I pray that the Predators win the Stanley Cup so he can take it to the hospital for all those kids to see."
To help him celebrate his 28th birthday this week, patients and staff at the children's hospital in Montreal presented him with a video message.
"They have done that a couple of times, and each time it happens, my heart is in my throat," Subban says. "It is pretty special to know that they are still thinking about me.
"In some ways it has been a tough year. Coming here was a big change, and I was just beginning to get comfortable when I had an injury. But in looking back, I am happy with how I have integrated myself within the community and on the team."
Predators are the talk of the town
On Tuesday night, country superstar Keith Urban sang the U.S. national anthem at Bridgestone Arena before Game 3 of the conference final. When Josi netted the Predators' winning goal, Urban's actress wife Nicole Kidman jumped up and cheered, hands raised over head.
On Thursday, Grammy award-winning Kelly Clarkson sang The Star-Spangled Banner before a sell-out crowd draped in Predators gold. Messages on the scoreboard urged fans to raise the noise level a few decibels more, and they quickly did. The Bridgestone Arena is already considered to be the loudest in the NHL, with such an ear-splitting din created that earplugs are provided to journalists seated in the press box.
Marcus Mariota, the quarterback of the Tennessee Titans, has been on hand with his offensive line to lead fans in waving yellow rally towels. A local bank gives away a free Predators jersey to anyone who opens a new account.
They are suddenly becoming the talk of the town, in a place where grabbing that attention is hard.
"As recently as eight or 10 years ago, people didn't give a damn about the Predators," says Easlick, the marketing manager at Tootsies. "I am an old-school Tennessean, and I find myself watching more hockey.
"What has been bad for the Titans has been good for the Predators. As the Titans have struggled, the Predators have improved. There has been a big shift here in favourability toward the NHL and away from the NFL, and that is huge. This is the South."
Ten years ago, people held rallies in Nashville to save the team.
"It has taken a long time to get where we are, but we have to be pleased with our success," says David Poile, the Predators' Toronto-born general manager. "We have a sold-out arena and are in the third round of the playoffs. It is very gratifying."
Nominated this week for the NHL's general manager of the year, Poile has run the team since it entered the league through expansion in 1998. Before that, he was the long-time GM of the Washington Capitals. He began his career as an executive assistant with the Atlanta Flames in 1972.
"The catch phrase here has always been that we would have to sell the game," Poile says this week. "There was a small fan base, so we had to work as hard off the ice as on. This is a non-traditional market, and we had to create new fans."
Terry Crisp, who coached the Calgary Flames in 1989 when they won the Stanley Cup, has served as a broadcaster in Nashville since the Predators' first year. He and fellow broadcaster Pete Weber were engaged by Poile early on to help recruit fans.
At one point, they taught a Hockey 101 class to fans of the Southeastern Conference.
"When we came here, there was only a smattering of people who knew what hockey was," Crisp says. "Pete and I should have written a book about the questions we got."
Selling tickets was a challenge.
"People were used to buying football tickets and couldn't fathom a team playing 41 home games," he says. "They would say they could never afford it, even though if you did the math tickets to 41 Predators games were probably cheaper than going to see the Titans eight times.
"But we never felt were in competition with them. All we wanted to do was be liked, and to be part of the sporting calendar."
There were only 300 kids playing minor hockey in Nashville when the Predators arrived. The number is in the thousands now. There were only six high school teams playing hockey, now there are 18.
"These are all the fruits of our early labour," Crisp says.
Poile was the guy who pulled the trigger on the Subban deal, even though Weber had become immensely popular while playing for the Predators for 11 years.
Despite missing 16 games with a lower-body injury, Subban had 46 points in 66 games in the regular season, and has nine points in 14 playoff games.
"I felt that this would be the hardest year for him, with a lot of tough adjustments having to be made," Poile says. "As it has played out, P.K. has played his best hockey over the last quarter of the season.
"If anything, he is ahead of schedule. The future is bright for both him and the Predators here."
Crisp says he didn't know Subban until he arrived in Nashville. He has since become a big fan.
"From the day he got here, he has been charismatic and open to everybody," Crisp says. "He has never snubbed anyone. To me that is just as important as what you do on the ice.
"He fits the bill perfectly, and aside from that, he is a hell of a hockey player."
One day last month, Crisp says the Predators invited a woman from Canada to watch them practise. She uses a wheelchair, and her one wish was to meet Subban.
"What I saw that day made me proud of the hockey world," Crisp says. "The way he treated her makes everything we have gone through here worth it. It was awesome, a day she will never forget."
Nashville is a happy place right now
This week, Randy Carlyle, the Anaheim coach, considered the Predators' rise as both a team and in popularity. They surprised everyone by sweeping the Blackhawks in the playoffs' opening round. They are a fun, gritty team to watch, befitting of the nickname "Smashville," and have no villains to speak of.
"This town has come a long way," Carlyle says. "The team has taken on a blue-collar ethic and style that they play, and the organization is reaping the benefits of its hard work. It is not easy to do what they have done.
"There are elderly ladies out there swinging sledgehammers at a wrecked car painted in Ducks colours."
Before each playoff game at Bridgestone Arena, fans gather in a plaza out front to drink beer, eat barbecue and beat the hell out of junked cars.
They pay $5 for one swing and $10 for three, and then don safety glasses and a Smashville cowboy hat. As buddies and strangers cheer, some climb on top of the hood before slamming away. A little boy knocks a bumper off, and people roar.
Two cars – one painted in the Blackhawks colours, the other with a Blues logo, lay off to the side, beaten to wrecks. They look as though they have gone through some sort of giant compacter.
Wearing a P.K. Subban sweater, Chas Kelly takes his swings, and then stops to chat. He is a Louisianian who relocated to Nashville a year ago, and a fan of the Predators and their Johnny Cash-singing defenceman.
"Ever since he moved here, P.K. has been remarkable for the city," Kelly says. "He absolutely loves the city and has done an excellent job. He has become a household name in Nashville."
On Lower Broadway, fans down $5 pitchers at pre-game parties before Predators games. After, they spill from the arena and chant and shout in the streets. Then they return to drinking.
Nashville is a happy place right now.
P.K. Subban could be somewhere worse. Somewhere hockey, for now, has come and gone. Somewhere like Montreal.