For as long as people have competed against one another in sport, there’s been a love/hate affair with those who represent the cream of the crop. Fans and competitors naturally loathe an opponent blessed with exceptional talent – and when that talent belongs to someone who didn’t attend the Aw Shucks, Ma’am, Just Doin’ My Job School Of Humility, the hate directed their way is amplified exponentially.
For the past 40 years, there’s been no better example of this than one of the most famous professional wrestlers of all time: the “Nature Boy”, Ric Flair. He could do it all in the squared circle and was happy to tell you so at every opportunity. He fed off of fan jealousy and waves of seething resentment the way divorce lawyers feed off anguish, and he backed up virtually everything he boasted about when the moments mattered most.
And now the NHL has its own modern-day Ric Flair in P.K. Subban.
The 25-year-old Canadiens defenseman is a blossoming superstar and isn’t into faux modesty or the cliché game. Not only does he understand his place as the focal point of the opposition, he embraces it. And he couldn’t care less which of his quotes you want to put up as bulletin board inspiration material – including the beauty he whipped up after Montreal beat the Bruins Monday night to force a Game 7 Wednesday in Boston:
“It’s going to be great,” Subban said of Game 7. “I can’t wait for the crowd, the noise, the energy in the building. I can’t wait to take that all away from them.”
I can’t wait to take that all away from them. As a sportswriter accustomed to a steady stream of 99.44 percent meaningless platitudes from players, you almost lose your breath when you see a bold pronouncement like that. Subban isn’t just a breath of fresh air for the stoic hockey community – he’s a one-man fresh air turbine, and the NHL would be a far more entertaining place if the league had more players like him.
The longer the Bruins/Canadiens series has gone on, the more willing Subban has been to wear a target on his back. Because of hockey’s authoritarian culture, many young stars shy away from anything resembling controversy, but Subban is different and we should all be thanking our lucky stars he is. If greatness wasn’t allowed to have a little ego, popular singers would do nothing but cover Frank Sinatra records and writers would only copy the words of Plato and Dostoyevsky on tracing paper. Nobody ever broke new ground with a rounded jackhammer tip.
No, to do that, you need to be sharp, edgy and confident, and Subban is all those things. If the Habs lose Wednesday, he’ll be the first to eyeball the victors in the handshake line and be gracious in defeat, but until then, he’s not giving them an inch, either on the ice or rhetorically. And if Bruins fans can put aside their Black-and-Gold-colored glasses for a second, they’d have to acknowledge Subban’s passion and impact on the series has made it one of the most memorable in years.
Ultimately, the Stanley Cup playoffs are about throwing down gauntlets. You want that puck in the corner? Go get it, if you want to pay the price of having your nose and teeth rearranged. You want to stand in front of the net? By all means, if you can handle amateur chiropractic treatment delivered via a stick shaft. And who better to throw down a gauntlet than a joyful bundle of energy who believes in himself and his teammates and who can walk the walk after talking the talk?
Nobody better than Subban, that’s who. He wants to beat The Man to be The Man. He’s inviting you to try and take something away from him if you can, but you should also be fully prepared for him to continue taking things away from you.
And if you don’t like it, learn to love it, because all signs point to him remaining the NHL’s Ric Flair for years to come.