Pernell-Karl Subban — PK to most — has never been one to not speak his mind. Coming up on the completion of his 10th NHL season, the 29-year-old Toronto product is as well known for his big heart and candid, larger-than-life social media presence as much as for his incredible displays of explosive talent and skill on the ice.
Subban has spent three seasons with the Nashville Predators after establishing himself as an elite defenseman and household name with the Montreal Canadiens.
A one-time Norris Trophy winner and three-time league All-Star, understanding Subban’s athletic brilliance takes little more than bearing witness to a handful of shifts at any Preds game. However, a true appreciation of Subban’s life and legacy involves a step away from the ice and a pause to reflect on his roots and his journey.
Growing up in Rexdale as the eldest boy in a family of seven, sports ran in Subban’s family; his father, Karl, who moved from Jamaica to Sudbury in the 1970s, played basketball at Lakehead University, while his mother, Maria, originally from Montserrat, was a provincial champion sprinter.
Subban took an affinity to hockey early, encouraged by his father, whose own passion for the game formed during his teenage years in a predominantly Francophone neighbourhood of Sudbury. The obsession permeated his childhood; he had his first pair of skates by the time he could walk at age two, and his father eventually turned the family’s backyard into a rink each winter.
Subban’s love for the game was seen in the hours he plugged during late-night skates at Nathan Phillips Square with his father. As young as six, Subban would frequently wake up at midnight, sometimes skating until 2:00 am with proper training, and he would often be rewarded with a slice of Queen Street pizza post-session. “It was not child abuse, by the way,” his father laughs, reflecting on the fact that Subban simply “loved skating” and that he “knew the importance of… skating regularly” for him.
By 16, all those late nights spent at the rink paid off as Subban was drafted to the Ontario Hockey League’s Belleville Bulls. Four years later, he was drafted in the second round to the Montreal Canadiens in 2007, and his childhood dream came true. Subban became a household name in the 514, quickly establishing himself as one of the NHL’s elite blueliners. By 2013, he had earned the Norris Trophy — an honour awarded annually to the League’s top defenseman — and led the NHL in scoring among defenders for the season.
In 2016, to the shock of many, Subban was dealt to the Nashville Predators in a blockbuster trade for Shea Weber. Such a move had little effect, however, on his performance, as he helped lead the Predators to the 2017 Stanley Cup Final — the franchise’s first since entering the NHL in 1998.
But while Subban’s athletic success — and the thousands of hours of labour that he put into achieving it — arguably gives weight to his inclusion as one of the NHL’s all-time greats, it is his efforts off the ice that cement him as one of the most beloved athletes active in any professional men’s sports league today.
In Subban’s own words, “If there’s one thing I’ve tried to do in all the cities I’ve played in, it’s immerse myself in the local culture… When I moved to Montréal, I learned how to speak French — right, ladies? And in Hamilton, I learned how to breathe through my mouth. So now that I’m living in Nashville, it’s time I learned more about — that’s right, getting pulled over by the cops.”
Subban was a finalist for the 2018 King Clancy Trophy for his humanitarian endeavours, notably his whopping $10 million donation to the Montreal Children’s Hospital. And — all jokes aside about his local immersion efforts — Subban started the Blueline Buddies program in Nashville, where hockey is used to “bring down barriers between police and local youth.”
Despite being the target of racist treatment from opponents and fans alike — in 2014, for instance, he was the subject of “racist social media posts” after scoring a game-winner in the playoffs — Subban’s identity as one of about thirty Black NHLers in a league that is almost 93 per cent white makes his achievements even more prolific.
And he doesn’t just reach out through hockey. After hearing about 13-year-old Michigan boy Ty Cornett, a young Black hockey player who had been receiving “a lot of racial taunts,” Subban reached out in a video text message, encouraging him to “believe in [him]self, and let nobody tell you what you can and can’t do, especially because of the colour of your skin.” Subban later met with Cornett, declaring the youngster his “hero” and gifting him with all-star game tickets and a sweater.
Subban’s hockey journey is an inspiring tale that demonstrates what can happen when you hone your craft, put in the work, and believe in yourself enough to turn your passion into your lifeline.
Past the athletic accolades, the Subbanator represents so much more than just an athlete. He’s the ultimate example of humility and character, evidenced by his philanthropic endeavours, and moreover, an incredible young Black Canadian, whose success in spite of hatred motivates people from all walks of life.