P.K. Subban answers questions from the media after a game against the Ottawa Senators at Scotiabank Place on December 27, 2011.
Photograph by: Phillip MacCallum, Getty Images
“It doesn’t matter how many times I step on the ice at the Bell Centre, I have the same feeling every time: my head’s ready to explode, I want to kill somebody cutting across the blue line and I want to score the goal and celebrate. And I’ll do it by any means possible to win a hockey game. That’s how I feel playing there. I’m not sure I’d have that feeling anywhere else.”
– Defenceman P.K. Subban
MONTREAL — Canadiens fans, famously impatient, have for now stored their torches and pitchforks.
They’ve called off any protest march through the downtown core; abandoned their petition plans.
But fans’ unrest over the P.K. Subban Saga — it’s gone on so long, it deserves a proper title — is quieter only for now, the Canadiens’ encouraging 4-1 victory over Florida on Tuesday cause for a heartbeat’s celebration.
Defenceman Andrei Markov scored twice on a come-to-life power play, a special team that went 1-for-5 in Saturday’s season-opening 2-1 loss to Toronto and looked pretty disorganized doing so.
The “P.K.! P.K.!” chants weren’t overpowering Saturday, but they did ring through the Bell Centre’s upper reaches late in the game, Subban’s presence requested.
But until further notice, the 23-year-old won’t be pulling on a Canadiens jersey. Some suggest he might never again.
Subban’s agent, Don Meehan, said Wednesday that he expects to have talks with Habs general manager Marc Bergevin before week’s end in a bid to move the file along.
“Subject to that meeting,” Meehan said cryptically, “we’d be in a position of being more defined than we are now.”
Talks would not have more or less urgency based on Canadiens wins and losses, this contract far more important to everyone than a few games. And Meehan said that neither Subban nor the Canadiens are in the driver’s seat in negotiations.
“The most professional opinion is that no one should be in the driver’s seat,” he said. “This should be in the best interests of everyone concerned.”
Naturally, there is no shortage of so-called expert analysis and “insider” information being spouted on the Internet, much of it outrageous, regarding how many dollars and years separate the Canadiens and their popular young defenceman from getting their names on a contract.
Here’s the reality, and what from the very beginning has been the gulf between the two since their first discussions back into last May:
Subban wishes to be paid what he believes he’s worth to his team, on and off the ice, preferably but not necessarily linked to a long-term deal, and the Canadiens are seemingly inflexible with their plan to offer short term, a bridge or gap contract toward something more lucrative down the road, almost a policy that has been applied in the recent past with Carey Price and Max Pacioretty.
There are syllables, not sentences or paragraphs, being uttered for consumption by both sides in this debate. Neither Bergevin nor Meehan — skilled, poker-faced negotiators — are wearing mirrored glasses lest anyone see their cards.
Bergevin said at the news conference announcing his hiring that one of his primary goals was to get Subban under contract. He has reiterated in recent days that he is not interested in trading the rearguard, whom he says is part of the team’s plans.
While cyberspace is abuzz with rumours of offer sheets and trade scenarios, Meehan said Wednesday, “Our focus for the time being is (negotiating with) the Montreal Canadiens.”
The Habs and Camp Subban have been talking contract in various forms since shortly before last spring. There was hope a deal would be struck before the 119-day lockout, declared Sept. 16, shut down all communication between teams and players.
Any work achieved by both sides did not, however, have them anywhere near the cusp of agreement when the CBA was approved in the wee hours of Jan. 6.
There have been discussions between Bergevin and Meehan since that day, the new CBA offering both men clear direction, even a face-to-face meeting in Toronto the day before the Canadiens hit the ice for training camp on Jan. 13.
But we’ve been at a stalemate, the restricted free agent Subban parked on a siding awaiting something — anything — that will get him back on the ice.
In a Canadiens jersey, or perhaps that of another team.
“It’s come down to this — I want to be paid what I’m worth,” Subban told me in a lengthy talk this week.
The on-the-record portion of our conversation was about philosophies, not hard numbers of term and dollars; he pays Meehan to negotiate those details and, like both his agent and Bergevin, he wouldn’t publicly lift the veil on the fine print.
Industry comparables have been tabled, statistics of defencemen stacked on a scale as part of the equation. The Canadiens apparently are not disputing any comparables served to them, but are sticking to a short-term deal.
There are important intangibles to be considered, too, Subban’s popularity with fans and his marketing value to the club strong among them.
A veteran of 160 regular-season and 21 playoff games, he is one of his team’s elite defencemen who has been used in every situation; at 24:18 per game average, he led all Canadiens rearguards in ice-time last season.
Not Subban nor Meehan nor Bergevin will confirm the dollars or term either side is offering. But the website habseyesontheprize.com, a lucid voice that offers exhaustive, balanced analysis of the Subban case, lists no fewer than six dozen NHL defencemen of less impact (in their view) who annually earn more than $3 million.
For now, Subban remains at home in Toronto, working out and skating, hoping and wondering.
“I don’t even know what to think any more,” he said. “At this point, you have to remain optimistic (and realize) it is a business, and a lot of things can happen.
“I hope (a trade) is not the case. I want to play for the Canadiens. I want to help the team. With the young players we have in the organization right now, we still have a great opportunity to win.
“But for my style of game and for what I do for the team, the amount of minutes I play and for what I bring to the table, I have to be fairly compensated.”
Subban watched Saturday’s Bell Centre season-opener against the Maple Leafs from his home in Toronto. He imagined himself skating out to centre ice to hold the ceremonial torch aloft; he could practically feel the arena’s roar in his chest.
“There’s no way you could be at home or at the building, watching the introduction and not getting chills down your spine and wanting to be playing in that game,” he said. “It was unbelievable to watch.
“We’re not trying to rob the bank here (in contract talks). We’re not reinventing anything. We’re not holding a gun to the Canadiens’ head saying, ‘Pay us this or we’re walking away.’ We just want to be compensated for what I’m worth.”
Subban catalogues maybe a half-dozen names of young players who are being handsomely paid, and you’d be stretching the truth if you suggested they mean more to their teams than Subban means to the Canadiens.
“You know I have confidence in myself. I do,” he said. “But I’m realistic. I’ve approached this situation totally as a professional. I would have tried everything in my power to make sure it wouldn’t have got to this point.
“But there are just some things that I can’t control. I’ve left this in Donnie’s hands to kind of get through it. I hope that playing against the Leafs (in Game 82 last April 7) wasn’t the last time I wore a Habs jersey. I hope I can wear it for many more years.”
Some will argue that Subban should take a two-year, $5.1-million contract just signed by New York Rangers defenceman Michael Del Zotto, 22, whose statistics aren’t far removed from Subban’s but whose situation isn’t remotely similar.
But that’s a ridiculous comparable. Del Zotto isn’t a prime defenceman on the Rangers depth chart, not a No. 1 or No. 2 rearguard expected to play monster minutes, almost always against the opponent’s top line, while being flown from the team’s tallest flagpole in community and marketing endeavours.
If offer sheets or trade scenarios have come across Meehan’s desk, Subban doesn’t know about them. But …
“You’d have to think that at some point, everybody will get so worn down by the situation,” he said. “If it drags on and leaves a bitter taste in everyone’s mouth …
“I’ve never been through this process before but it can be tough at times. You’d have to think this thing would end sooner than later.”
Subban never expected he’d win a landslide victory in the court of public opinion. He is not with his team heading into Thursday’s third game of a 48-game schedule and he knows there are fans disappointed, and worse, that he’s not in uniform.
“I didn’t expect this to be an all P.K. parade. I didn’t expect everyone to jump on my bandwagon to give me whatever I want,” he said. “It’s business and I understand that. But I’ve accomplished a lot in two years. If I hadn’t, we wouldn’t be talking, would we? This thing probably would have been over long ago.
“I’ve accomplished a lot for someone who’s only 23. I’m playing in one of the best markets in the NHL. To me, it seems like a pretty easy situation: you have a guy who wants to be there, for a long time, who actually thrives on playing in the pressure of Montreal. I don’t think there could be any more pressure than what I’ve had playing here the last two years.
“I still have a lot to learn and I’ve never denied that. I don’t think there’s any reason for anyone to think that I believe I know it all and that I’m not going get any better. I’ve been up front about that.
“In every single game I’ve never ever made it seem that I’ve accomplished exactly what I’ve wanted to,” Subban said. “I’ve never been complacent, I’ve never been content. I’ve always wanted to be more.
“For 82 games, win or lose, I’ve shown up every single night to play hockey. That’s the one thing I know my teammates will say. They may say, “P.K. is doing this or doing that,’ but at the end of the day I show up to play every night. Every night. And that’s why the fans react the way they do to me.”
Subban laughs as he forges on: “As much as I’d like to think it’s because of my good looks, it’s not. It’s because I come to play every night with that passion and grit and intensity and fire that those same fans bring to the rink to watch the game. That’s all they want to see. I’ve been able to give that to them for two years.”
Subban barely comes up for air as we speak:
“It comes down to this: I’m 23, and at some point I will be playing hockey again. I hope it’s in Montreal because I really and truly want to win there, more than anywhere else in the NHL.
“Do I see myself playing for any other team? From a business standpoint, I’m sure there are other teams where I could fit in and be a big part of things moving forward, give them a chance to win. But ultimately, deep down inside, I want to play for the Montreal Canadiens.
“I want to be a big part of them. It’s my bloodline. That’s all I knew growing up. My dad was the biggest Habs fan. And I think that’s something you don’t let go.”
Subban’s passion is stoked during a nearly hour-long talk. Family voices are in the background; he’s enjoying the time with them but he knows there’s somewhere else he should be.
“One thing I’m not worried about is the fans,” he said. “When I step on the ice, I can play the game of hockey and I think I’m pretty good at it. I’m confident fans will be there when I have to be there. I’m not worried about extra pressure. I don’t think a raise of expectations of me is possible. Since I came into the league, I don’t think they could get any higher.
“I worked so hard over the summer to get myself in shape and now I’m in the best shape in my life. I wanted to put that to good use and looks like I might have to wait a little while before I get a chance to do that. Hopefully, it’s not too much longer.
“I’m just sorry that it’s gotten to this point.”
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