My theory goes like this: Somewhere in the wee hours Saturday morning, Canadiens owner/president Geoff Molson has a nightmare.
There is P.K. Subban in Maple Leafs blue-and-white, circling the ice at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto with the Stanley Cup held aloft. It’s the spring of 2017, the 50th anniversary of Toronto’s last parade, and Subban has just teamed with his old minor-hockey buddy Steven Stamkos to lead the Leafs to victory in a hard-fought, seven-game series against Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and the Chicago Blackhawks.
Or perhaps it’s a different nightmare. In this one, Subban wears the black-and-gold of the Canadiens’ most hated rivals, the Boston Bruins. He has been embraced in Beantown, the city where he was once scorned, and with Tuukka Rask dealt away for more offensive firepower, brother Malcolm Subban is in goal as the Bruins defeat Patrick Roy’s Colorado Avalanche to win Lord Stanley’s Cup.
Either way, the result is the same. Molson wakes in a cold sweat, calls Marc Bergevin at 4:17 a.m. and delivers a two-word message: “Sign him.”
It’s only a theory, but in the absence of solid information as to exactly how it was that somewhere between the time they left the arbitration hearing Friday and the announcement Subban had been signed to an eight-year, $72-million deal roughly 24 hours later, someone within the Canadiens organization saw the light.
Because this was never going to be about statistics and comparables, the dry fodder of the arbitration hearing. There is no statistic for charisma, a quality Subban possesses very nearly on a par with Rocket Richard, Jean Béliveau, Guy Lafleur and Patrick Roy. He is fiery, emotional, constantly pumped and fearless and, for a guy from Toronto, he has bonded with the fan base here like few others before him. It’s almost as though P.K. Subban was born to play in Montreal and nowhere else.
That’s why I believe Molson stepped in, because it’s not really Bergevin’s job to assess Subban’s effect on the community or to worry when, in the wake of what appeared to be a rather bitter arbitration hearing, sentiment on Twitter was running 20-to-1 for Subban and against the Canadiens. When people start swearing they will no longer watch the games or (yikes!) buy Molson beer, that tends to draw some attention in the executive suite.
And beyond the intangibles was a simple competitive truth that was staring the Canadiens in the face throughout these negotiations: without Subban, they don’t beat Boston in a seven-game series, any more than they could beat the Rangers without Carey Price.
When the playoffs began, Subban was coming off something of an up-and-down season. While working around the considerable distraction of his Olympic selection, Subban was inconsistent and his total of 10 goals (after scoring 11 in the lockout-shortened 2013 season) was disappointing.
After the Olympics, in particular, Subban went through a stretch when his confidence seemed shaken, perhaps by his inability to crack Team Canada’s lineup in Sochi. He made more than the usual quota of errors and found himself, at times, barely able to get ice time from coach Michel Therrien.
Then the playoffs began. Subban was a titan in that sweep of a Tampa Bay Lightning team that clearly missed goalie Ben Bishop, but it was against Boston that he was an absolute force of nature. He outplayed an aging Zdeno Chara, infuriated the Boston faithful, scored key goals and maddened Milan Lucic to the point where Lucic simply forgot to play hockey.
Given there are few jobs in the world of sports more pressure-packed than playing in a Montreal-Boston series, it was a signature performance, one that carried enormous weight with the faithful, if not with the club representatives at the negotiating table.
For some time, it has seemed there is a perception gap between the fans and the organization where Subban was concerned. Therrien and Bergevin appear to focus on what Subban doesn’t do, the fans on what he does. During that agonizing lead-up to the Sochi selection, Subban could earn only the most grudging words of mild praise from his coach and GM.
That is understandable. The club’s leadership doesn’t want to see its young defenceman get ahead of himself. They want him to be a complete player on the ice, one who rarely makes mistakes, a somewhat flashier Nik Lidstrom.
But Subban is his own man and that man is a handful. He is terrifically strong, possessed of a demonic energy, utterly fearless and armed with every skill in a hockey player’s arsenal — speed, balance, agility, determination and a shot that can tear a goalie’s pads away. The one thing almost everyone seems to agree on is that Subban’s ceiling is higher than that of anyone else in this peerless group of talented young defencemen who now dominate the game, a group that includes Shea Weber, Alex Pietrangelo, Ryan McDonagh, Kris Letang, Drew Doughty and Erik Karlsson.
Now Canadiens fans can breathe easier, knowing Subban is in the fold until 2022 and that the club’s young nucleus — a group that includes Price, Max Pacioretty and Lars Eller along with newbies Alex Galchenyuk, Brendan Gallagher and Nathan Beaulieu — will be around for a long time to come.
Yes, the money is stunning. In a single season at $9 million, Subban will earn more than Richard, Béliveau and Lafleur combined made in their entire legendary careers.
It’s pointless to go into the whole question of whether athletes should be making that kind of money to play a game. Athletes in the NBA, NFL and MLB earn a multiple of that, so much money that we’ve grown inured to the numbers. But to put it in perspective, that walking embarrassment and paragon of the mug shots Justin Bieber will earn $80 million between arrests this year (according to Forbes Magazine) almost 10 times what Subban will make for putting his face in front of slapshots.
Above and beyond everything else, given their recent history, the Canadiens had no choice but to get Subban’s signature on a contract. As my friend Sue Hayward pointed out on Twitter, it has been 24 years since the Canadiens dealt their No. 24, Chris Chelios, to the Chicago Blackhawks, with disastrous consequences. The return they got on the deal, a Denis Savard in his declining years, wasn’t nearly enough for a defenceman who would haunt them for decades — literally, given that Chelios did not retire until 2010, having played all or part of another 20 seasons after the trade.
At the beginning of the 1990s, the Canadiens had a situation very similar to what they have now: they had an all-world defenceman in Chelios, the best money goalie in the history of the game in Roy and an outstanding leader in Guy Carbonneau. By December 1995, all three were gone and the Habs were in a downward spiral from which, it can be argued, they have only now recovered.
There was no way Molson, Bergevin & Co. could have allowed that dismal history to repeat itself. However this played out, whether it was a late-night phone call from Molson that triggered the signing or Bergevin simply doing what he knew he had to do all along, the Subban deal was the only good news in a miserable week for sports in Montreal.
If Molson provided the impetus that closed the gap with agent Don Meehan, he at least had a far better week than fellow team owners Bob Wetenhall (whose Alouettes are in free fall) or Joey Saputo (whose Impact have already fallen.)
Pernell Karl is in the fold and Genie Bouchard is ready to rock ’n’ roll at Jarry. Crack open a cold one and put the steaks on the barbie. The world is unfolding as it should.
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