How P.K. Subban Is Dragging Hockey Into the 21st Century
The Black NHL star has been fighting for change, combatting racism, and building bridges in North America’s whitest sport
P.K. Subban, the star New Jersey Devils defenseman, was standing behind a podium on the night of Jan. 23. He was exhausted and profoundly dismayed.
One day earlier, a player made a “monkey gesture” in the direction of Subban’s younger brother Jordan during a minor league game. The player, Jacob Panetta, denied having done so, claiming he was trying to imitate a bodybuilder. Panetta has since been suspended for the remainder of the season and released by his ECHL team.
“Sheer disappointment. It’s distasteful. There’s no room for it in our game,” Subban said, facing the assembled press. “I’m embarrassed because our game is better than this.”
As a 32-year-old Black man raised in Toronto by immigrant parents, Subban had experienced too many of those moments himself, he said. They date back to when he first began lacing up a pair of skates and continued throughout the 13 seasons in the NHL. After scoring a game-sealing goal during the 2014 playoffs against Boston, online trolls and bigots called him the N-word and other racial slurs. One posted a picture with a noose drawn around his neck. Two years earlier, when Joel Ward, another Black player, similarly dusted the Bruins, racist fans went to the same well.
“This is life for people who look like me who have gone through the game of hockey,” Subban continued. “And that’s part of the history, whether we like it or not." One day prior to the incident with Jordan Subban, another hockey player in a different minor league had also taunted a Black opponent by imitating a monkey
As Subban explained to The Daily Beast, it had taken the entirety of his career to arrive at this point.
“There have been times where I felt I couldn’t talk about certain things,” Subban said when reached by phone. “That sucks.” This despite being a three-time All-Star, netting a gold medal in the 2014 Olympics, and winning the Norris Trophy, the award given to the league’s top defenseman.
“I’ve had to wait 13, 12 years to talk about it, and feel supported.” Doing so in the past might have left him isolated, or “on an island, all alone,” he told The Daily Beast. Other Black NHL players he’d spoken with felt similarly silenced, or that if they did speak out it would be detrimental to their careers. “Now it’s different.”
But Subban wanted to broaden the scope of the inquiry during the presser. Would the media be here at all, he asked, listening to him say how “disgusting” Panetta’s behavior was, were it not for all of the ways in which he’d built a platform that in many ways transcended hockey?
He’s always been able to attract a crowd. Pairing dazzling athletic ability and a booming slap shot—the kind of improvisational and improbable feats that immediately draw eyeballs—with sartorial flair, no small amount of swagger, and puckish charisma, Subban stands out.
Hockey players, for the most part, don’t score a part in movies like Jackass Forever, launch a fashion line, or, for those with more subdued tastes, appear on NPR’s Wait, Wait… Don’t Tell Me! to drolly trade bon mots about not losing any of his teeth.
The same attributes which have made Subban so thrilling have on occasion pissed off parts of the small-c conservative hockey world. The word “polarizing” has been thrown around a lot, by hockey greats and disgraced revanchist relics alike. Both dovetail to the same point: He’s upended some of the game’s most storied traditions.
“Probably not,” he told reporters, answering his own question. “But the unfortunate thing isn’t just the incident. The unfortunate thing is how many kids deal with this every day and it doesn’t come to light.” Far too often, the pervasive racist acts are ignored or kept quiet out of fear. How many young players—people of color who might someday become future pros and ambassadors for the sport—had ditched hockey because of a culture and environment which told them in subtle and unsubtle ways they weren’t welcome?
It’s far from the first instance in which he’s addressed the subject—or devoted time and gobs of cash to fighting injustices and helping those in need. But when Subban says in no uncertain terms that hockey has an endemic and long-standing problem with racism, ears prick up.
Over the last few years, the sport of hockey, from the NHL down to the amateur ranks, has slowly begun—too slowly for some—to reckon with its racial biases.
The predominantly-white sport only boasts about two dozen Black players on active rosters, and 100 in total since the league was founded over a century ago. After Willie O’Ree broke the NHL’s color barrier in 1958, it took another 17 years before a second Black skater joined him. O’Ree can’t fathom why fans and players still lobbed racial slurs. “I guess it’s going to take quite a while before it’s over,” he said in 2020. “I don’t know if it will ever be over.”
Then came the civil-rights protests throughout the summer of 2020. They had a wide-ranging effect on the sports world. Athletes from the NBA and WNBA took the lead, but they were joined in protests by NFL and MLB pros, plus scores of college players. When the games resumed, all manner of branded, league-approved slogans dotted arenas and stadiums. But the NHL seemingly went out of its way to avoid any direct implication they were supportive of the Black Lives Matter movement. One of the league-approved hashtags was “#WeSkateFor,” which could be amended to include a player, nurses, front line workers, or Black lives.
The statements put out by the NHL and its teams following George Floyd’s murder studiously dodged mentioning who, exactly, had taken his life. Eric Trump, for one, approved, posting a tweet thanking players for not taking a knee. Within days, players began doing so. Subban donated CA$50,000 to Floyd’s daughter as part of a crowdfunding campaign, which was matched by the NHL.
Black NHL stars like Evander Kane took notice, making it clear their efforts had fallen short. For too long, “the league has made no effort to support its own Black players,” he told The Sports Network at the end of July 2020. Kane, too, has been subjected to racist invectives from fans.
The following month, the Milwaukee Bucks called a wildcat strike after the shooting of Jacob Blake spread like wildfire, causing cancellations by MLB, the WNBA, and Major League Soccer. The NHL sallied forth: For a total of 27 seconds, according to Maclean’s, they held a “moment of reflection” during the pre-game introductions before a playoff game and then dropped the puck as planned.
Many current and active players pushed back, and the NHL was widely criticized. Shortly thereafter, they hit pause on the playoff schedule.
The NHL has been working on various diversity initiatives over the four years. The most notable of which has been its “Hockey is for Everyone” campaign. By summer 2020, a more hard-line faction had formed. The Hockey Diversity Alliance (HDA) was launched in June 2020. The group made it clear that, despite maintaining a tenuous partnership with the NHL, the league’s efforts amounted to a PR stunt.
Akim Aliu, one of HDA’s seven co-founders, told Sports Illustrated the NHL is trying to paper over the legitimate grievances with “posturing, window-washing, non-meaningful half measures,” while simultaneous trying to co-opt the HDA and snatch some unearned credit for the group’s actions.
Though Subban was quick to offer solidarity with the striking NBA players and his NHL cohorts who were speaking out, he declined to join the HDA. Instead, he decided to work within the system, serving as co-chair of an inclusion committee formed by the NHL.
“Everyone is going to have a different way, right?,” Subban said in a 2020 ESPN interview explaining his decision. “Malcolm X and Martin Luther King didn’t always see eye to eye, but they had an impact in their own right.”
For Subban, change is best achieved from a place of openness. “You always want to make sure that you come from a place of bringing people together,” he said. Like the video Subban shot and posted online addressing a 13-year-old hockey player who’d faced racist abuse.
“You've got to believe in yourself and let nobody tell you what you can and can’t do, especially if it's because of the color of your skin," he advised in the video. “All we need to do is understand ourselves, believe in ourselves, keep trying, and keep pushing forward.”
He’s also appeared in sponsored campaigns and PSAs in a similar vein. A short clip with Adidas in 2019 highlighted earlier Black Lives Matter protests and an insistence by Subban that “unity” was needed. Another with Scotiabank promoted their outreach efforts to Black and indigenous people, and called out the ongoing acts of racist and sexist discrimination.
That doesn’t mean excusing bigotry in any way, shape or form, Subban stressed. Far from it. Too many people of color in hockey are made to feel less-than, and certainly something other than an equal. It needs to change, and soon. But those changes can best be achieved by actionable steps. ”Building bridges,” as he put it, comes first.
Famously, in 2016 Subban pledged to raise and donate CA$10 million over seven years to the Montreal Children’s Hospital, with a sizable percentage dedicated to helping underprivileged children.
The following year, Subban announced a new endeavor: Blueline Buddies, a mentoring program that paired kids from poorer families and members of the Metro Nashville Police Department. The goal, Subban explained, was about building relationships and getting past preconceived notions about law enforcement. There were plenty of kids when Subban was growing up who were uniformly suspicious and fearful of the cops. It wasn’t his experience, but for many, the environment in which they were raised reinforced those beliefs.
“Sometimes it’s about the other side understanding the other side,” he said. He’s heard the criticisms. especially considering the focus of BLM on the police as state-sanctioned violence visited on Black people and communities of color.
“There were definitely people that didn’t like the fact that, you know, maybe I wasn’t being as aggressive with law enforcement,” Subban admitted. But he argued that while he’d chosen different means, both he and his critics sought the same end. It was for Subban, another example of “creating something that brings people together,” he said. The program continued in New Jersey and has since been expanded to include teachers and, since the pandemic, health-care workers.
With all his heart, Subban is steadfast in his faith that bridges can be built here, too, with the right kind of mindset, education, and enough radical empathy.
The entirety of Subban’s career has been spent not just in the spotlight but “under a microscope,” he said. As such, he has always been required to remain exceedingly specific in his language. As one of the sport’s few Black stars, he’s all too aware that every word will be parsed. No matter what, bad faith actors will use them as a cudgel. Luckily, “I know how to say all the right things. I know how to diffuse situations.” said Subban. (He’s been so successful at doing so, some friends have suggested he should seek higher office. To be clear: running for prime minister or president doesn’t interest him.)
Drilling down on the best possible phrasing isn’t about avoiding whatever backlash he might face. Those howling that he’s somehow trying to tarnish hockey couldn’t be more wrong. And in the end, it has nothing to do with Subban at all.
“A lot of the racism isn’t a gesture or a word. It comes in a lot of different forms,” he explained, both in the U.S. and his native Canada. “When you’re Black, you understand. You know. You don't need anyone to break it down and explain it for you. You know when somebody is taking a shot at you or putting you in your place as far as the color of your skin.”
He continued: “That’s very, very difficult to make people understand.” Moreover, “That can be scary to people that aren’t used to people that look like me having a sense of power.”
Getting through to that person and getting beyond the initial resentment, fear, or outright anger is what drives Subban—those who’ll spew racist invectives, or hide behind the idea that he’s somehow tarnishing the game by bringing these realities to the forefront. Even though he'd been up until 5 a.m. the night before talking to his family, and reliving yet another indignity, when he stepped behind a podium in Newark, he’s sharing those personal moments with a purpose.
“This really isn’t just about me,” he said. “It’s not really just about me or my organization or my family. It’s bigger than that.”