Could P.K. Subban be the NHL’s most important player?

Nashville Predators defenseman P.K. Subban does pushups during practice in 2017 in Nashville, Tenn. [AP Photo/Mark Humphrey]
Nashville Predators defenseman P.K. Subban does pushups during practice in 2017 in Nashville, Tenn. [AP Photo/Mark Humphrey]
Published Oct. 31, 2018

TAMPA — Mathieu Joseph cracked one of the NHL's best lineups as a 21-year-old, but he's not even his little brother's favorite NHL player.

That distinction belongs to Nashville defenseman P.K. Subban. Joseph should be, but he's not. That thought gave him pause as he grinned.

"Well, it's funny to say, you know?" Joseph said.

He can't necessarily fault his little brother, though.

"For fans, (Subban) is awesome," Joseph said. "He's a really dynamic guy."

This hockey star who holds the title of favorite player for many fans is on his way back to Tampa where he served as an All-Star captain last winter as Nashville faces the Lightning on Thursday.

In addition to favorite, important is another fitting adjective for Subban. His charismatic personality, elite hockey ability and the representation he provides for black athletes who aspire to play a predominantly white sport make Subban one of the NHL's most important players.

In fact, he could very well be the most important player in a league that constantly strives to grow and reach new audiences.

"He is upbeat, he's fun, he's easy to gravitate to," Nashville general manager David Poile said. "He's got that it. However you want to describe what 'it' is, he's got it."

It all starts with Subban's personality, primarily made up of charisma and compassion.

Pernell-Karl Subban's charisma is easy to see. The crowd at Tootsie's Bar in Nashville witnessed it first hand when Subban jumped on the stage and sang Johnny Cash's Folsom Prison Blues the day he arrived after the Canadiens traded him to the Predators in 2016.

Before that, Subban displayed his charisma when he dressed up as a Canadiens security guard, strapping on a fake beard and wig to go with extra stomach padding to surprise kids with Canadiens gear.

This personality extends to the ice, too. Just watch Subban celebrate after a goal.

"He obviously brings a lot of confidence and a different approach and style that brings a lot of energy," said Lightning captain Steven Stamkos, who played hockey with Subban as kids in Canada. "It's great for the game."

Subban is no stranger to television, either, having joined NBC as a guest analyst and making appearances on talk shows such as The Daily Show with Trevor Noah. Terry Crisp, a longtime Nashville broadcast analyst and former Lightning coach, knows Subban has a big future ahead of him after hockey.

He hopes that future includes working in TV.

"I would be very surprised if he doesn't," Crisp said. "But if he wants. He might even be in the movies. He could do that very easy, too."

For now, Subban is busy putting together a highlight-filled NHL career, though. His list of accolades includes two selections on the first all-star team and one on the second. He won the Norris Trophy for the top defenseman in the NHL in 2013. He was a finalist for the award again this past season in addition to recognition as a finalist for the King Clancy Memorial Trophy, given to an NHL player for his humanitarian contributions.

Subban's work in the community contributes just as much — if not more — to his status as one of the NHL's most vital players. He donated $10 million to the Montreal Children's Hospital in September 2015. He visited Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. He started the BlueLine Buddies program in which a member of the Metro Nashville Police Department and a guest attend a game with a mentor or representative from a local organization and an underprivileged child. Subban visits with the group before and after the game.

Crisp has never seen Subban turn down an autograph or photograph request. But that's not what impressed Crisp most. Instead, it's what Subban did when one of his biggest fans, a family friend of Crisp, came to Nashville two years ago.

Crisp couldn't promise the daughter of one of his good friends that she would have the chance to meet Subban if she came from Canada down to Nashville. He would certainly try his best, though.

When Crisp asked, Subban said of course. At the rink, they ran into Subban outside the elevator. He gave the woman a hug, signed her Subban doll and took photographs with her. Subban had to go get ready for practice, but minutes later, Pekka Rinne and Roman Josi came out to tell her they would be her official escorts into the Nashville dressing room.

She wheeled her motorized wheelchair into the room where she found the entire team standing in a semi-circle waiting for her. They gave a standing ovation, followed by a speech from coach Peter Laviolette and Subban. They capped the visit with a team photo with her.

"A lot of them in my career never took the time to do (so much off the ice), busy or not busy," Crisp said. "And you cannot say that about P.K. Subban."

These instances make Subban a prime spokesman for the game of hockey, if you ask Poile.

"The intangibles have been very beneficial to our franchise and for sure the National Hockey League, how we grow our game and how our game comes across to the public," Poile said.

As an athlete who is black in a predominantly white sport, Subban has a further opportunity to grow the game than most. He's only the second black player ever whom EA Sports has featured on its NHL video game cover.

"It's fun to see he can bring that for the black community that wants to play hockey," Joseph said. "Some younger guys can see themselves in P.K."

Including Joseph's younger brother, Pierre-Olivier, a Coyotes prospect. Although Joseph has mixed feelings about his brother's choice for favorite player, he can't be too surprised.

"(Subban) is one of the guys who has a powerful face in our sport," Mathieu Joseph said. "When you see a guy like that having that powerful of a face trying to do so much for people, I don't know him as a guy personally, but to see what he does, he is definitely trying to get the league better and get more people in it."