Former NHL defenceman P.K. Subban set for emotional return to Montreal

P.K. Subban knows standing at centre ice in Montreal's Bell Centre on Thursday will stir emotions.

Canadiens fans are known for their unbridled passion, and being embraced by them during his seven seasons with the team was something special, said the former NHL defenceman.

“In Montreal, there was never a night off," Subban told The Canadian Press. "You didn't have a choice, because the crowd gave you that energy when you didn't have it, they gave you the belief, maybe, when you didn't believe that you were still in the game.

"They brought the best out of me, more so than any other opponent that I had or anybody that I played against. They held me accountable and they really had my back and supported me. And that's why it gets very emotional for me."

Montreal is set to honour Subban ahead of a game against the Nashville Predators, the team the Habs dealt the blue-liner to in 2016.

The 33-year-old announced in September that he was retiring after 13 NHL seasons with the Canadiens, Predators and New Jersey Devils.

Picked 43rd overall by the Habs in the 2007 entry draft, the six-foot, 210-pound Toronto native registered 115 goals and 467 points over 824 regular-season games. He added another 62 points (18 goals, 44 assists) in 96 playoff appearances and won the Norris Trophy as the league's top defenceman while playing for Montreal in 2013.

Still, Subban was surprised when the Canadiens called saying they wanted to host a tribute.

"It's so exciting to be recognized for the work that you've done," he said. "But I think a big part of that is not just what I did on the ice — which I'm very proud of — but there's a lot of things, the impact that I've had on the ice, that's something that you can hang your hat on."

Giving back has always been important to Subban.

He still has a vivid memory of the day he signed his first contract with Montreal and how he realized he was about to change his family's lives. It's a memory Subban hasn't taken for granted.

"That moment for me, it was a pivotal time in my career. But I also knew that I would have the platform to be able to help other people," he said.

Subban's latest initiative is working with Kraft Hockeyville, an annual event that sees communities across the country share their stories and connections to hockey as they compete for $250,000 in arena upgrades and the chance to host an NHL pre-season game.

Nominations for the 2023 contest are open and will close on Feb. 19.

“Being a Canadian, hockey is our sport. We have a lot of pride in the game and what the game brings to us," Subban said.

"Compared to other countries and other places in the world, this is what we really wrap our arms around. So to be able to bring our communities closer together through this program, and through hockey, is ideal."

Growing up, hockey wasn't always easy to access for Subban and his four siblings. His parents, who both immigrated to Canada from the Caribbean, worked hard to give their kids every opportunity, but Subban's siblings were still left wearing his hand-me-down skates and pads.

Kraft Hockeyville gives kids more chances to get into the game, Subban said.

“There's a lot of people who love our game and want to play. But it's an expensive game," he said. "To fund an arena, to fund equipment, to support a community, that takes a lot of people that want to make a difference."

It's been a while since Subban himself got out on the ice.

“I haven't picked up a hockey stick since I retired," he said with a laugh. "I haven’t gotten on skates."

Instead of skating clinics and stickhandling drills, the charismatic athlete is using his experience, unique style and connections around the league to contribute to the sport he loves in a new role. ESPN announced in November that Subban had signed a three-year deal to work as a full-time hockey analyst.

“I find that I'm taking that on as a responsibility to try to support the game and help grow the game in different ways," Subban said.

"And I think, being at my age and being not very far removed from the game of hockey is a huge bonus. So I'm trying to use that the best way that I can to help not only ESPN, but help the game of hockey internationally."

There are days, though, where he gets nostalgic about being part of an NHL team.

"Of course you're going to miss the game, and you're going to miss being with your teammates, and being on the road. But I still miss my first girlfriend. I mean, I miss things all the time," Subban said.

"You’re going to miss things in life, but that's just a part of life. But to be able to look forward to the next chapter, and be able to make such an immense impact in so many different people's lives, I’ve got a lot to look forward to as well."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 11, 2023.

Gemma Karstens-Smith, The Canadian Press