P.K. Subban should be defined by what he did for others

P.K. Subban was one of the most skilled and exciting players in the NHL in his prime, but it's the  work he did off the ice that made him a superstar like no other. (Getty Images)
P.K. Subban was one of the most skilled and exciting players in the NHL in his prime, but it's the work he did off the ice that made him a superstar like no other. (Getty Images)

"I never looked at myself or ever felt like I was 'just a hockey player'," P.K. Subban wrote in a note announcing his retirement, posted to social media on Tuesday. "I always looked at myself as a person who happened to play hockey."

It's an odd sentiment to hear from a former NHL star; someone who spent just about their whole life playing, practicing and breathing the sport of hockey.

But it's a sentiment that encapsulates Subban's career almost perfectly.

As he broke through with the Montreal Canadiens as a 21-year-old, he looked like he was "just a hockey player." And a very good one at that.

The Toronto native quickly rose to prominence as one of the premier defencemen in the NHL, earning the Norris Trophy in 2013 as the league's top blueliner. A year later, the Habs' front office rewarded their franchise cornerstone with a massive eight-year, $72 million contract.

But while his exhilarating, riverboat-gambler style of play began to turn heads around the league, it was Subban's personality that captured the hearts and minds of the passionate Canadiens fan base.

In September 2015, Subban made the greatest play in his career when he pledged to donate $10 million over a span of seven years to the Montreal Children's Hospital, marking "the biggest philanthropic commitment by a sports figure in Canadian history."

Subban always went a step further, backing up the generosity of his words and philanthropy with the actions that made a lasting impression on the community. In 2015, in partnership with Air Canada, Subban organized a winter wonderland in the hospital's atrium, which bares his name, during the holiday season, spoiling the children and families for Christmas.

Subban's Christmas surprises became something of a tradition over the following years. He always came up with new ideas to add some cheer to the lives of those who weren't as fortunate.

Even after a shocking blockbuster trade that saw him shipped to the Nashville Predators for star defenceman Shea Weber in June of 2016, Subban continued his work in the community, adapting to the new environment he found himself in.

In October 2017, the new Preds star set up an initiative called Blueline Buddies, which brought together members of the Nashville Metro Police department and underprivileged youth, who he would host at every Predators home game. The initiative was meant to bridge the gap between both parties, especially at a time when police brutality and violence against minorities was trending in the wrong direction in the United States.

Subban continued the initiative after he was traded to the New Jersey Devils, eventually incorporating healthcare workers into the program after the COVID-19 pandemic began.

He also did what he could to help alleviate the weight the health crisis was putting on hospital staff, providing catered meals to workers at an Ottawa hospital in April 2021.

A little less than a year later, when Russia launched an unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, Subban and his foundation pledged to match donations for young Ukrainian cancer patients seeking refuge from the war in Montreal.

Now 33 years old and having wrapped up a successful 13-year NHL career — and likely set for a long career in a hockey media landscape that is sorely lacking a larger-than-life personality like his — Subban has a lot to look back on and look forward to.

As for his philanthropy, there is no indication that he'll be slowing down soon. Perhaps the greatest silver lining in his retirement is that he'll now have more time to help people, the way he has since he first put on a Canadiens jersey.

Subban often reminded fans and media in Montreal that his idol growing up was Jean Beliveau, the legendary Canadiens captain of the 1960s. As a player, Beliveau won 10 Stanley Cups and registered 1,219 points in 1,125 career NHL games. But like Subban, the icon's impact extended far beyond the rink, establishing and overseeing the Jean Beliveau Fund for underprivileged kids, contributing $1.9 million to thousands of disabled and disadvantaged youth, until his death in 2014.

"I am proud to follow in the footsteps of my idol, Jean Beliveau, by giving back to the community through my involvement and my support," Subban told the crowd in French as he announced his commitment to the Montreal Children's Hospital in the P.K. Subban Atrium almost a year after his idol's death.

He then turned to Beliveau's wife in attendance.

"Mrs. Beliveau, I hope to make your husband proud."

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