P.K. Subban on NHL social change, ‘The Last Dance,’ nearly being a Penguin and more


P.K. Subban knows who he is.

The New Jersey Devils defenseman is entering his 12th NHL season, in a career that saw him nominated for the Norris Trophy three times and win it in 2013, but he knows that he is more than a professional hockey player. He is a celebrity, engaged to Olympian Lindsey Vonn, who recently said their pending nuptials are “in a holding pattern” due to COVID-19. He’s a philanthropist, having created social change organizations and given away millions to charity. He’s an agent for change — and someone who can inspire others.

“It’s about having an influence on kids who look like me coming up through the sport. Giving them that hope, in seeing where I’ve come from and where I am today,” Subban told the “ESPN On Ice” podcast recently.

Subban worked with Adidas on a film in its “Ready For Change” series that encapsulates the many sides of the 31-year-old Toronto native. It also features images of Black Lives Matter protests and a call for unity in taking on racial justice issues.

“It’s about standing for change. I think with everything going on socially in North America, being able to have a partnership with Adidas and do this is huge. I think one thing that aligns us both is that we feel you have the power to change lives through sport and connect with people. That’s really important,” he said.

We spoke with Subban about his views on the social justice protests in the NHL bubbles, his work with the league’s Player Inclusion Committee, his Blueline Buddies program — which the Devils said involves “two police officers from the precincts throughout Newark and two youth from the Newark community” attending a home game — and his memories of his draft day.

Note: This interview was edited for length and clarity.

ESPN: Looking from afar into the NHL playoff bubble, what were your thoughts about those moments when Black Lives Matter was getting a spotlight? Especially that moment when the players banded together, stepped up and used their voices to get games postponed, at the same time that NBA players were doing the same?

Subban: I actually watched a lot of the games very closely, which is something I don’t traditionally do in the offseason. I try to disconnect. But with the offseason being seven months and counting, I had some extra time.

You know, there’s no way to say what is enough and what’s not enough. For me, it’s never enough. The world is always evolving, and we need people to be proactive and wanting to do more. But it’s also culture, which is very important. There’s positive culture, and then there’s parts of culture that we need to change. In seeing players step up … everybody’s gotta do it in a way that they feel comfortable. For some people, that’s getting out in front of it. For some people, that’s doing it behind the scenes. Everybody is going to be different in how they contribute, but I think everybody needs to contribute and educate themselves in this.

I think that everything that happened in the playoffs is a start, but we need more. We need to make sure that we have actionable items that are also going to impact and help where a lot of the real issues are in our communities: education and economics. The statements that were made were a good start, but we need actions. That’s the next step for the NHL and for us as players.

ESPN: One of the programs you helped create was Blueline Buddies. So much of the conversation about racial injustice in the United States has centered around police brutality. You have this program that allows underprivileged kids to interact with police officers, form relationships and better understand each other. With everything that’s happened in the past few months, has it made you reevaluate that program? What’s the status of it?

Subban: Four years ago, when I started it in Nashville, I became a resident in the U.S. for the first time in my life — in the South. When I got to training camp, this was around the time that [former San Francisco 49ers quarterback] Colin Kaepernick was kneeling [during the national anthem] and a lot of things were happening. I’m going to a team that’s competitive, trying to win a championship. That’s hard enough as it is, let alone trying to attack social issues in a community you’re trying to understand because you never played in it. There were a lot of balls up in the air.

Obviously, I have a history of being involved in the community and of philanthropic work. I’m sure there were some expectations in the community in terms of what I was going to do in Nashville. I really wanted to figure out what was authentic to me. With my foundation in Montreal, that was something I built up to. It’s not like I woke up one day and said, “I’m going to make a $10 million pledge to the hospital.” That was years and years of making visits, getting to know people at the hospital. Ultimately, it ended up being that.

Nashville was different. I had just gotten there. There was so much social unrest. The one thing I wanted to do was bring people together and bridge the gap. So I started a program called Blueline Buddies. The reason I called it that, actually, has absolutely nothing to do with police officers: The blue line in hockey unifies us all. The starting five from each team, and sometimes the goaltender, stand on the blue line during the national anthem.

The one thing I wanted to do was make players feel comfortable. Once Colin Kaepernick started kneeling, it brought a lot of opportunity for athletes that had a political view, a personal view on things that were happening in our communities across North America. People wanted to feel comfortable that it was their right to show that. And what I wanted to do was create a program that was for everyone.

Standing on the blue line is one of the best parts of our game. It’s one of the greatest honors. You have 82 games. The honor of your coach giving you the chance to start the game, to represent your city and your team. I wanted something that connected us all, and that is something that connected us all. Because whether you want to kneel, stand, put your hand in the air, we all stand on the blue line to start the game. So that’s why I created Blueline Buddies. What if the “blue line” stood for more than just the people who fought for our country? What if it stood for togetherness and love all the things we talk about today?

Now, obviously there was a lot of talk about police brutality in the country and the disconnect between police and [some] communities in North America. It wasn’t about police. It wasn’t about underprivileged youth. It was about building community and bringing the community together. So bringing law enforcement to the game and underprivileged youth was the tip of the iceberg. Our program isn’t just about law enforcement. It’s about leaders in our community. Teachers. First responders. It could be a lot of people making a difference, not just law enforcement.

So bringing the program 360 [degrees], it’s about involving all of those people and being impactful in the community. It’s coming to New Jersey now and possibly a few other cities in the future.

ESPN: You’re the co-chair of the Player Inclusion Committee that the NHL recently announced. For those who might not know the difference, what is the contrast between this committee and the Hockey Diversity Alliance?

Subban: Everyone has to take that step forward the way they see it. I believe my involvement in the Player Inclusion Committee is still at a very high level. I still want to have discussions and hear what concrete plans we have in place moving forward. Because we have to understand this: That actions are very, very important.

I’m excited for the opportunity to work with the NHL, but there’s always going to be multiple people fighting that fight, multiple people trying to eradicate racism. Everyone is going to have a different way, right? Malcolm X and Martin Luther King didn’t always see eye to eye, but they had an impact in their own right.

So I think that in the sports world, we’re all after the same thing: To continue to grow our game and make it inclusive, and continue to make it welcoming not just at the NHL level but at the grassroots level, as well. There are a lot of moving parts in change and in change coming. It’s not just one specific thing. Everyone has to figure out how they can do it, the best way that they feel, and then go out and do it.

ESPN: We don’t know when next season is going to start or what it’s going to look like. What’s your appetite for a different format for next season, perhaps playing in a bubble or a hybrid bubble?

Subban: I’m not really sure what to think. I’ve never really had to do that before. For me, as a veteran player in the league, I guess you could say I’m not a veteran in understanding that stuff.

I know a lot of players that were in the bubble. If that’s the way things are going to go, I can reach out to [former Devils teammate] Andy Greene and get the scoop on that. But right now, it’s still early. We could have a possible 10-plus weeks until training camp. Until there are announcements made, and I understand more, I’ll take it from there.

ESPN: The NHL draft was just completed recently. You were drafted 43rd overall in the 2007 draft by Montreal. What do you remember most about that day, and what do you think has changed the most since you participated in it?

Subban: Huh, what do I remember about that day? It was my second day at the draft. I had a beautiful suit that I had tailor-made in Toronto. I wasn’t really thinking about going to the draft in the first place, because I didn’t even have to go to the combine. I think it was only the top hundred or 150 ranked players that went to the combine. But I did have three teams that were interested in me: I believe it was Washington, Florida and Pittsburgh.

I remember them saying that they wanted to see if I was willing to go to the draft. So we drove to Columbus from Toronto. On the first day, there was a chance I was going to go to Pittsburgh at around 20th overall if the player that they wanted wasn’t available. That player was Angelo Esposito, and they ended up selecting him. So any chance of being selected in the first round was pretty slim by then.

So I went back to the hotel. Took the suit off. Put the same suit back on for Day 2 and went back out there. It was interesting. I remember around the 40th pick, the New York Rangers‘ head scout came over to me and said, “We’re going to take you at 46.” I was pretty excited about it — I mean, New York. But at 43rd, Montreal announced that they had drafted me. They had my name stitched on the jersey, so I think they knew I’d be available. The rest is history.

It was a special moment for me to work that hard and to have [that occasion]. But all it was for me was an extra boost of knowing that every time I stepped in the gym, I was being appreciated for the work I was doing and that there was more work to come. I’m still working today. The work hasn’t stopped. [Laughs]

ESPN: Finally, we’ve all been stuck at home, and you didn’t have a chance to join the restarted season. Is there something new you’ve picked up? A hobby or a pastime that you’ve picked up or a show you binged?

Subban: I started my own podcast called “The Ugly Duck Podcast.” It’s been a ton of fun. I’ve really enjoyed doing because it made me feel like I was part of the playoffs even though I wasn’t playing — watching the games, talking about them, being able to see the game from a different view. It’s been a really long time since I watched that much hockey on TV.

I also must have watched “The Last Dance” [countless times]. It’s addictive for a player like me, because I grew up idolizing people like Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan and athletes like this. Not just because they were great, but because of their approach. Their mindset. I couldn’t get enough of that documentary. I absolutely loved watching it, and it was a boost for me. I never got a chance to see Michael Jordan play, but I knew he was a killer. To get that inside scoop was huge for me.

The only person that was upset with me watching it was Lindsey, because she was sick of seeing me watching it so many times. She just wanted it to be done. So I had to switch from watching it in the family room to watching it in the garage while I was working out and nobody was around.

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