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'You Better Enjoy This:' P.K. Subban Embraces Nashville

As he settles into a new city and onto a new team, PK Subban doubles down on the things that brought him to the NHL in the first place: hard work and a big personality.
November 2, 2016, 1:30pm
Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

They call it the strongman exercise at Clance Laylor's gym in downtown Toronto. It's a grueling workout that consists of pushing a weighted sled almost 200 feet before ditching it for a "farmer's walk" in which participants walk another 200 feet while lugging heavy weight in each hand.

Just a few weeks removed from a European vacation and a June 29 trade from the Montreal Canadiens to the Nashville Predators that rocked the hockey world, this is how Pernell Karl Subban officially started his summer training in earnest. Six sets on the strongman at the highest weight readily available.

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"That was impressive. I think he was in the gym for two weeks and the guys have already been training there for almost two months. And he just came in and bang," said Laylor, Subban's trainer for the past seven years.

"That was my indication that this is going to be a summer like I haven't seen before. That was after the trade," said Laylor. "His mind is so strong. You can try to break him but he won't give up."

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This is how one of the NHL's biggest stars moves on after being traded for the first time. By going all in at the gym. He even added video of his weight room exploits to an Instagram account that was already one of the most entertaining in the NHL. And despite a disappointing 2-5-1 start to his first season in Music City, Subban's laid out some clear objectives after a wild summer.

"I just want to win," Subban said. "That's my only objective, is try to win as much as I can and win games and give my team an opportunity to win the Cup."

Canadiens fans figured those wins would come with Montreal. Maybe they would help Subban add his name to the ranks of Les Glorieux and earn a spot among the icons populating a century of Canadiens lore.

Well, that's not going to happen, to the dismay of Habs Nation. The outrage over the trade that sent Subban to Nashville for Shea Weber culminated in October when one Habs fan spent a reported $20,000 on a full-page ad in the local newspaper to thank Subban for his service while chastising Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin and coach Michel Therrien.

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Weeks after the trade, Subban still cast a long shadow over the city. In a late-summer Montreal visit, he vowed to fulfill his responsibilities to the Montreal Children's Hospital, which built the P.K. Subban Atrium after the NHL star announced a $10 million donation to the hospital last year. He even followed through on an obligation to host a gala at Montreal's Just For Laughs comedy festival, which afforded him one final farewell.

Subban preparing to take in some American football in his new city. Photo: Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports.

"Over the past six years almost every single person in the city has embraced me with open arms," Subban, adorned in a striking three-piece magenta suit, told the gala crowd. "And the ones who didn't … well, those are the people that traded me, right?"

And that was it. One last good-natured zinger, one last mic drop to wrap things up in Montreal before his first season in Nashville. He'd be joining a talented team that fell one win short of the Western Conference Final last season. The Predators, it seemed, could be a perfect for one of hockey's most dynamic players.

"It's a little different than in Montreal. If I was in Montreal this year, there would be a sense of urgency, not making the playoffs the year before. Whereas you come into this team that has made it to the semifinals before, so you're just trying to find how you fit in and how things work," Subban said. "It's more relaxed. It's not as crazy as Montreal, which is a good thing. I enjoy it."

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It didn't take Subban long to enjoy Music City. During his first post-trade trip to Nashville in July, he took the stage at Tootsies, one of the city's foremost honky tonks, to sing Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues." How's that for a "Welcome to Nashville" moment?

"I don't think anybody in the world knew I knew any Johnny Cash songs," said Subban. "Just wanted to come in and have fun. That's all, just enjoy myself."

Predators fans weren't the only people thrilled by that performance. At least one former coach got the last laugh after watching video of Subban's first signature Music City moment.

"I told him he'd be a country music fan at some point," said George Burnett, who coached Subban for four years with the Belleville Bulls of the Ontario Hockey League.

"We used to kid around with his music choices," Burnett said. "He finally came around to listening to country music. I'm glad I have a little bit of influence over him."

Burnett's influence emerged shortly after Subban was picked 105th in the OHL draft. Considered an afterthought when he arrived in Belleville as a 16-year-old defenseman, an undeterred Subban kept flashing the smile that would become one of his many signatures.

"We played him on the power play at 16. Maybe some of the older guys on the team didn't like that idea. But that was my decision as his coach," said Burnett. "I think he showed very quickly he was willing to do the work and gained the respect of his teammates and had an impact in all of his four years in the league."

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For all his success in Belleville, Subban was again overlooked when the NHL draft came around. NHL Central Scouting ranked him 102nd among North American skaters heading into the 2007 draft. He was selected in the second round that summer by Montreal, but being underestimated again and again has stayed with him.

"It never leaves your mind, that's for sure," Subban said. "I think you always remember that you've had to work hard for everything you've got. Nothing was ever given to you. I don't need anyone to preach that to me."

Ask those who know him best and they'll tell you this is the real P.K. Subban. The kid who could be seen training all around Toronto, whether it was jogging through Centennial Park or skating with his father after dark in Nathan Philips Square.

The flair and the smile and the magenta three-piece? That's him too. But P.K. is a worker first.

"The trick with P.K., you want to get him to do something, challenge him. Tell him he can't. Then it's on," said Laylor. "I don't think it's a secret but I don't think people realize how mentally strong he is. I think that's his greatest asset."

Challenge him. Cut him from his first NHL training camp and tell him he has to put in some time riding the bus with the Hamilton Bulldogs of the American Hockey League. That's the surest way to make sure he'll be in the NHL sooner rather than later.

Sure enough, a standout season in the AHL catapulted Subban onto the Canadiens roster just in time for 2010 Stanley Cup Playoffs. With the 20-year-old phenom slotted on their blueline, the Canadiens shocked everyone by knocking off the Presidents' Trophy-winning Washington Capitals in the first round before dispatching the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins. Three years later, he won the Norris Trophy as the NHL's top defenseman.

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Through it all, he still faced his share of finger wagging.

After a game between the Canadiens and Philadelphia Flyers during Subban's rookie season, veteran forward Mike Richards criticized the defenseman's braggadocio and called him "a guy that's come in the league and hasn't earned respect."

When Subban started celebrating wins by engaging then-teammate Carey Price in a sequence of low-fives during the 2012-13 season, Therrien put an end to it.

When Subban scored a 2014 overtime winner against the Ottawa Senators before racing to celebrate with teammates beside the opposing bench, Senators goaltender Craig Anderson described the celebration as "unnecessary."

To the surprise of absolutely no one, Subban has an answer for anyone who thinks he's having too much fun.

"To be honest with you, I don't really pay attention to what people think," Subban said. "If people want to do their job every day and have a frown on their face, that's their issue. I enjoy what I do. I love it,"

The Subban-Weber trade wasn't just a blockbuster for the ages. It was a one-for-one swap of two players so diametrically opposed that it struck at the nexus of the NHL's advanced stats debate; hockey's own version of church vs. state. Who is the real franchise defenseman? Subban, the puck-possession dynamo criticized by hockey's old boys club, or Weber, the towering granite slab dismissed by contemporary hockey analysts.

Two All-Stars: only one can be the NHL's blueline prototype.

Of course, Subban doesn't have time for any of it. He's too busy working to bring a Cup to his new home. And he'll keep having fun doing it.

"Being a professional athlete, you talk to guys who don't play anymore," said Subban. "They'll tell you, it comes and goes really fast. And when you're done, you're done. You better enjoy this."

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