Baseball Hall of Fame general manager Pat Gillick never retired—he's in the Phillies front office now—but during his time as the Toronto Blue Jays' back-to-back World Series-winning GM, he was asked what kind of projects he could see himself generating in his post-baseball life. He told a crew of sportswriters gathered at his hem that he'd be interested in doing something in hockey, possibly bringing the game to inner-city America, which he often referred to as hockey's greatest untapped source of talent.
Gillick could never escape the sport he loved first, so he wasn't able to architect the development of hockey among young African Americans. But if he had, the recent trade of P.K. Subban to Nashville would have been a gift: the perfect player at the perfect time in the perfect city with the perfect team to trigger a culture that has yet to find its way into America's last major sport.
P.K. Subban to Nashville sent most people looking the other way, at the team he'd left rather than the team he was joining. Montreal dispensing its best player for another very good player asked questions about Michel Therrien's dressing room check-mate and the decision by Marc Bergevin to take his team in a lockdown direction better designed to serve the protection of goalie Carey Price, and sportswriters from here to there wondered what this said about the state of hockey in Canada; how the former fire-wagon Habs could ever reconcile sending their most important, recognizable, decorated, and, well, fun player of the last 20 years to a team playing in the wilderness of the Southern US. And yet the wilderness is the perfect falling place for this comet.
READ MORE: The Montreal Canadiens Made an Awful Trade and It Doesn't Make Any Sense
Subban in Nashville has the potential to set the hockey world, nay, the sporting world, nay the cultural world, alight. Nashville is a blitheful hockeytown, in love with the sport first, the team second, and the players last, although they'd never had anyone like P.K. Subban to cheer for. God bless Mike Fisher and his Tennessee marriage and Stevie Sullivan and the Kostitsyn brothers' clown concert, but P.K. Subban arrives as a shining, magnetic—and well, blitheful—personality that fits into a wildly mobile, forward-first, skating team, which has achieved beyond what its geography foretold; a southern US city with almost no hockey history upon which to stand.
Against all odds—small market, limited payroll, uneducated fan base—the Predators embody a kind of success that has felt, while I'm loathe to use the term, organic. Subban arrives at a time when the Predators are an emerging Western Conference powerhouse, giving them a symbol to stand behind as they mark their ascent.
Working-class Canadian men and women have long played the game, and with Auston Matthews proving that the standard route to success—the Stamkos/Tavares/McDavid model of high-rent minor hockey—is not the only route, the game is starting to become more open to everyone, including African Americans who, until this point, haven't had a popular role model to follow. Grant Fuhr, perhaps the greatest black hockey player of all time, wore a mask and played in a Canadian city that few Americans would recognize (Edmonton), while players like Anson Carter, Joel Ward and Tony McKegney were all very good, but none punched through to stardom. The closest best African-American player to P.K. Subban is Seth Jones, and he's buried on a bad team still learning to play the toughest position in hockey.
The 2016 draft showed how, with its plethora of American kids drafted—for the first time, more skaters from the USA were taken in the first round than Canadians, to say nothing of five Missourians being fed into the NHL—the tipping point is coming, and Subban may be the right player with the right team at the right time.
It's a tough thing to say in a country so mad for the game, but perhaps his gifts were wasted in Canada, where, in the winter, you can't walk ten feet without finding a retired player buying smokes at the gas station on a Saturday night in the winter. Besides, Nashville, and hockey in the south, is still enough of a blank slate that Subban can scribble all over it. His image on the front page of The Tennessean will play like no other local athlete before him, and, provided he can stay healthy and play well, one can only imagine his exposure through USA Hockey to USA Today to Jimmy Fallon to the ESPYs to the 2017 NHL playoffs. Pekka Rinne he ain't.
Subban also arrives at an interesting, and important, political time in the USA, with outsiders viewed through the lens of Donald Trump, and with Black Lives Matter maintaining its ground as a vital voice in the social and cultural landscape. Subban's presence in what is, effectively, a white man's game will count for more in Nashville than in the mosaic of Montreal. He will have a greater immediate impact on young black Americans because of the nature of the city, and owing to the novelty of his presence in a sport that has failed to integrate.
To me and you and everyone who sees more kids of colour coming through the ranks, P.K. Subban doesn't feel like Jackie Robinson. But his impact on the landscape of hockey in the Southern US may read this way. And that's OK.
Subban is nothing if not present: a lively neighbourhood voice, a club-going totem, a hound for social media and video. He's almost certain to affect change in American sport, but whether he'll embrace social issues is uncertain. Still, he's been known to surprise us.