Living and working in the GTA as I do, one of the most common inquiries I get from non-Habs fans around these parts has to do with our already famous rookie D-man, P.K. Subban, native of Rexdale and a regular topic of discussion on various sports broadcasts. To the high-school students I teach, most of whom know little about hockey and care even less for a sport that employs no round ball in any configuration whatsoever (hockey is just a “white man’s sport,” they assert), P.K. Subban is a recognizable name and a familiar face. They may never have seen him play, and have no idea what a penalty-kill unit is, but they immediately praise his name when talk turns to hockey. I really began to ponder the symbolic appeal of Subban when a colleague from Cameroun, whose entire life of sports allegiance has only ever encompassed soccer, and who had never once discussed hockey with me, one day asked me pointedly before a staff meeting: “What is going on with P.K. Subban? Why is the coach always punishing him?”
Hockey is indeed, statistically, a “white man’s sport.” While the racial diversity of the NHL has been slowly changing away from European blondness and towards urban North American cross-racial realities, it increasingly seems as though the whiteness of hockey resides above all in its unspoken “codes” of behaviour.
As we all know, P.K. Subban has already been chided quite noisily and self-righteously by fellow players (veteran keepers of the “codes”), by the self-proclaimed patron saint of “beautiful Canadian boys” himself, the hysterio-weepy Don Cherry, and by various other sports hasbeentators and experts. What ‘s wrong with our PK? Well, word in the HNIC and TSN studios is that he’s just too loud, too brash, too cocky, too flashy (imagine being judged “too flashy” by Don Cherry!).
When I hear such comments, always from the hardline, stoic white backbone of our sport, I am uncomfortably reminded of a quote I read long ago by African-American scholar Henry Louis Gates (he who was so grotesquely arrested a few years ago for allegedly breaking into his own home by a white cop who found he was being “too loud” and disruptive). In his childhood, recounts Gates, he and his friends were often told by Black elders not to “act black” as they played and carried on in typical childish ways: don’t be so loud, they said, don’t shout and laugh and make spectacles of yourselves. Be invisible.
P.K. Subban, it seems to me, is being told exactly the same thing: don’t be so loud, don’t celebrate so extravagantly (his first OT winning goal, no less), don’t be all up in our faces so much….he is being told, it seems to me, the classic racist message of our sad, sad culture: know your place….(usually followed, in the best Southern tradition, by the N -word).
Other NHLers of multiracial or Black lineage have, until now, abided by this “code.” Jarome Iginla, soft-spoken, self-effacing with the media, and universally described by fans and commentators as “classy,” is what Bill Cosby would gladly recognize as a “race man,” or as they used to say in the pre-civil rights days, a “credit to his race.”
Yet when Subban comes along, fast-talking and witty in the dressing-room, intense and creative on the ice, proud to have helped, as a last-minute untested call-up, carry his team all the way to the conference finals, hockey culture suddenly shows an ugly subtext of vaguely menacing judgement. Mike Richards, for example, insulted by what he perceived to be the “lack of respect” shown by P.K., made this 1950s Alabama-worthy threat: “Hopefully someone on their team addresses it, because, I’m not saying I’m going to do it, but something might happen to him if he continues to be that cocky.”
Nice. But as long as we don’t name the elephant standing right in the middle of all the ugly talk that has surrounded P.K. Subban’s amazing arrival in the big league, we can all pretend that it’s about arrogant rookie behaviour and not about race. There have been chippy, fast-talking and risk-taking rookies before. In fact, Dion Phaneuf, back when he was a fired-up difference-maker, was one of the most disrespectful players ever to debut in the league, taking running hits at every veteran he encountered. Yet I don’t remember white-bread Dion ever being threatened, condemned or solemnly tisk-tisked by hockey know-it-alls. Cherry had one of his huge man-crushes on Phaneuf, and wouldn’t stop praising that good Canadian boy’s guts.
Yet the hockey Gods are wise, and they seem to agree with me that the racist elephant that is following our P.K. needs to be exposed. In their great and playful awesomeness, they made sure that the truth would be blurted out, in an absolutely priceless moment of text-book perfect Freudian parapraxis (or Freudian slip), when Darren Pang, comparing Subban to another rookie, announced that P.K. needed to start doing things “the white way.”
I don’t think it’s an accident that not a single one of the panelists who heard this so-called tongue-twisted “honest mistake” reacted. During the second intermission, James Duthie and Darren Pang apologized for it, but in fact it seems to me that Pang had finally nailed it and named the unnameable subtext that has been there all along.
It’s clear that Pang isn’t himself a racist person, and that he felt terrible about suddenly leaking out the repressed contents of hockey’s unconscious collective mind. Accidently, he had voiced the very malaise that has been ruling the unspoken judgemental take of so many of hockey’s veterans and arbiters of “proper” hockeyness: P.K. should stop acting so “black” and should start doing things “the white way.” Of course, when a rookie Phaneuf got all up in a veteran’s grill or sent him head first into his bench, that was gutsy “Canadian” hockey. Subban is being chided not for his behaviour, but because of a profoundly racist understanding of his behaviour.
And I have a feeling Ray Emery would agree with me.