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LOS ANGELES – The room was filled with NHL players wearing all-star game branded warm-up gear. Gray, drab long-sleeve shirts, with the Los Angeles event’s logo.
Then P.K. Subban walked in the room.
He was wearing a dark green suit, with the kind of jacket you’d expect to find on the victor of a prestigious golf tournament. He had two large cufflinks, visible on cameras and possibly from space: One with his number and Montreal Canadiens colors, the other with the logo of his current team, the Nashville Predators.
As he walked over to NHL Network’s set for an appearance, a veteran Montreal-based reporter standing nearby uttered, “He doesn’t even look like a hockey player anymore.”
That Subban has been as much a personal brand as he’s been an NHL player – 296 points in 468 games as a defenseman, winning the Norris Trophy in 2013 – isn’t breaking news. His logo appears on hockey gear. His admirable charity work hasn’t been what you’d call “subtle.” He’s done television, he’s done comedy. He’s everything hockey fans wish some of these painfully humble “logo on the front not the name on he back!” types could be, to hype the sport; and he’s everything traditionalists don’t want from NHL players, and particularly loathe in modern athletes.
As he arrived in Los Angeles, it was only appropriate that one of the NHL’s biggest celebrities made the pages of The Hollywood Reporter, which broke the news that Subban has signed with talent agency WME. Specifically, he hopes to work with Jill Smoller, the star agent that reps athletes like Serena Williams and Genie Bouchard.
“WME is such a successful organization. You look at the athletes they represent, and they’re great,” said Subban. “I have a great relationship with Maverick Carter, who represents LeBron James. He had suggested Jill Smoller to me, and she has a long lost of athletes that she’s worked with in her career, including Serena Williams. She knows what she’s doing.”
So what’s the end result? Movies?
“Do I want to be in movies? I mean, if there was a movie about me, I would like Denzel to play me,” he said, with a laugh. ‘It’s about building relationships. As an athlete, you want to build as many positive relationships as you can when you’re playing.”
It also doesn’t hurt that Smoller helped Williams make $13 million in endorsements in 2015.
Was this deal possible for Subban without being traded to a U.S. team? “Not necessarily,” he said. “I think you add pieces to your team that can help in different ways, and that’s a piece I didn’t have.”
He’s the NHL’s most engaging personality, playing in a U.S. city (which is beneficial, despite the critics), cutting across different demographics like few pro hockey players can.
There’s only one P.K. Subban, as much as P.K. Subban wishes his peers could have their stars shine just as brightly.
In the past, Subban has blamed the NHL for the lack of true star-power in hockey, players who enter the pop culture zeitgeist and get featured on ESPN.
“The NHL doesn’t market individual players—they market teams,” he said. “The NFL markets players. NBA? Markets players. The Montreal Canadiens don’t really market players. They market the Montreal Canadiens.”
He’s also blamed hockey culture, which leaves players feeling as if any exhibition of personality or any opinion that stirs the pot runs counter to the ethos of the sport, will be criticized and will be shut down by their team and league custodians. From a Sportsnet feature on Subban:
There’s this prevailing notion in hockey that if you make a big deal out of your goals or you’re outgoing, you’re not a leader, Subban says, sounding exasperated—and that just doesn’t make sense to him. “Bobby Orr didn’t celebrate because that’s the way he was—he just didn’t feel the need to. Great. Tiger Williams used to go down the ice sitting on his stick. That doesn’t mean he’s a bad guy—that means he gets excited. There’s nothing wrong with that.”
To Subban’s mind, hockey is the one pro sport that eats its own. If you listen to basketball coverage, he says, 90 percent of what they’ll say about the game’s biggest stars is positive, but hockey just isn’t like that—for him or anyone else. “Even Sidney Crosby—look at all the heat he’s been taking. This guy’s the best player in the world, and he’s getting the heat he’s been getting? Really?”
(Guess LeBron and Barkley fit in that 10 percent…)
Marketing star players in the NHL has always been easier said than done, and it’s not just based on personalities. Unlike the NBA and NFL, where star players are seemingly always in action, the NHL’s stars play roughly one-third of the game. You can assume that you’ll see LeBron score 30 or that Aaron Rodgers will throw a touchdown, but hockey is an offensively challenged sport – you might not always see an Alex Ovechkin goal or a dazzling Connor McDavid assist if you tune in.
But it’s also harder to market stars because as much as “hockey culture” puts a damper on player promotion … so do the players.
The NHLPA killed the Breakaway Challenge.
Just like they killed the NHL All-Star Fantasy Draft, which was the kind of drunken fun that made the NHL different; and just like they’ll slowly back away from anything that puts them in an awkward or negative light that the League suggests.
If there is one thing I would change, I would go to the NHLPA and ask them to tell membership to bring back the breakaway challenge. Here’s my argument: The players are fantastic during the weekend. It’s a lot like MLB spring training, one thing I really loved covering. They are in great moods, very accommodating during the media availability and during events. One of our best shows of the season was Friday night, with Bruce Boudreau, Erik Karlsson, Dave Keon, Frank Mahovlich, Connor McDavid and Michel Therrien. I respect the conservative nature of the sport — team above individual — but this is the one weekend where the players need to understand it has to be different. Fans loved the goofy stuff — oversized glasses, Jagr wigs, you name it. To grow the game, you have to sell the game. What drew the loudest cheers? Ryan Kesler’s son scoring on Carey Price. Fans want to see that side of the players. (I loved it when Kesler blew kisses at booing Kings’ fans.) Once a year, you have to show the fans this side of yourselves.
But the players are rather happy that it’s gone.
Many of the players felt somewhat intimidated by the event and the individual pressure that it brought. Guys felt the weight of having to impress with not only ability, but also creativity and personality. Even [Brent] Burns, one of the league’s most colorful characters, said he hated it.
“Thank God [the league took it out.] I wasn’t sleeping,” said the San Jose Sharks defenseman. “I was thinking if they still had it that I was going to have to bribe [captain Connor] McDavid and say please don’t put me in that. It’s hard.”
This was a guy who only had to wear a Chewbacca mask and shoot the puck to create a classic moment.
Marketing your stars is a two-way street.
We beg for personality, but the only people that can truly provide it are the players. And while the NHL could do a lot more to promote its stars, the ultimate paradigm shift in hockey culture has to come from within the game. To no longer punish personality. To no longer treat the outspoken like they’re practicing sedition. But, perhaps more than anything, to finally break through the comfort zones that these players have designed for themselves, eliminating the things that actually break through the cacophony and get hockey noticed. Like drinking during an NHL All-Star Game draft, or wearing a goofy hat during a trick-shot competition.
So we asked the master himself: How do you square the idea that the NHL should better market its players with the fact that the players are reluctant to market themselves?
P.K. Subban is clearly OK with the comfort zones for his peers.
“There’s a sense of comfort with all the players this year, and last year too, with the new format. You can tell guys are at ease. They’re not being put in a position where they’re uncomfortable. They can go out and enjoy themselves,” he said.
As for the Breakaway Challenge, Subban said it was fun, if personally challenging.
“It was tough for me last year, because that spray-paint from the wig was dripping down into my eyes,” said Subban, smiling, who famously wore a Jaromir Jagr mullet. “That was hard. But I got through it.”
As we said, they don’t make them like P.K. Subban.
And if they did, how many would allow themselves to be P.K. Subban anyway?
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