Could you have had two more different characters?
That Zdeno Chara and P.K. Subban chose to retire on the same day created common ground between the two superb athletes that for the most part, beyond their shared extreme competitiveness, didn’t otherwise exist.
Indeed, 50 years ago, they were characters that would have been unimaginable to North America’s hockey culture. A towering 6-foot-9 defenceman from Slovakia, a country that didn’t even exist back then, and an African-American blueliner from Toronto. The imagination of the sport has surely expanded since the days a tall hockey player was 6-foot-2, only Canadians played in the NHL and black athletes were simply not seen on hockey rinks. Still, even with somewhat more diversity in the sport today, Chara and Subban both managed to leave unusual, indelible imprints on the game in a way most players simply don’t.
Chara actually began his NHL career as a bit of a gentle giant, as though despite having had a few tussles as a Prince George junior playing for Stan Butler he still didn’t quite know his strength. But when he decided that being mean was more fun and and would make him a more effective player, he began to combine his extraordinary size with aggression, surprising skill and a commitment to fitness that made him a dominant, Hall of Fame-bound defenceman.
He was feared. He was hated, notably in Montreal for that unforgettable demolition of Max Pacioretty that actually forced the league to revise the way its rinks were designed. He could take up space in the defensive zone like no other player in hockey history. He could grab a good-sized, strong NHL peer like Bryan McCabe and, when angered, toss him around as though he was a child.
He changed the fortunes of two franchises. Chara helped make the Boston Bruins a Stanley Cup champion and became that team’s captain, undisputed leader and mentor to younger players like Patrice Bergeron. Chara’s departure from Ottawa as a free agent in 2006, meanwhile, will always be remembered as the biggest error in the modern history of the Senators when the team chose to keep Wade Redden instead.
With Chara, the Sens would have been a better match for the Anaheim Ducks in the 2007 Stanley Cup final. Without him, the team lost that final and hasn’t come close to winning a championship since. They’re still pointing fingers in Ottawa over that one. Some simply say Redden was the better player at the time. Others suggested Redden gave the team more of a hometown discount. Some wondered if Chara would simply be too slow for the faster NHL game that emerged after the 2004-05 season had been wiped out by an owners lockout.
Whatever the case, the decision changed hockey history in the new century. Chara looked like he would play forever, or at least as long as Jaromir Jagr, but finally retired at age 45 after playing 72 games with the New York Islanders last season. Chara was a fitness fanatic who biked Tour de France stages and climbed Mount Kilimanjaro for charity in the off-season, and probably could have played on. But it was time to quit.
“Biological age of your body, you can’t deny it,” he said on Tuesday. “It’s time to be home with my family.”
Subban, on the other hand, is only 33 years old. His announcement came as a shock, despite the fact it seems likely his next career, almost certainly in television, awaits.
“I never looked at myself or ever felt I was ‘just a hockey player,’” said Subban in a statement. “I always looked at myself as a person who happened to play hockey.”
Like Chara, Subban was often booed viciously in enemy rinks. Both were usually booed in Toronto. Unlike Chara, who terrorized opposition players, it was Subban’s stylish exuberance and flamboyance that seemed to get under the skin of fans from other teams.
He won the Norris Trophy in 2013, but never quite seemed to play to that level again, particularly after Montreal traded him to Nashville. Many Black NHL players have talked about how they felt compelled to tone down their individuality and culture to be accepted into hockey’s mainstream. Subban, however, refused to tone it down for everyone, and that allowed many to criticize him for being “bad in the room,” hockey code for anyone who dares to be different.
Subban, along with his two hockey-playing brothers Malcolm and Jordan, was never afraid to speak out about racism in the game, both the slights he had felt and the way in which Black players were marginalized in a sport that claimed to be open to everyone. Just as Chara demonstrated that Europeans could be just a tough and nasty as anyone after years of being called soft, Subban proved that hockey players didn’t have to meekly fall in line with the game’s dominant culture.
“The biggest thing that I want to say on behalf of our family is that we don’t we don’t need pity from anyone,” he told Sportsnet earlier this year. “I didn’t need it when I was five years old. I didn’t need it when I was 10 years old. I didn’t need it when I played junior hockey. My brothers didn’t need it. My parents didn’t need it when they moved to Canada. We don’t need anybody’s pity, you know, and no one felt sorry for us when we went through our experiences through our life. So we don’t expect anybody to feel sorry and we don’t expect anybody to really understand that isn’t black. If you’re not Black, you’re not going to understand and that’s okay with us.”
The NHL will be the lesser for seeing Subban and Chara move on with their lives. Both changed the game and the way we think of it, both in their own ways. Both will be missed, even by those who loved to boo them.
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