Eight months after the infamous trade that sent shock and anger throughout Montreal, former Habs fan-favourite P.K. Subban returned to the Bell Centre on Thursday, March 2. Tensions between Subban and the Montreal Canadiens’ front office boiled over last June, leading the Nashville Predators and Habs to swap their marquis defencemen. The trade prompted an outcry from the Habs faithful: One season ticket holder, “Dr. CK,” was so emotional about the trade that he decided to purchase a full page ad in the Montreal Gazette with a letter thanking Subban and lambasting the Habs coaching staff and management. He explained that he would boycott all Canadiens games at the Bell Centre, except for one: When the Predators and Subban returned to Montreal.
In a tightly contested game, the Canadiens pulled out a 2-1 win with a goal in the dying seconds. The game was satisfying for every Habs fan watching around the world–they were able to see their old star shine with an assist, but not at the cost of a Canadiens’ victory.
Since Subban’s departure, Habs fans have been itching for the defenceman’s return to see what kind of reception he would receive from both the spectators and the organization. Unlike the typical booing and bashing that fans give their departed stars, Montreal treated Subban to a hero’s welcome. From the moment he stepped onto the ice during team warm-ups, the cheering began. After a brief tribute video, the thunderous clapping continued for the 27-year-old defenceman while he held his stick high to honour the fans, tears welling up in his eyes. His father, certainly emotional too, looked on from a private box, taking pictures of the ceremonious events.
The video tribute, the ovation, and Subban’s tears were all indications of the kind of impact he made on the fans of Montreal–a relationship few athletes have ever truly achieved. After being selected 43rd overall by the Canadiens in 2007, he quickly made a name for himself through his emphatic goal celebrations and end-to-end rushes with the puck. While his highlight reel goals and passion for the game made him a fan favourite, he was also a polarizing player, one who broke from the traditional hockey mold. Those who detested him claimed his style of play led to too many turnovers, or that he was a show-off who spoke his mind too often. It was hard to be indifferent when it came to Subban: Fans either loved him or loathed him.
Off the ice, Subban took his idol status seriously and his attachment to Montreal went beyond his play. He pledged $10 million to the Montreal Children’s Hospital in 2015. He made efforts to learn French and frequently addressed Bell Centre crowds in post-game interviews with “Bonsoir.” He regularly spoke of the pride he felt in playing for a storied franchise, like the Canadiens, and the love he had for the city of Montreal. Seeing a player with such a passion for the city traded away was difficult for many fans. The outrcy was nothing against the other half of the deal–Shea Weber, one of the best defencemen in the league. Rather, it stemmed from the adoration Habs fans had for the charismatic young P.K.
Eight months after being traded, Subban’s return to Montreal emphasized that neither the team nor its fans have forgotten his accomplishments, contributions, and commitments to the city. Subban holds a special place in the Montreal Canadiens’ history. There’s no doubt that some fans, like Dr. CK, are still upset about the trade. But when the Habs are playing well, hockey fans in Montreal are willing to watch games regardless of whether P.K. is there or not.
That’s because no matter who is on the team, the most important thing is winning. As much as this city loves Subban and cares about his success, the team is doing well without him. After all, the Canadiens are still currently first in the Atlantic Division and Weber is third in team scoring with 15 goals and 38 points.