Everyone knows how you’re supposed to retire from sports these days.
First, you talk about thinking about retiring. Try to do that right before a contract renegotiation. That can stretch out for months.
Once your hands go, start talking about it a lot more as a way of preventing other people from talking about it first. “I’m not going to be here forever …” you say to a reporter, hoping to God someone in the room says, “But how can we go on without you?”.
When everyone stops saying that, announce plans to make plans to retire. For real this time. Maybe next year. Or the year after that. Do they do one-month contracts? They don’t? Then it’ll have to be another year.
Do a long farewell tour, even though your own fans wish you’d go away so they could get two new guys for whatever you’re costing. It’s been years since you started looking like your teammates’ dad. Now you’re starting to look like their grandfather.
Finally, you leave. Everyone pretends surprise. It’s a two-hour story. Then the latest tabloid outrage goes over it like a speed bump and it’s like you’d already been gone a decade. That’s what people do now.
So of course P.K. Subban would do it another way.
On Tuesday, Subban retired from the NHL via Instagram post.
He’s only 33 and still a viable performer. He could’ve stretched this out for years. Taken one victory lap at the least. But he’s gone. One long, gracious IG message and that’s it.
There was a point at which you could have argued Subban was the most charismatic player in the league, as well as the most recognizable to casual fans.
Part of that was down to the fact that he was a Black man in a lily-white sport, but most of it owed to Subban’s electric personality. If hockey is as conformist as Nineteen Eighty-Four, Subban was its Winston Smith. He would not obey the rules, written or otherwise.
Not everyone loved him, but everyone had an opinion about him. The capacity to generate conversation is a more valuable commodity in sports marketing than all the goals in Araby. In a game as regularly ignored as hockey, it’s a super power.
The NHL never could figure out how to leverage Subban’s NFL-esque ability to get people interested in what he was doing or saying or wearing or who he was dating.
When he was in Montreal, routinely putting the league’s biggest legacy brand on the landing page of ESPN.com, the league would not or could not translate that opportunity into general interest.
You know how they say American Express taking a pass on air miles is the biggest mistake in business history? Subban is the NHL’s air miles. Hockey was given its Tom Brady, and decided to keep him up on a shelf in Tennessee. Whenever he tried riding his stick down the ice, they would slap it out of his hands. The unmistakable message to everyone else – be more boring.
This one career is a case study in why the NHL is a distant fourth on the North American depth chart and losing ground.
The iconoclasm of Subban’s career was captured not in only in the “how” of ending it, but also the “when.” He did it a few hours after Zdeno Chara announced his own plans to retire.
Chara’s one of those guys who’s been leaving for years. He’s so old school, he should live in a portable. He’s 45, aged even by the new “nobody’s too old to die” standard of sports.
Chara had Subban’s career through a funhouse mirror. In their day, they were both dominant No. 1 defencemen. They both won Norris trophies. But that’s about it.
Subban did it with slickness and speed. Chara did it with size and intimidation. One was figuratively the most dangerous man in the NHL. The other was the “no, for real, do not fight this guy” most dangerous man in hockey.
Subban was born to attract admirers. Chara grew that ability in his 30s through the magic of violence and longevity.
Subban never could find a proper home. Chara, a thoughtful Slovak, became more Boston than any Irish uncle in Southie.
Subban was sexy. Chara was the guy your mother wants you to marry.
Even in the manner of leaving, they were different. It took Chara forever and a day to have his mind made up for him. It apparently took Subban as long as he stood at a kitchen countertop typing out his final note.
It seems so wrong it’s right that they should leave together, suddenly twinned in our minds.
Here’s another thing they now have in common – they can’t be replaced. Not easily, at least.
Who in the NHL today has Subban’s remarkable combination of approachability, charm and the desire to be famous?
Most genuine charmers hate attention. Most people who want to be famous aren’t charming.
Maybe Trevor Zegras has some of that, but he’s stuck in Anaheim. Who else you got? I’m coming up blank.
Who in the NHL today can combine Chara’s ability to project calm while physically terrorizing opponents?
Once again, the NHL has a few unhinged bruisers, and it has a few deep thinkers. But I’m not able to summon to mind anyone who has both things; someone who can mind-meld Don Cherry and Ken Dryden.
Subban and Chara each had the thing that cannot be developed – they were a type. Their personality shone through in their play. They compelled people to watch and they wanted to be seen (a diminishing capacity in many sports).
They weren’t alike in any particular way other than the fact that they were, in completely different ways, near-perfect sports entertainers. The NHL doesn’t have many of those. Looking up and down the league rosters, the pickings get slimmer each year.
So congratulations to Subban and Chara on entering the next phase of what you feel sure will be interesting lives. And commiserations to the NHL on somehow contriving to fill hockey’s 21st-century graveyard with indispensable men.