By Sean Hartnett
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Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby and Nashville Predators defenseman P.K. Subban have taken center stage in a Stanley Cup Final that has already reached its boiling point. The two superstars clashed at the end of the Predators’ 5-1 Game 3 victory Saturday night after Nashville trimmed Pittsburgh’s series lead to 2-1.
Subban gave Crosby a nudge, and the two exchanged words. While being interviewed by NBC’s Pierre McGuire following the game, Subban claimed that the Pittsburgh center “told me my breath smelled, but I don’t know. I used Listerine before the game. So I don’t know what he’s talking about.”
Crosby denied the trash talk and said that Subban made the story up. Only Subban and Crosby truly know what was said, and head games between heated rivals are commonplace this time of year when every player on the ice is trying to gain the slightest edge.
Beneath the mere trash talk is two distinctly different personas colliding. These two men are arguably the finest players at their respective positions, attempting to will their teams toward hockey’s ultimate prize through vastly different styles of leadership. Pick a side if you haven’t already.
From an early age, Crosby attracted national attention in Canada and gave his first newspaper interview at age 7. His image has been carefully managed since that time, and he’s always given off the impression of a pupil willing to impress authority at every turn of his storybook journey. Crosby was hailed as “The Next One,” aka the heir to Wayne Gretzky’s throne, long before he took his first stride in the NHL. Though it sounded premature, Crosby earned that nickname by outworking the competition and has since deserved every accolade of his career through an all-out commitment to his craft.
Two Stanley Cup titles and a pair of Olympic gold medals elevated No. 87 to Canada’s unquestioned golden boy. Crosby is dialed in to doing everything on and off the ice through the prism of team-first ethics. The last word anyone would ever use about his playing style is “selfish.”
Even when he bends the lines of the NHL rulebook, it’s obvious that he’s doing it to gain an advantage for his team. He is unselfish to the point that he often plays on the edge as if his role was to be an agitating fourth liner, while still annually contending for the league’s top hardware. Crosby earned his second career Rocket Richard Trophy this past season as the league’s top goalscorer, with 44 goals in 75 games – and everyone associates his game with unrivaled playmaking before anything else.
Subban’s formative experiences were far different than those of Crosby, who had glided into the NHL being cheered as the sport’s savior and with all the advantages, including the benefits of playing alongside three-time Hart Trophy winner/team owner Mario Lemieux in his final season and living in the Lemieux household from 2005 to 2010.
If Crosby has always been eager to appease those in power, Subban has always defiantly stuck to doing things his way. The 2013 Norris Trophy winner plays with an overflowing swagger that has been interpreted as cocky and disrespectful to the spirit of the sport by some of the hockey’s preeminent media.
“Hockey Night In Canada” is an institution, and “Coach’s Corner” co-host Don Cherry has influenced generations of Canadians who gather around the television set and soak in his every word. Cherry’s popularity is such that in 2004 he was voted seventh in CBC’s Greatest Canadian poll, even surpassing Gretzky who finished 10th.
Cherry sometimes draws ridicule for his outdated viewpoints and unabashedly says whatever is on his mind. He called out a young Crosby for his penchant for embellishing contact to draw penalties, but that criticism never stuck in the consciousness of either nation, north or south of the border, aside from unrelenting rival fans in cities such as Philadelphia and New York. To the average hockey fan, Crosby is the ultimate role model, polite and, as Cherry would say, “a good ol’ Canadian boy.”
On the other hand, the barbs thrown at a young Subban by Cherry stuck. Cherry targeted Subban for his outspokenness and his “hot dogging,” and he made a wrongful claim that Subban had low-bridged former Boston Bruins winger Shawn Thornton in the 2014 playoffs. The perception of Subban as a rebel and occasional dirty player grew, while Crosby skated away with his saint-like status intact despite evidence of slewfooting, spearing and slashing. No. 87 slashed Ottawa Senators defenseman Marc Methot on the hand earlier this season, shattering Methot’s right pinky finger. Cherry described Crosby’s slash as “a tap.” It wasn’t.
South of the Canadian border, NBC analyst Mike Milbury, the former Islanders coach and general manager, took a shot at Subban after footage was shown of the defenseman dancing and doing tricks with the puck during warmups before a second-round game against the St. Louis Blues.
“P.K. has got a tremendous personality, and sometimes you’ve got to keep it under control. This worries me. I know it’s a new day and age, and everybody wants to be on Instagram or Twitter or whatever. But you’ve got to keep focused. This is a tough game. When I see this, I start to think maybe Peter Laviolette ought to give him a rap on the head and say, ‘Hey, P.K., we’ve got a game tonight. Focus in. You don’t need to be a clown out there.’ And he will. He’s been a clown in the past, and we’ve seen him act like a clown. When he’s serious and focused, he’s one hell of a player.”
Milbury would later tell The Tennessean he regretted calling Subban “a clown” and wished he had used the word “distraction” instead.
The Montreal Canadiens shipped Subban to Nashville for Shea Weber last summer and weren’t exactly subtle about hints of personality differences leading to the trade. Then-Montreal head coach Michel Therrien had a tendency for calling Subban out for making plays that he described as “selfish” and pinned the blame on No. 76 for losing games because of what he described as “individual mistakes.”
Well, Therrien lost his job on Valentine’s Day, and Subban has taken a well-constructed Predators team to the next level. Enough with the perpetuation of Subban as a brazen character who runs afoul of hockey’s establishment and recklessly strays from team concepts. The Habs will hurt for years to come because of the trade – and that’s not a knock on Weber. It was downright ludicrous to run Subban out of town. Only Senators franchise defenseman Erik Karlsson is better at moving the puck out of the defensive end and picking apart opposition forechecks.
For fans, it’s a matter of preference. Just listen to Crosby’s postgame sound bites compared to Subban. Crosby comes off as prepackaged, and Subban is colorful and off-the-cuff entertaining. Crosby is precision-like in how he doesn’t deviate from the Pens’ system, and Subban will force the issue because he knows he’s that good. Subban isn’t into conformity off the ice or on it. He takes the highway to the danger zone. Choosing between Crosby and Subban is like choosing between Tom “Iceman” Kazansky and Pete “Maverick” Mitchell in Top Gun. Pretty sure you can guess who is who. Take your pick.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey