P.K. Subban, Ron MacLean and hockey's culture wars

In the battle between progressives and conservatives in what is generally considered Canada's national sport, whose side are you on?

What does the Subban trade tell us about the tension between progressives and conservatives?

Montreal Canadiens star defenceman P.K. Subban was traded to the Nashville Predators on Thursday for Shea Weber, a move that has Habs fans and hockey aficionados debating what's going on in the game. (Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

The keening for P.K. Subban can still be heard across the Island of Montreal, even now, almost 36 hours after The Trade.

Montreal hockey fans are struggling through the various stages of grief at the departure of the beloved defenceman.

But the city's angst may be heightened by the sense that Subban wasn't simply traded to Nashville for another defenceman, Shea Weber — he was a casualty of the ongoing culture war in the NHL.

The notion of a culture war is popular among American historians for describing clashes between progressive and conservative intellectuals. It is a "war for the soul of America," to borrow the title of a recent book.  

Hockey's culture war is no different: It, too, is a battle between progressive and conservative forces.

It, too, is for the soul of the game.

It seems appropriate, on Canada Day, to take stock of the recent battles in this war that will decide the future of our national pastime.

Subban vs. Therrien​
Canadiens head coach Michel Therrien has a reputation for favouring defensive hockey. (David Zalubowski/Associated Press)

In hockey's culture wars, Subban represents team progress. He is urban, the son of immigrant parents and black — all demographic categories underrepresented in the world of hockey.

But more than the census categories that Subban checks off, his style of play is so out of step with what's been prized in the so-called dead-puck era.

Subban plays the game with creativity. Along with the likes of Erik Karlsson, he has helped redefine the traditional role of the NHL defenceman.

Dynamic, involved in the offence, with explosive speed and stickhandling skills that rival those of the most deft centreman: the stay-at-home defenceman, so prized in days of yore, Subban is not.

Canadiens coach Michel Therrien is unquestionably on team conservative.

Therrien is known for his defence-oriented system. He discourages his players from taking risks. And he infuriates the advanced-stats crowd for coaching decisions that defy the logic embedded in their numbers.

Instead of deploying players by virtue of what they contribute to a team's Corsi rating, Therrien prizes those traditional, less quantitative qualities of "grit" and "character."

The Canadiens were long the pioneers of progressive hockey, with the likes of Maurice Richard, Jean Beliveau and Guy Lafleur.

The Habs didn't just win — they won with style.

In trading Subban, they appear to have moved squarely into the conservative camp.  

Of skinny suits and dad jokes

The Subban-Weber trade is not the only front on which hockey's culture war is being waged.

Its fault lines surfaced most recently when George Stroumboulopoulos, him of the skinny suit, was replaced by Ron MacLean, master of the dad joke, as host of Hockey Night in Canada.  

Ron MacLean, left, will take over from George Stroumboulopoulos as host of Hockey Night in Canada. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

Reaction to the move served as a Rorschach test for affiliations in the culture war.

​Those applauding MacLean's return likely describe themselves as "hard-core" hockey fans and resented the attempt to give hockey a hip-looking frontman.

Well-known liberal sports columnist Keith Olbermann, on the other hand, has spent recent days on Twitter alternating between withering critiques of Donald Trump and the decision to fire Stroumboulopoulos.  

Cheri Bradish, a professor of sports marketing at Toronto's Ryerson University who also does some work with Rogers and Sportsnet, described the controversy over the HNIC host spot as reflective of hockey's "identity crisis in this country."

If hockey is in a state of crisis, the question is whether its future lies in a return to its "roots," epitomized by the toothless, lunch-pail grinders lauded by MacLean's sidekick, Don Cherry.

Or does hockey need to branch out and do more to reflect the country's multicultural mosaic?

More than a game

Regardless of how it's played, hockey is still just a game. 

The outcome of its culture war will not determine access to abortion, or the scope of free speech, or any of the other weighty issues meted out in the actual cultural war south of the border.

But that doesn't mean the issues at stake in hockey's culture war aren't important.

Ultimately, what we're talking about is whether the image of the national game should reflect the diversity of the country. 

We're wondering if individuality and creativity can be reconciled within a team, within a community.

Today seems as good a day as any to ask these questions. The soul of the country might just depend on it.

Canada Day marked a time to take stock of what's best for hockey, especially in light of the Subban trade and other moves involving the sport. (Courtesy of the City of Moncton)


Jonathan Montpetit is a journalist with CBC Montreal. He will be a William Southam Journalism Fellow at Massey College in 2021-2022.


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