As the 2019-20 preseason looms in the distance, I want to go more into depth about a thought I had back in June. The New Jersey Devils did not only acquire a top defenseman in P.K. Subban on the second day of the 2019 NHL Entry Draft. As I wrote, they added star power. More specifically, they obtained a celebrity. As far as I can recall, it is the team’s very first player who is legitimately celebrity in a league and a sport where very, very, very few can claim this status.
There are Stars...and There are Stars
Oh, sure, there have been plenty of stars in the league. In sports, being one of the best players in the league is usually enough to make you a star. People recognize talent. They recognize success. They appreciate the skill above all else. You go to arenas and you notice that many people are representing that player’s number. You go to social media or blogs like this one and note that some players are highlighted and discussed more than others. You talk to fans and they will tell you who you need to look for - and usually, they stand out.
And, yes, there are even superstars. Players who are so good that they have appeal beyond their team or their regional area. Players who are legitimately in the discussion for being among the most valuable or the best in the league. People who get loads of hype and attention when they’re dealt or need a new contract. Players who get featured in all star games. Players who get highlighted in commercials on national broadcasts for games or league coverage. Players who get discussed by other team’s broadcasts when they do things. Of course, most of these players just do things on another level and helps people who see it become fans, help fans get even deeper into fandom, and excites everyone who supports the team by any degree above all else.
However, being a celebrity is a level above even that. And the New Jersey Devils have one.
This is not meant to disrespect the heroes of the past. For the older set, Kirk Muller and John MacLean were the stars. From when I was young, it was all about Scott Stevens, Scott Niedermayer, and Martin Brodeur. The 2000s were typified by Patrik Elias and Brodeur with peaks from Scott Gomez, Brian Gionta, and Zach Parise. In this past decade, the organization brought in Ilya Kovalchuk and Taylor Hall in big deals and made big waves. They were / arguably stars on the Devils. Brodeur, Kovalchuk, and Hall can all be called superstars for their talents, how much attention they received, and how they are loved (or hated in Kovalchuk’s case) now. And we all hope Nico Hischier and Jack Hughes will join this list in years to come. However, none of them are really at a celebrity status.
Consider this: In this offseason, Taylor Hall has publicly called out management to bring in more talent, he played games on the internet, made a partnership with a glasses company, and has been the center of countless tweets, comments, and posts about his future with the Devils. This has all been through media sources for hockey like NHL.com or social media accounts about hockey. You’re reading a blog like this one, so you probably stay in touch with all things Devils-related so you and I and others here know it well.
When P.K. Subban did something, entertainment sites paid attention. Whether it was putting on his wife’s swimsuit to jump in a pool or offseason training or proposing to Lindsey Vonn, I did not just see it at NHL.com or TSN’s Bardown or retweeted by hockey accounts on Twitter. There are posts about it at places like E! Online, Vogue, Page Six, TMZ, tabloid sites, and other places where hockey is definitely not their main focus. Subban’s activities have even made it to People. People! And as I was looking that up, the same site, driven by the longtime entertainment magazine juggernaut, that just posted a detailed article about his charitable efforts. Subban is not a one-off or a quick mention in People, people. This is astounding to me; People is no longer just referencing a legendary tweet by Tom Gulitti when he was a Devils beat reporter. This is all the result of Subban being a celebrity. Not to the level of the biggest and the best in the world but way above the level of virtually everyone else in the NHL.
That’s the big difference. Hall was far from silent or definitely not forgotten. But when Subban did something, personal or otherwise, he received that much more attention and attention from places do not typically cover hockey stars. This is on another level compared to being in a couple of local commercials, or having a cameo on a TV show, and/or a team’s marketing department center their material around a top player.
Here’s a couple other examples. At the All-Star Game Weekend last year, there was a concert. Who was the player the NHL wanted to host it? Subban. (You can see a video of this.) At the All-Star Game Weekend this year, the NHL had their traditional skills competition. After that aired, NBCSN broadcasted an hour-long late night talk show special starring P.K. Subban. Around the same time, Subban worked out a deal to have a digital series called The PK Project on NBC Sports. I cannot fathom any other player in this league who could have done that or had a group of people in charge say, “OK, we want this guy who primarily plays, practices, and studies hockey for a living to host a talk show.” And I have seen that Bridgestone tire commercial where Subban drives his nephew and two dudes in coats for ice cream on NBC more times than I care to count during their nationally televised games. Fame begat more fame and opportunities, Subban took it and ran with it, and more people (and the site, People) are eager for more.
Yes, there could be a search for players in the league who could conceivably host a concert or a talk show. They may be good or even better at it than what one would expect. But the man who received the opportunity and made it happen was P.K. Subban. The only one in the league too. That’s why he is a celebrity - not just a star player. When I’ve written that he is the Face of the League, I was not being sarcastic or cynical. P.K. Subban actually is a Face of the League. The NHL and NBC SN have pushed this and even being featured in non-hockey areas further supports this.
One could point out that Subban really obtained this fame through Vonn, who is well-known in her own right. Arguably the best in her sport, perhaps even ever. She has made all kinds of headlines of her on. After all, most of the headlines about Subban’s proposal outside of a place that would regularly report about hockey lead with Vonn’s name first. However, that is common when it comes to fame. Person A gets a bump in fame from being involved with more famous Person B. However, it would take some effort from Person A to actually make something from it. In the realm of hockey, we know Mike Comrie married Hilary Duff. We know Bret Hedican married Kristi Yamaguchi. We know Mike Fisher married Carrie Underwood. The player was - and is - not the more famous person in those couples. Neither Comrie, Hedican, or Fisher are anything remotely close to famous. Why? Because they have not put themselves out there like Subban has done in his relationship with Vonn. I respect those who do not want to be famous or be in the public eye. It is very difficult, it does not always work, there is a load more pressure added to the already large amounts of pressure inherent in being a professional athlete, and failure can be massive. Staying away is possible. However, in putting yourself out there on social media and doing things in public with Vonn and making appearances at award shows (e.g. the 2018 Kids Choice Awards) and galas, Subban has grown his fame outside of being really good at playing hockey.
What Can Be Gained for This
Subban clearly does not shy away from the spotlight. What the additional exposure does is great for his charitable work, which could very well drive more efforts and more people to support them. It is also great for his own brand. Being a pro athlete is a short life between the business of the game, the cruelty of injuries, and the constant pressure knowing someone younger, more driven, and/or just plain better could be on the roster to take your spot. It is a struggle for many in the game to move on from a game when they cannot play anymore or chose not to play anymore if only because they have dedicated a large part of their life to excelling in just to even make it to the best league in the world and they have to figure what else they can do. Subban can parlay all this attention to do more for himself and his future beyond hockey. He’s been taking opportunities now to increase his “brand” beyond being just a top defenseman. This may mean he can do a lot more than what plenty of players do to stay in the game such as go into coaching, scouting, management, and/or even get in front of the camera for commentary or analysis. He benefits for himself not just for now but also for his future.
The Devils also stand to benefit from this. Even if you do not care much for those kinds of stories at entertainment and tabloid-like sites, the Devils’ name is out there. At a minimum, readers that may not know much or anything about the Devils will at least see the team’s name and know that P.K. Subban plays for that team. And these articles are not antagonistic or negative so there really is no downside. More attention to the Devils can possibly lead to more sales and, more importantly, more supporters.
The NHL and hockey certainly stand to gain for the same reason. The last player I can really think of being a celebrity would be the legendary Wayne Gretzky. Like Michael Jordan, he was a mega star, fully earned it on the ice, and his dominance made him a household name. No disrespect to Ovechkin or Crosby or McDavid, but if you asked people who weren’t hockey fans to name a player, Gretzky would probably be what they would say. Regional differences aside, of course. Similar to Subban now, Gretzky’s greatness gave him larger opportunities beyond the world of hockey that expanded his appeal. Whether it was awkwardly hosting an episode of Saturday Night Live, being animated along with Jordan and Bo Jackson in Pro-Stars, or being one of the highest earning athletes in terms of endorsements even as his career started to tail off in the mid-1990s. In that last link, Larry Wigge wrote in 1995 that no one touched Gretzky’s level of publicity. Subban doesn’t either but at least he is a name outside of the rink too and he’s ahead of everyone else in the current NHL. Maybe you can claim someone else to have been a celebrity in between; but the league benefits from all of the additional attention.
Impossible to Manufacture, or Further Thoughts on Fame and Hockey
To that end, this has led to a countless number of tweets, posts, and comments lamenting the lack of more players like Subban in the NHL. A lack of star power, a lack of crossover appeal. I get it. It would be good for all involved from a popularity and a business perspective that if there were more Subbans in the league. A lot of these thoughts, from what I’ve seen focus quite a bit on personality and the hockey culture dissuading that. It is not so much that they are wrong, but I think they tend to miss even more basic points about it and why it is such a challenge.
First, I do not think anyone has truly figured out what drives fame. There are industries that absolutely try their best to elevate certain people to stardom. But no one has a 100% success rate. Sometimes it works, but a lot of times it does not click for one reason for another. Just when somebody thinks they have a handle on it, the rules seemingly change because someone who does not quite fit the mold blows up in popularity. Or there is a larger change in interest in the genre or area involved. Or the person does all the right things but the larger population feels like they’re being jammed down their throat so they check out. There were and are people who are seemingly famous for being famous. And famous despite not being the best or among the best in what they do. There are people who get big, make a mistake, and are unheard of again; and there are people who get big, make lots of them, and remain as a big name in something. It does not seem fair because, like life and hockey, it isn’t. Trying to wrap one’s head around it seems like a futile effort. I’m not sure a hockey franchise or a league can do it too. It seems like their efforts would be better served focusing on the team or the league itself.
Second, even as little as I’m familiar with it, fame is difficult to handle. While it comes with the territory of being a player, there is so much to work and practice and concerns and worries and expectations and set-goals involved that a player can (and for some, 100% has to be) totally focused on being a player. Having to in front of and especially maintain being in the spotlight just adds a lot more to that. The pressure is not just from the fans, coaches, and management. It’s also all of the people that want to see you succeed. With great attention also brings in a lot of people who want to see you fail and fail miserably. Haters and losers are actually many and criticism in this day and age is near impossible to ignore, much less not let get to you. (See the aside later) To stay being in the spotlight may involve going to events or making appearances or doing something outside of the game, which adds another aspect of your life to manage to an already filled-life of being a player. And it can all go up in smoke with one bad day, one badly-phrased thought, one bad decision, or a fickle public moving on to someone else even if you do everything right.
It is not at all easy to put yourself out there in general, much less something other than what you do. I can totally understand and respect those that do not want to be in the spotlight. A lot of it is very off-putting and the potential damage can be massive. So it takes someone with a lot of mental and emotional strength to event want the spotlight and it takes way more than that. We demand a lot from players these days, I think this may be a bit more than we realize.
(Aside: I’m not famous or a celebrity. I’m a guy from New Jersey who writes way too many words and has way too many thoughts about the Devils and so I have had a blog for over a decade. Even I have haters and losers. I didn’t just take the line from Uncle Chaps because I thought it sounded cool (even though it does).)
Third, the thing that is lacking is not really “personality” in my opinion. Lots of players have personalities and there have been no shortage of interesting people in the game. There are plenty that give good interviews and quotes. There is no shortage of former players that go on to be on TV for decades. At least with the Devils coverage MSG, there have been plenty of intermission and pre-game specials focusing on a player outside of the rink and/or their life story. With the internet and social media breaking down traditional barriers for access, even someone who is far from a safe bet of being a NHL regular like Connor Carrick can make an 11-minute video that looks better than an amateur video about his offseason work. It is a video that shows more about him than what you would see from 11 minutes of even strength play from him on the ice. There are more players putting themselves out there and that’s all well and good.
What makes Subban stand out that much more is not so much that his personality but he has, for a player, boundless levels of charisma. This is something that just cannot be taught. You can work on it to make some improvements, but it is highly likely it will not be to a level where loads of people would just gravitate towards you or be interested in what you do. Subban has this magnetism and is authentic with it that permeates everything he does. He’s passionate on the ice whether it is in a NHL game or helping a kid score at a hockey clinic. (Smart touch to wear the Devils jersey, P.K.) He is locked in when speaking to the press - at a conference where fans showed up on weekday in the morning to see this guy. Whatever he does, his excitement and his care shows through - and it’s something that draws people that cannot be fully explained or documented.
Let me put it this way: anyone can put on a flashy robe, dye their hair to be platnum blonde, brag about how great they are at what they do, with money and the ladies, and yell “Woo” a lot. But only Ric Flair has the charisma to make people believe that he’s the Man and make people go along with it for decades and have arenas get people hyped simply from the man talking. Anyone can get a shirt and claim its worth $500, carry themselves like they’re a big star, talk tons of arrogance and trash to others for up to 20 minutes at a time on a live microphone, and learn to raise an eyebrow. But only The Rock made it work in arenas, legitimately have millions (and millions!) of fans, and he translated his limitless charisma to be one of the top action movie stars of the current generation. Anyone can get intense, cuss a whole lot, wear a t-shirt and jean shorts, run down everyone including your boss with your mouth, drink a whole lot, and flip people off. But only “Stone Cold” Steve Austin can do that and still be treated as a superstar and not as a big jerk. I could go on. Believe me, in wrestling, promotions and wrestlers have tried and tried and will try to do their own versions or hope to find the next mainstream star in their area. But some people just have “it” and “it” cannot be taught or transferred or wished upon no matter how good they may be at what they do or how hard they work.
Subban has this and many people from people at TV network, the league, the team, entertainment sources, and many others recognize this because it is so attractive. They’re drawn to this and Subban has embraced it, going from strength to strength with it. I can agree that players would do well to be open themselves up more and be more comfortable to put themselves out there. But is not going to turn them into the next P.K. Subban. (Aside #2: I believe, in another life, Subban could have been a star in pro wrestling. He could still be - its possible to start in your 30s.)
Fourth, hockey and sports media people are a big part of the reason for their complaints on how reserved hockey culture has been. I even include people on social media. There are demands for players to be more colorful and to be more of themselves. And they’re the first ones to raise a stink about it when they do and it is something did not ask for or expect. I understand that player and coach interviews are rarely worth watching because not much heat really comes from it for the most part. This is because the questions are almost designed to yield uninteresting answers. A lot of the times, they are not even questions. They start with phrases like “Give me your thoughts on...” or “Let me know your feelings about...” Of course, the answers to those are not going to be interesting. Especially if it comes from someone who just played a period or a game and they’re exhausted or disappointed or trying not to talk too much in case they pay for it later. And on top of it, anything interesting gets smacked down by fans and sportswriters in all kinds of fashions for being a distraction or improper or “gross” or whatever, you can probably fill in the blank.
The same people who want creative drawings are the same that are displeased if someone colors outside of the lines. This puts people off and drives people to be as bland as possible. While this is part of the price of any fame, most industries are not sports where someone will chirp you and legally knock your block off for it. It takes someone mentally strong to withstand the criticism and to keep doing their thing and it takes someone with a lot of charisma to come out better for it or have fans defend the player instead of the journalist who thinks they represent the fans.
This is not to say that gains can be made. I would argue they are already happening. Connor Carrick can and has put up a video of himself training. Hall has been freely speaking and has been active. Players make public marriage (Will Butcher) and birth announcements (Blake Coleman). People are getting into other ventures or doing some things on the side, like Cameo. However, the larger point is that this may increase one’s profile but it takes so much more to get to the celebrity level. It takes a lot to stay there even if one is not an “A-lister.” Subban has these traits as part of who he is. It is part of what makes him special beyond just being among the top 1% or 0.1%) of hockey players in the world. The combination of both is simple special. You cannot manufacture a P.K. Subban. Believe me, the NHL (and every other league) would if it could but it is outside of their control.
So Appreciate It
The biggest point is that this is new territory for the Devils. The Devils have had stars on their team. They have a superstar hockey player in Hall and they have had superstars before. This is different. This is someone with fame outside of the game. This is someone who has a charisma like no one else in the history of the game. P.K. Subban is the first Devils player who is a celebrity some level.
To that end, I want you all to appreciate this as best as you can. We here at All About the Jersey will focus on what he does on the ice as this is a hockey blog so the hockey matters most. But we welcome all those who are drawn in from Subban’s fame. Whether it is how you got to learn about the Devils, how you heard about the Devils for the first time, what drove you to go to a game or become a supporter, or even if you already have been a fan and this re-energized your fandom - you all belong here. The People that Matter are the Devils fans and it’s not where your from, it’s where you’re at and you’re here. We appreciate that you’re here and we hope you stick around with the Devils during Subban’s time and hopefully even afterwards. For those who want to be critical, I highly recommend re-thinking before hitting “Post.” I appreciate that Subban has this level of attention from areas that normally do not cover hockey. And I hope he benefits from it. I hope the Devils and the NHL as organizations benefits from it. And instead of lamenting how there is not more players like this made, the larger hockey media and fandom appreciates what they do have because someone like Subban is so rare. Thank you for reading,