MONTREAL â€” Tears streamed down P.K. Subban’s cheeks as the standing ovation went on and on.
It was clear that the former darling of the Bell Centre crowd, back for the first time since his trade to the Nashville Predators last June, still held a special place in the hearts of Montreal Canadiens fans.
“I wasn’t really sure how I was going to feel,” Subban said. “I played a lot of hockey games in this building.
“A lot of great things happened in this building and in this city while I was here. All those memories come back, whether it’s stuff to do at the hospital, with the kids, family, teammates., emotional hockey games. We shared that with all the fans and the community here.”
Of course, it didn’t stop those same fans from booing him in a tightly contested third period each time he rushed the puck or cheering wildly when Paul Byron scored with nine second stop go to give the Canadiens a 2-1 victory on Thursday night.
But Montreal fans have done that to many star players who have left or been traded in the past.
“It was great,” he said with a laugh. “You know what? That’s the first time I’ve ever been booed at the Bell Centre. I kind of enjoyed that. The fans here are some of the best sports fans in the world. It was great to play in front of them tonight.”
Before the game, before fans shifted their loyalties back to the home team and the race for the playoff spot, there was nothing but affection for Subban, a one-of-a-kind figure in his seven seasons on the Montreal blue-line before his shock trade to Nashville in a one for one swap for respected reaguard Shea Weber.
Subban was not only a dazzling talent who played with flair. He won over fans who didn’t even like hockey with is bubbly personality, his ability to connect with the public and his remarkable generosity.
The day before the game, he was given a medal by Governor General David Johnston to mark his September, 2015 pledge to raise $10 million for the Montreal Children’s Hospital, which is believed to be the largest charitable donation ever made by a Canadian athlete.
The Canadiens knew that the fans wanted to show they haven’t forgotten and prepared a video montage of his moments on and off the ice while he was in Montreal. Shown just before the national anthems were sung, it ended with the message “welcome back P.K.”
And then the ovation began. Standing with his teammates at the blue-line, Subban was clearly choked up and then the tears welled from his eyes.
Even the Canadiens players were moved.
“He played really hard for us here,” said goalie Carey Price. “It was his home.
“No doubt he was a fan favourite. I’m just happy that the fans received him like that.”
“It meant a lot for him to play here and wear the Montreal Canadiens sweater,” said Canadiens winger Brendan Gallagher. “For him to come back and get a ceremony, I thought that was nice. But once the puck dropped, everything just went away and we focused on the game.”
The fun started well before the game. Subban said his teammates lined up with sticks raised to make him run the gauntlet onto the ice for the pre-game warm-up. Once he stepped onto the ice, chants of “P.K., P.K.” went up from the stands.
“I’ve got a great bunch of teammates,” said Subban. “The way they’ve handled everything the last couple of days.
“They understand there are some things bigger than hockey. A couple of my teammates (Roman Josi and Mike Fisher) came to the hospital with me (on Wednesday). That was the most positive thing I’ve seen.”
As for the game, Subban picked up an assist as he slid the puck to Ryan Ellis for a power-play goal at 18:25 of the first period. He got 24:33 of ice time, which was third on the team, made five hits and blocked five shots. Not a huge game by Subban standards, but solid enough.
Subban was injured when the Canadiens won 2-1 in Nashville in January, so it was his first game against the team that drafted him in the second round in 2007 and then watched him blossom into a star. Subban, who won a Norris Trophy as the NHL’s top defenceman in 2013, helped the Canadiens become a contender in the league’s Eastern Conference.
His return to Montreal became an event in itself.
His defence partner Mattias Ekholm was not surprised that Subban is so popular.
“It was awesome,” said Ekholm. “It was one of the cooler moments I’ve been a part of on an ice hockey rink.”
Bill Beacon, The Canadian Press