The Sub­bana­tor knows the score

Blue-liner steps in to drive the play and re­vive off-ice in­ter­est in Jer­sey — so far, so good

The Peterborough Examiner - - SPORTS - DAVE CALD­WELL THE NEW YORK TIMES

NE­WARK, N.J.—P.K. Sub­ban played against the Devils 22 times over his first nine NHL sea­sons, but he knew vir­tu­ally noth­ing about New Jer­sey be­fore he ar­rived in July, one month af­ter be­ing traded there by the Nashville Preda­tors.

“The one thing I didn’t know was how green New Jer­sey is,” said Sub­ban, 30, who moved into a house in the Es­sex County sub­urbs with his fi­ancée, Amer­i­can skier Lind­sey Vonn. “It would be easy to think that New Jer­sey is kind of like a con­crete jun­gle, but it’s not. It’s a great place to live and raise a fam­ily. Lind­sey and I are so ex­cited to be here.”

Sub­ban, a de­fence­man who played six full sea­sons for the Mon­treal Cana­di­ens and three for the Preda­tors, was not brought in by the Devils to dis­ap­pear be­hind a rid­ing mower. He and Jack Hughes, the speedy and pro­lific 18-yearold Amer­i­can for­ward taken with the No. 1 draft pick, were ac­quired to make the Devils suc­cess­ful — and rel­e­vant — again.

The Devils slumped badly last sea­son, hurt by in­juries to Tay­lor Hall, the league’s most valu­able player in 2017-18, and to goal­tender Cory Schneider, who played in only 26 games.

Home at­ten­dance sagged to 14,834 per game, 26th in the 31-team league. It was the fifth straight sea­son in which they fin­ished among the bot­tom six. Tele­vi­sion rat­ings on MSG Plus dropped by 59 per cent to a league-low 0.24, ac­cord­ing to Sports Busi­ness Jour­nal.

Be­fore last sea­son, the Devils were con­sid­ered to be as­cend­ing un­der gen­eral man­ager Ray Shero and coach John Hynes — who has said they needed to be big­ger, stronger and a lit­tle nas­tier, with a more for­mi­da­ble corps of de­fence­men. That was the main rea­son they ac­quired Sub­ban.

“We now have some­one who could come in and knows how to man­age him­self — sit­u­a­tions on the road, plays tough matchups and can re­ally drive play for us,” Hynes said in July.

But the Devils think they have even more in Sub­ban.

His in­tro­duc­tion to Devils sea­son-ticket hold­ers in July at the Pru­den­tial Cen­ter was more than an ice­breaker; it was a show­stop­per, with a drum line from Philadel­phia, Sub­ban au­to­graph­ing jer­seys and pre­sent­ing them to teenagers and, fi­nally, Sub­ban be­ing draped with a glit­tery, pro-wrestling­like The Sub­bana­tor robe.

It was a spec­ta­cle unimag­in­able un­der Lou Lamor­iello, a hockey tra­di­tion­al­ist and ar­chi­tect of the stout Devils teams that won three Stan­ley Cups be­tween 1995 and 2003. But teams sell their per­son­al­i­ties now. Hughes and Sub­ban were heav­ily fea­tured in pro­mo­tional ad­ver­tis­ing head­ing into the Devils’ sea­son opener — a 5-4 shootout loss to the Win­nipeg Jets on Fri­day night.

“Teams want play­ers to be more in­volved in so­cial me­dia and re­lat­able to fans and kids,” said Travis Za­jac, the 34-yearold cen­tre who broke in with the Devils in 2006, when they played their home games in the Mead­ow­lands. “That’s all part of it now. I know it’s a lot dif­fer­ent than when I first started here.”

Jake Reynolds, who was pro­moted to team pres­i­dent last month, said the Devils have bol­stered their on­line con­tent team to 11 peo­ple, from just two, and their sales force to 105, from 60. StubHub said last month that Devils ticket sales on their site had tripled and were se­cond in the league in year-to-year growth from last sea­son.

More tick­ets are be­ing sold, of course, be­cause ad­di­tions such as Sub­ban and Hughes and a health­ier Hall and Schneider should make the team much bet­ter.

“We are pretty for­tu­nate that we have some stars on the team,” Reynolds said re­cently, “but they also have in­cred­i­ble per­son­al­i­ties in en­gag­ing with the fans.”

So the goal, Reynolds said, is to “give these fans an op­por­tu­nity to con­nect and, quite frankly, fall in love with the play­ers.” Sub­ban, whose par­ents moved to On­tario from the Caribbean in the 1970s, is prob­a­bly the NHL’s most fa­mous Black player, and he has said he plans to con­nect with chil­dren in Ne­wark, which is 50 per cent African Amer­i­can, ac­cord­ing to the most re­cent cen­sus data. He had strong com­mu­nity pres­ence in Mon­treal and Nashville; his Blue­line Bud­dies pro­gram in Nashville was hon­oured for bring­ing to­gether po­lice and un­der­priv­i­leged youth.

“We’ll all watch P.K. on the ice, but he’s in­cred­i­bly com­mit­ted to New Jer­sey,” Josh Har­ris, the Devils’ co-owner, said in July. More than 16 years have passed since the Devils’ last Stan­ley Cup, and some­thing else was needed to build a cham­pi­onship con­tender. Now that the Devils have added more elite play­ers, Reynolds wants to make the front of­fice just as for­mi­da­ble.

“All these peo­ple are bring­ing a new en­ergy into the build­ing,” Har­ris said at a news con­fer­ence last month. “Ob­vi­ously, P.K. has his own flair, as far as his ex­cite­ment and what he brings; it’s def­i­nitely help­ing. Peo­ple are ex­cited about how far this team can go.”

Now that the sea­son is about to be­gin, Sub­ban said his fo­cus had turned com­pletely to hockey. Oth­ers can mar­ket what he can do on the ice, but what good is mar­ket­ing if he is not con­sis­tently good? He likes to think he is more than just The Sub­bana­tor.

“My con­nec­tion with the fans has been strictly based on a blue-col­lar work ethic,” Sub­ban said. “I feel like peo­ple who go out and sup­port me, sup­port me be­cause I work as hard as I can ev­ery shift. I don’t take things for granted.”

ADAM HUNGER GETTY IM­AGES

In­ter­est in the New Jer­sey Devils — from au­to­graph seek­ers to ticket buy­ers to on­line fol­low­ers — has sky­rock­eted since the ad­di­tion of de­fence­man P.K. Sub­ban.

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