MONTREAL, QC. — The Montreal Canadiens were just out-Habbed!
The Canadiens franchise has been a master, in recent years, of creating an emotional desire for its product. It is an organizational philosophy developed years ago to address large swaths of empty seats in the Bell Centre following a lack of success on the ice.
How do you sell out your arena nightly when there’s no guarantee of putting a first-class product on the ice? They say that the answers to the future lie in the past. And that’s exactly where the Canadiens went looking.
Sell a link to the past: a franchise founded before the league itself, 24 Stanley Cups, 15 retired numbers, sixty-two members in the Hockey Hall of Fame. Tug at the heart-strings.
The strategy was explored in a piece titled, “What if the Bruins Had Won the Stanley Cup?”
“… we look to Kevin Gilmore, the Canadiens’ Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer. In his role, Gilmore is responsible for executing the corporate philosophy and developing the business model for the organization. What is his secret for ensuring that the Bell Centre is filled with 21,273 passionate fans for each game?
As we recall, this type of success wasn’t always the case. There were some very lean years for the Canadiens after their move from the Montreal Forum.
At an IIHF Conference in Barcelona last year, Gilmore said the following.
“We deal with very emotional human beings. Rational people don’t spend the money they spend on season tickets. They are fans, not spectators, who are detached. We are in the business of selling emotions, of selling passion. It’s about creating a strong emotional bond.”
Forget the analytics. Those advanced stats comparisons are meaningless here. The Canadiens want to hook you emotionally.
A four-year contract for the afore-mentioned Desharnais? That’s irrational! Yes, exactly. But, it’s emotional.
Could Gilmore really have been speaking about the on-ice product when describing the approach of the organization? If there was any doubt, Gilmore cleared up the confusion with this statement, saying “It is different from selling a product based on quality.”
Emotion trumps quality.
So the strategy is simple : create an emotional bond so strong that it defies rationality. It’s the Canadiens modus operandi. And it was just co-opted in a masterful way by P.K. Subban and his representative, Don Meehan.
The love affair between P.K. and the Montreal fans began more than four years ago. In his NHL home debut on February 13, 2010 in a game against the Philadelphia Flyers, Subban’s play was both exhilarating and reckless. It prompted the Bell Centre faithful to chant “P.K., P.K.” while after the game his coach Jacques Martin said that the raw call-up needed to “improve his play without the puck.”
Let’s not forget the media who fawn all over Subban because he offers them something more than the usual Melba-toast variety interview.
The admiration for his play from Habs fans (and media) has grown into adoration for the personality that is P.K. during his tenure with the Canadiens. But the folks at Newport Sports Management likely knew that the bond would be tested if the negotiations on a new contract got testy. The man across the table, Habs GM Marc Bergevin, was rather popular himself having just been nominated for the General Manager of the Year award for the second consecutive year. Not to mention having a sense of humour and being a flashy dresser.
Meehan and his team also knew, having had preliminary discussions with Bergevin, that the two sides were far apart, and if Subban stuck to his goals, there was a good possibility that the process would be heading to arbitration.
And there were some obstacles to overcome.
While Subban was in invitee to the Canadian Olympic team in Sochi, he played just 10 minutes in the entire tourney. With superb play by the likes of Shea Weber, Drew Doughty, Duncan Keith and Alex Pietrangelo (cap hits of $7.86M, $7.0M, $5.54M, $6.5M respectively) in what was described as one of the most complete teams ever assembled, could Subban be considered in their company when it came time to roll out the comparables?
In this Spring’s playoffs, Subban, along with Carey Price were justifiably cited as the reasons for the Canadiens dispatching the Bruins in the second round. But with Price injured in the Eastern Conference final, Subban couldn’t raise the level of his game and was significantly overshadowed by Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh. The same McDonagh who, a year ago, signed a six-year extension with an annual cap hit of $4.7 million, not exactly the neighbourhood for which the Subban team was aiming.
Here’s where the Canadiens strategy of cementing an emotional connection came into play. And the Newport team began creating a celebrity. Just a short time after the Canadiens season ended, Subban appeared on the red carpet at the Much Music Video Awards. That began a summer of personal appearances and charity events.
Subban was photographed with PGA golfer Graeme McDowell, Cleveland Browns quarterback Johnny Manziel and No. 1 ranked tennis player Novak Djokovic. Subban also posted a selfie with the legendary Magic Johnson in Monaco.
Subban had a very public role for the league hosting the NHL Awards Red Carpet segments. And he appeared at high profile events in Montreal such as the RBC Canadian Open and the Just for Laughs Festival.
There were encounters with Hollywood stars such as Seth Rogen, Chevy Chase and Colin Hanks. Fans lapped up the brushes with greatness: ‘P.K. is one of ours and he is rubbing elbows with celebrities.’
In an essay for MacLean’s Magazine titled “The Canadian Dream,” Subban wrote, “I have to start (training) early and take my time to build up, because my off-season is now so busy with appearances and marketing opportunities. I know the next couple of months are going to be rocky, so I try to start early to get in as many sessions as I can.”
It was the Canada Day special issue of MacLean’s with ‘our’ P.K. Subban appearing on the cover all decked out in gear with Canadian Maple Leafs. Mr. Canada, indeed.
Subban even had time to sit down for an extensive interview with Canadiens legend and Hall-of-Fame goaltender Ken Dryden for the Toronto Star.
Subban described his style of play this way: “I didn’t aspire to be like Bobby Orr, but to have an impact on the game like he did. When I step on the ice, especially in playoff games or critical times during the season, where we’re in a slump and need a win, or battling for a division title, I always wanted to be like Bobby Orr. It’s not just about winning, it’s about being the best player on the ice and leading my team.”
That’s an awfully high bar but more importantly a link is established (in the mind of the reader) with the best defenceman to ever play the game.
Subban even had a narrative for his Olympic experience in the Star interview, saying, “I also knew I could play on that team, that I could probably be one of the best players, or in fact the best player, in the tournament.”
Despite the brightest minds in hockey deciding that Subban was better in the press box than the lineup, in his own mind, on a stage where the best players in the world competed, P.K. decided that he would have had no equal had he been allowed to play.
Oddly, he got support, seemingly randomly, from another celebrity source. Talk show host, Larry King who is a Washington Capitals fan tweeted,
— Larry King (@kingsthings) July 31, 2014
Somewhere a lone voice in the distance may ask, “What does this have to do with hockey, anyway?”
Maybe nothing, but it has a great deal to do with further endearing a player to a fanbase. Particularly when public support would be needed.
John Shannon, an analyst with Sportsnet TV, offered this on Subban’s style, “Hockey players live by a code of not standing out, but this is a different generation. Our kids communicate differently. They look for people who stand out. They look for celebrity. It’s the evolution of the sport.”
Subban, the hockey player, was already ingrained in the hearts of Montrealers. But this summer saw the birth of P.K. Subban, the celebrity. And emotions were strong. How could we ever part with our superstar?
By all estimates, the Habs assessment of Subban the hockey player, was not as the top defenceman and one of the best players in the league and weren’t prepared to pay him as such. In fact, he wasn’t even the best player on the team. That honour belongs to Carey Price and both the Habs coach and GM said so on many occasions.
TSN’s Bob McKenzie offered a similar take tweeting the following:
My uneducated opinion from afar: MTL likes, maybe really likes, Subban but doesn't LOVE him. And you have to LOVE someone at 8 x $8-9M+ per.
— Bob McKenzie (@TSNBobMcKenzie) August 1, 2014
All else being equal, negotiations with a restricted free agent in hockey usually favor the team. But in this case, when a deal couldn’t be reached and with the public so firmly bound to the Subban camp, the mighty Canadiens machine was buried.
Habs fans were shocked to know that the two parties proceeded to the arbitration process. And they were furious when a grim-faced Subban emerged and told reporters that his future was now in the hands of an arbitrator from Boston.
The criticism heaped down on Bergevin and Geoff Molson was swift, brash and voluminous. Fans could not bear the emotional pain of losing their hero.
Yes, and statements filled with plenty of hyperbole.
Molson and the organization had no choice. They caved. They had been bested at their own game in a very masterful performance. And P.K. Subban signed the richest deal in Montreal Canadiens history.
In his news conference following the signing, Subban thanked the team owner saying that “I’ve had many conversations with Geoff (Molson)… I’ve spoken to him many times during this process. Obviously, his input has been monumental to this whole process and (to) it getting done.” Hockey assessment be damned.
So where does Subban rank in the league? In terms of his annual cap hit, he is in the company of Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby. Obviously his impact on the game is no where near that level as yet.
In the same news conference, Subban provided some insight as to where he sees himself, saying “[The Montreal Canadiens] have given me the opportunity to excel and to be one of the best players to ever come into the organization.”
In the company of Rocket Richard, Jean Beliveau, Doug Harvey, Jacques Plante?
They too, were celebrities of sorts, but first and foremost they were hockey players. The best ever. The attention now turns to Subban to followup his stellar performance on red carpets this summer to upping his game on the ice.