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Remarkable Teacher

Photo of  P.K. Subban. P.K is wearing a dapper bowtie and Derbie hat

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Hockey superstar P.K. Subban recalls the year his father was also his principal, and how he achieved his number one goal thanks to dad’s coaching.

By Richard Ouzounian
Photo: Raina+Wilson

Some might question what a principal and a hockey player would have in common, but when it comes to Montreal Canadiens defenceman P.K. Subban and his father, Karl, a retired OCT, the list is as long as it is illustrious.

There’s the megawatt smile, the shining, hopeful eyes and the confident carriage of men who were born to be leaders, whether on the ice or in the classroom. But aside from the genetic similarities and the name they share — P.K. is short for Pernell Karl — what makes this father-son duo intriguing is the unique experience they had back in 2001. That was the year that Karl wasn’t just P.K.’s father, he was also his elementary school principal.

“A lot of people assume that situation would be a recipe for disaster,” laughs P.K. on the phone from Montreal, “but if you think that, it’s only because you don’t know my dad. He always knew when to turn the parent off and the teacher on, and vice versa.”

P.K. may be the family member with the celebrity status, but Karl is a man of substantial achievement in his own right. The 2012 recipient of the African Canadian Achievement Award of Excellence in Education made a name for himself when he took over as principal of Brookview Middle School. Situated in one of Toronto’s toughest neighbourhoods, the school was plagued with problems (fights, chronic absenteeism) and a poor academic standing — just a few of the issues that Karl improved while there.

One of the educational building blocks that Karl has relied on is, “Know what you want, and then set out to get it.” This is something that his athlete son heard and acted on from a very young age. “I always knew that hockey was my goal in life,” says the Habs superstar. “Nothing else ever really mattered to me.”

As for the patriarch of the Subban clan — who was born in Jamaica and moved to Canada at 11 years of age — his road wasn’t so clear cut.

“As a youngster growing up in Sudbury, I dreamt of playing in the NBA. I had it all planned out — that’s how I do things,” says Karl. “My route to the basketball world was going to be through university, which is why I went to Lakehead.”

“Children need our love and support, but they also need our guidance and discipline.”

Lakehead University wasn’t just known for the strength of its basketball team, but for the training programs that the university students worked on with younger aspiring players, and that’s where Karl had a revelation. “Working with the basketball camp every Saturday morning, it wasn’t long before I realized that I loved teaching the children more than I loved playing the sport.”

Although the senior Subban eagerly entered the teaching profession well-equipped to succeed, he nevertheless learned certain lessons the hard way. During his time at teachers’ college, he had a practicum teacher who was demanding beyond belief; laboriously picking through Karl’s lesson plans, pointing out every incorrect detail he could find. “One day I asked him why he was so tough,” recalls the recently retired principal. “He said, ‘Karl, these are the high expectations that your students, their parents and your colleagues will have, and you have to be good enough for all of them.’”

These wise words helped Karl throughout his career but, as insightful as they were, they did not cover off the extraordinary challenge of having to surpass the expectations of your children, especially when they are your students.

But, according to P.K., he cleared that hurdle too. “I was always proud to be around my father at school — he was a good and fair man. He made time for all of his students and never played favourites,” says the hockey player. “I learned so much from watching and listening to him, especially the way he treated other students.”

Not one to walk away from a challenge, or a unique situation, Karl adjusted his perspective when he arrived at his son’s school, Warren Park Junior Public School in Toronto. “I was no longer a parent when P.K. was at my school,” he explains.

Photo of Karl Subban with Montreal Canadiens defenceman P.K. Subban and Boston Bruins goaltender Malcolm Subban.
Retired principal Karl Subban with his hockey player sons, Montreal Canadiens defenceman P.K. (left) and Boston Bruins goaltender Malcolm.
Photo: Alarie Photos

“What I mean by that is — I was no longer specifically his parent; in a way I felt like I was a parent to every child, in every school I’ve ever taught at.”

Of course, there’s a token story that the father and son tell — albeit from different perspectives but with a similar conclusion — about the troubles that can arise when your dad is also your principal.”

“I’m not perfect by any means,” admits P.K. “I was one of the students who had high energy and I would sometimes let it spill over a bit too much. I wasn’t disrespectful, but every now and then I enjoyed myself a little too much.”

Karl recalls the time when P.K. was clowning around in class, to the point where he had to meet his son and his teacher to set things straight. “I didn’t yell at him,” says Karl. “That wasn’t my style.” He simply laid out the facts and when the meeting was over, P.K. shed a few tears.

There’s a long pause as Karl remembers that moment with his son.

“Children need our love and support, but they also need our guidance and discipline. Those lines have always been very clear to me and I’ve tried to make them clear for my son. That day I wasn’t being his dad, I was being his principal. And, I think he knew the difference.”

Not only did P.K. know the difference, he carries his father’s life lessons close to him throughout his journey. “He taught me that the easy way isn’t always the best way,” recalls P.K. “You have to give a lot to get a little.” He relates this to a story in which his dad compared power-skating practice to eating broccoli; teaching the young athlete-in-training that sometimes you’ve got to do what you don’t like to get good at what you do.

Karl shared the insights he imparted on his talented son with his other equally successful children — P.K.’s hockey-player brothers, Malcolm and Jordan, as well as his sisters, Nastassia and Natasha, who have followed in their father’s footsteps as Ontario Certified Teachers. While they were growing up, Karl taught each of them his secret to success: “Find the thing you love in life and pursue it.”

But for P.K., his father has added an additional piece of advice that’s been helpful for a young man who’s stepping into the arena of sports superstardom: “Be yourself, because everyone else is taken.”

It’s a lesson Karl picked up early on, at basketball camp, and it’s what ultimately led him along an impressive path of lifelong learning.