Let’s get something straight right off the top:
The fact a building full of white people dressed in white spent Tuesday night at Bell MTS Place lustily booing Nashville Predators defenceman P.K. Subban is no more proof this city is racist than the fact those same people cheering for Winnipeg Jets defenceman Dustin Byfuglien all night is proof that we’re not.
Jets fans spent their Tuesday night singling Subban out for particular abuse not because he’s black, but for the same reason those same fans single out Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin every time they come to town — because Subban is his team’s most impactful player.
It’s a compliment, really. If you were doing a Venn diagram consisting on the one hand of opposing players who Jets fans have singled out for abuse over the years and on the other hand of future Hall of Famers, you’d basically end up with two perfectly overlapping circles.
And yet for the past week or so, social media has been full of scolds clutching their pearls and urging Jets fans not to single out Subban for abuse in this second-round series between the Winnipeg Jets and Nashville Predators, lest the spectacle of a building full of white people dressed in white and yelling at a black man be confused with a Klan rally.
Yes, there really are people among us, with more Twitter followers than common sense, who are that laughably stupid.
Now, make no mistake: there are plenty of good reasons not to spend your night booing P.K. Subban, beginning with the fact the man seems to thrive on the abuse that is directed his way every time the Predators play in Winnipeg.
Tuesday night, the booing for Subban began in the pre-game warmup — he was booed off the ice — and then it continued for the entirety of his first shift and every time thereafter that he touched the puck. Throw in a couple of randomly timed ‘Subban Sucks’ chants over the course of the night and the 28-year-old Torontonian was in the locals’ sights all night long.
And the effect of all that abuse? Subban scored a goal in the first period, helped set up the tying goal in the third period and then was in the penalty box for Blake Wheeler’s game winner a couple minutes later on a night Subban was the most noticeable player on the ice all night long, and not just because Jets fans were yelling at him.
The final score — 7-4 for the Jets — did not begin to do justice to what was an Italian opera of a game, with villains, heroes, wild lead changes and a pretty compelling redemption tale for a Jets team that had their hearts broken in a Game 2 double-overtime loss in Nashville on Sunday only to do some heart-breaking of their own Tuesday night and take a 2-1 series lead in this best-of seven.
And in the middle of it all, as he usually is, was Subban, who now has two goals and two assists in three games in this series and a total of eight points in eight games against the Jets overall this season.
The man hears your abuse, people. And it fuels him, just as a night of cheering lustily for Byfuglien fueled the Jets big man in a game he scored twice and, after the second one, unveiled a new goal celebration that was one part awkward dance move, one part man falling off a building.
Put it all together and on a night in which the downtown arena was draped in white, it was the two black men on the ice who were the most effective players for their teams. And the crowd showed their appreciation to both, just in very different ways.
Now, in the normal course of events, stupid things get said on Twitter all the time and I am loathe to give any of it further oxygen in the valuable real estate the Free Press provides me. Dumb people say dumb things, Twitter is chock full of both and none of that qualifies as news.
But this notion that hockey fans wearing white, as is the local custom come playoff time, must be especially sensitive to how we treat visiting visible minority athletes is offensive to anyone who has thrown on a white shirt these past couple weeks in a good faith show of support for the local professional hockey team.
And it is also, as a matter of course, offensive to guys like Subban.
Indeed, it would be the very definition of discriminatory for Jets fans to treat Subban differently in this series simply because he’s black and they’re wearing white.
Jets fans are equal opportunity abusers and that is as it should be — the locals treat all visiting hockey players badly, regardless of race, colour or creed, but save a little extra for the most talented ones.
Now, it is true that some of these chants Jets fans have contrived for visiting players over the years have sometimes hit a sour note. Remember the time the Anaheim Ducks and Corey Perry were in town and the chant directed at Perry all night was ‘Kat-y Perr-y,’ as though it was somehow pejorative to liken the man to a strong, talented and very successful woman?
That was stupid and it made us all look a lot more like hicks in this town than anything that was directed at Subban Tuesday night.
But for the most part, it’s all been good fun over the years. ‘Crosby’s better’ — directed at Ovechkin — is funnier the more often you hear it. ‘Mario’s Pool boy’ — directed in turn at Crosby — is just as funny.
And Subban? The guy is very talented, very annoying and plays a little dirty — and it’s those three qualities, not the colour of his skin, that make him a particular target for fan abuse.
How annoying is Subban? Well, a block from Bridgestone Arena last weekend, I came across a guy selling bootleg Predators merchandise. His hottest seller, he told me, was a t-shirt emblazoned across the front with the following words, in huge block print: ‘PK F——— SUBBAN.’
The guy told me he sells a few of those t-shirts every game to fans of the visiting team, but mostly it’s Predators fans who buy them.
If the adjective fits, in other words, you might as well wear it.
As for Subban, he says he doesn’t even hear the abuse — not from white people, not from people dressed in white, not from anyone.
"It’s just a lot of noise," Subban told reporters down in Nashville over the weekend. "And whether it’s from the crowd, from a player, in the media, I just choose not to listen to a lot of it.
"That’s seemed to help me throughout my career."
I don’t buy it — I think Subban hears every last word and that’s precisely the fuel that has helped him throughout his career.
Jets fans gave the man all they could muster Tuesday night — and Subban gave back as good as he got.
By night’s end, Jets fans left happy and Subban left, well, motivated.
Game 4 goes Thursday night. Everyone will no doubt be on their game again.
Paul Wiecek was born and raised in Winnipeg’s North End and delivered the Free Press -- 53 papers, Machray Avenue, between Main and Salter Streets -- long before he was first hired as a Free Press reporter in 1989.