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How the Subbanator energizes the New Jersey Devils on and off the ice

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-year-old 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-wrestling-like 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-year-old 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.

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“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.”

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