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P.K. Subban on NHL social change, ‘The Last Dance,’ nearly being a Penguin and more

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P.K. Subban knows who he is.

The New Jersey Devils defenseman is entering his 12th NHL season, in a career that saw him nominated for the Norris Trophy three times and win it in 2013, but he knows that he is more than a professional hockey player. He is a celebrity, engaged to Olympian Lindsey Vonn, who recently said their pending nuptials are “in a holding pattern” due to COVID-19. He’s a philanthropist, having created social change organizations and given away millions to charity. He’s an agent for change — and someone who can inspire others.

“It’s about having an influence on kids who look like me coming up through the sport. Giving them that hope, in seeing where I’ve come from and where I am today,” Subban told the “ESPN On Ice” podcast recently.

Subban worked with Adidas on a film in its “Ready For Change” series that encapsulates the many sides of the 31-year-old Toronto native. It also features images of Black Lives Matter protests and a call for unity in taking on racial justice issues.

“It’s about standing for change. I think with everything going on socially in North America, being able to have a partnership with Adidas and do this is huge. I think one thing that aligns us both is that we feel you have the power to change lives through sport and connect with people. That’s really important,” he said.

We spoke with Subban about his views on the social justice protests in the NHL bubbles, his work with the league’s Player Inclusion Committee, his Blueline Buddies program — which the Devils said involves “two police officers from the precincts throughout Newark and two youth from the Newark community” attending a home game — and his memories of his draft day.

Note: This interview was edited for length and clarity.


ESPN: Looking from afar into the NHL playoff bubble, what were your thoughts about those moments when Black Lives Matter was getting a spotlight? Especially that moment when the players banded together, stepped up and used their voices to get games postponed, at the same time that NBA players were doing the same?

Subban: I actually watched a lot of the games very closely, which is something I don’t traditionally do in the offseason. I try to disconnect. But with the offseason being seven months and counting, I had some extra time.

You know, there’s no way to say what is enough and what’s not enough. For me, it’s never enough. The world is always evolving, and we need people to be proactive and wanting to do more. But it’s also culture, which is very important. There’s positive culture, and then there’s parts of culture that we need to change. In seeing players step up … everybody’s gotta do it in a way that they feel comfortable. For some people, that’s getting out in front of it. For some people, that’s doing it behind the scenes. Everybody is going to be different in how they contribute, but I think everybody needs to contribute and educate themselves in this.

I think that everything that happened in the playoffs is a start, but we need more. We need to make sure that we have actionable items that are also going to impact and help where a lot of the real issues are in our communities: education and economics. The statements that were made were a good start, but we need actions. That’s the next step for the NHL and for us as players.

ESPN: One of the programs you helped create was Blueline Buddies. So much of the conversation about racial injustice in the United States has centered around police brutality. You have this program that allows underprivileged kids to interact with police officers, form relationships and better understand each other. With everything that’s happened in the past few months, has it made you reevaluate that program? What’s the status of it?

Subban: Four years ago, when I started it in Nashville, I became a resident in the U.S. for the first time in my life — in the South. When I got to training camp, this was around the time that [former San Francisco 49ers quarterback] Colin Kaepernick was kneeling [during the national anthem] and a lot of things were happening. I’m going to a team that’s competitive, trying to win a championship. That’s hard enough as it is, let alone trying to attack social issues in a community you’re trying to understand because you never played in it. There were a lot of balls up in the air.

Obviously, I have a history of being involved in the community and of philanthropic work. I’m sure there were some expectations in the community in terms of what I was going to do in Nashville. I really wanted to figure out what was authentic to me. With my foundation in Montreal, that was something I built up to. It’s not like I woke up one day and said, “I’m going to make a $10 million pledge to the hospital.” That was years and years of making visits, getting to know people at the hospital. Ultimately, it ended up being that.

Nashville was different. I had just gotten there. There was so much social unrest. The one thing I wanted to do was bring people together and bridge the gap. So I started a program called Blueline Buddies. The reason I called it that, actually, has absolutely nothing to do with police officers: The blue line in hockey unifies us all. The starting five from each team, and sometimes the goaltender, stand on the blue line during the national anthem.

The one thing I wanted to do was make players feel comfortable. Once Colin Kaepernick started kneeling, it brought a lot of opportunity for athletes that had a political view, a personal view on things that were happening in our communities across North America. People wanted to feel comfortable that it was their right to show that. And what I wanted to do was create a program that was for everyone.

Standing on the blue line is one of the best parts of our game. It’s one of the greatest honors. You have 82 games. The honor of your coach giving you the chance to start the game, to represent your city and your team. I wanted something that connected us all, and that is something that connected us all. Because whether you want to kneel, stand, put your hand in the air, we all stand on the blue line to start the game. So that’s why I created Blueline Buddies. What if the “blue line” stood for more than just the people who fought for our country? What if it stood for togetherness and love all the things we talk about today?

Now, obviously there was a lot of talk about police brutality in the country and the disconnect between police and [some] communities in North America. It wasn’t about police. It wasn’t about underprivileged youth. It was about building community and bringing the community together. So bringing law enforcement to the game and underprivileged youth was the tip of the iceberg. Our program isn’t just about law enforcement. It’s about leaders in our community. Teachers. First responders. It could be a lot of people making a difference, not just law enforcement.

So bringing the program 360 [degrees], it’s about involving all of those people and being impactful in the community. It’s coming to New Jersey now and possibly a few other cities in the future.

ESPN: You’re the co-chair of the Player Inclusion Committee that the NHL recently announced. For those who might not know the difference, what is the contrast between this committee and the Hockey Diversity Alliance?

Subban: Everyone has to take that step forward the way they see it. I believe my involvement in the Player Inclusion Committee is still at a very high level. I still want to have discussions and hear what concrete plans we have in place moving forward. Because we have to understand this: That actions are very, very important.

I’m excited for the opportunity to work with the NHL, but there’s always going to be multiple people fighting that fight, multiple people trying to eradicate racism. Everyone is going to have a different way, right? Malcolm X and Martin Luther King didn’t always see eye to eye, but they had an impact in their own right.

So I think that in the sports world, we’re all after the same thing: To continue to grow our game and make it inclusive, and continue to make it welcoming not just at the NHL level but at the grassroots level, as well. There are a lot of moving parts in change and in change coming. It’s not just one specific thing. Everyone has to figure out how they can do it, the best way that they feel, and then go out and do it.

ESPN: We don’t know when next season is going to start or what it’s going to look like. What’s your appetite for a different format for next season, perhaps playing in a bubble or a hybrid bubble?

Subban: I’m not really sure what to think. I’ve never really had to do that before. For me, as a veteran player in the league, I guess you could say I’m not a veteran in understanding that stuff.

I know a lot of players that were in the bubble. If that’s the way things are going to go, I can reach out to [former Devils teammate] Andy Greene and get the scoop on that. But right now, it’s still early. We could have a possible 10-plus weeks until training camp. Until there are announcements made, and I understand more, I’ll take it from there.

ESPN: The NHL draft was just completed recently. You were drafted 43rd overall in the 2007 draft by Montreal. What do you remember most about that day, and what do you think has changed the most since you participated in it?

Subban: Huh, what do I remember about that day? It was my second day at the draft. I had a beautiful suit that I had tailor-made in Toronto. I wasn’t really thinking about going to the draft in the first place, because I didn’t even have to go to the combine. I think it was only the top hundred or 150 ranked players that went to the combine. But I did have three teams that were interested in me: I believe it was Washington, Florida and Pittsburgh.

I remember them saying that they wanted to see if I was willing to go to the draft. So we drove to Columbus from Toronto. On the first day, there was a chance I was going to go to Pittsburgh at around 20th overall if the player that they wanted wasn’t available. That player was Angelo Esposito, and they ended up selecting him. So any chance of being selected in the first round was pretty slim by then.

So I went back to the hotel. Took the suit off. Put the same suit back on for Day 2 and went back out there. It was interesting. I remember around the 40th pick, the New York Rangers‘ head scout came over to me and said, “We’re going to take you at 46.” I was pretty excited about it — I mean, New York. But at 43rd, Montreal announced that they had drafted me. They had my name stitched on the jersey, so I think they knew I’d be available. The rest is history.

It was a special moment for me to work that hard and to have [that occasion]. But all it was for me was an extra boost of knowing that every time I stepped in the gym, I was being appreciated for the work I was doing and that there was more work to come. I’m still working today. The work hasn’t stopped. [Laughs]

ESPN: Finally, we’ve all been stuck at home, and you didn’t have a chance to join the restarted season. Is there something new you’ve picked up? A hobby or a pastime that you’ve picked up or a show you binged?

Subban: I started my own podcast called “The Ugly Duck Podcast.” It’s been a ton of fun. I’ve really enjoyed doing because it made me feel like I was part of the playoffs even though I wasn’t playing — watching the games, talking about them, being able to see the game from a different view. It’s been a really long time since I watched that much hockey on TV.

I also must have watched “The Last Dance” [countless times]. It’s addictive for a player like me, because I grew up idolizing people like Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan and athletes like this. Not just because they were great, but because of their approach. Their mindset. I couldn’t get enough of that documentary. I absolutely loved watching it, and it was a boost for me. I never got a chance to see Michael Jordan play, but I knew he was a killer. To get that inside scoop was huge for me.

The only person that was upset with me watching it was Lindsey, because she was sick of seeing me watching it so many times. She just wanted it to be done. So I had to switch from watching it in the family room to watching it in the garage while I was working out and nobody was around.

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Toronto FC hoping to make MLS Cup run having spent much of 2020 far from home

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On a recent Thursday in Hartford, Conn., Toronto FC goalkeeper Quentin Westberg pondered the dichotomy of wanting to reach MLS Cup on Dec. 12, but also desiring to see his family again. Meanwhile, Jim Liston, the team’s director of sports science, was planning a trip to Lowe’s to buy 15 garbage cans so players could have an ice bath after training. As for manager Greg Vanney, he was fretting about his team’s health and the lack of practice time their schedule was affording.

Such is the life of a team as it attempts to not only navigate its way through the COVID-19 pandemic, but has been forced to do it away from home.

Due to travel restrictions between the U.S. and Canada, TFC — like the league’s other two Canadian teams, Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps — set up a “home” base in the U.S. for the remainder of the season; Toronto were stationed in Hartford. (Vancouver Whitecaps took roost in Portland, ground-sharing with Timbers, while Montreal Impact split use of New York Red Bulls’ facilities in Harrison, N.J.) This was on top of nearly every team spending nearly a month inside a bubble back in July at the MLS is Back Tournament outside Orlando, Florida.

The Reds spent about seven weeks back in Toronto as they played a series of matches against Canadian teams. In mid-September, the remainder of the regular season — and the temporary move to Hartford — beckoned. The vagabond nature of the campaign is what led Liston to joke that he was willing to discuss “whatever five seasons” the team has been through so far. But for Vanney and the players, the campaign has required a special kind of focus.

“A lot of what we’ve done here, and what we try to preach here is just control the controllables, and don’t get too drawn into the things you can’t,” Vanney told ESPN. “Roll with it, and make the best out of whatever the situation is.”

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Toronto has largely succeeded in spite of its odyssey. While there was disappointment at missing out on the Supporters’ Shield to the Philadelphia Union, TFC went 7-3-2 during its Hartford sojourn and finished with the second-best record in the league. But the challenges have still been immense. Simply being out of one’s home environment is difficult enough, but the time spent away from family and loved ones weighs heavy on the psyche, even as Vanney has given players the occasional trip back to Toronto — under quarantine — to reconnect with loved ones.

“It’s just very different, very challenging and emotionally exhausting,” Westberg said of his experience while based in Hartford.

Westberg has arguably had it tougher than most. The TFC goalkeeper is married with four children, including a baby girl who was born in June. For that reason, Westberg and his wife, Ania, made the decision at the end of September that it would be better for her and their kids to head back to his native France so they could be surrounded by family. Westberg called it “the least bad decision,” but there are difficulties nonetheless.

“I’m a very even person, and this year has challenged me a lot,” he said. “I’m still pretty even, but I keep a lot to myself and for sure there’s some difficult days, seeing your family [struggle] from your absence.”

The inability to be home has affected the players and staff in other ways. In Toronto, there are ways of disengaging from the game. Being with friends, loved ones or even in familiar surroundings can be the best medicine in terms of forgetting a bad game or training session. But in Hartford, at the team’s hotel, that escape is nearly impossible even as players try to distract themselves by reading or taking online classes.

“You don’t really unplug,” Westberg said. “You FaceTime family, or this or that, but it’s too short. You’re 100 percent focused on your soccer, and your whole day basically relies on being ready for whatever soccer activity that you have next, whether it’s practice or game. It’s good for your physique, it’s optimal for the way you eat and the way you [train]. But mentally, you’re not as fresh as your body.”

That isn’t to say there are only negatives to the separation. There is also an us-against-the-world mentality that Toronto has adopted, given that their players and personnel are experiencing the season in a way that is vastly different than most other teams. The team staff has done what it can to make their surroundings a home away from home, whether it’s personalizing the locker rooms at Rentschler Field or having hotel staff brand the surroundings in TFC colors. The hotel went so far as to bring in a barista who could consistently give the players their coffee fix. Supporters groups have even sent down banners in a bid to convey the fact that the players are remembered.

The care that TFC takes for players has extended to families back home, with the club supplying meals to loved ones three times a week.

On the logistical side, Liston made sure that one of the gyms used at MLS is Back was brought to TFC’s hotel in Hartford, and he remarked that the food at the hotel is “arguably the best we’ve ever had on the road.”

There have also been efforts to create new routines. Assistant coach Jason Bent, aka DJ Soops, has been in charge of the pregame music selection for the past 18 months — no easy feat for a squad that has a considerable international presence. In Hartford, Bent has set aside Thursday nights to spin music in one area of the hotel. He’ll even go live on Instagram or Twitch for those who prefer to relax in their rooms.

“[We] opened it to players and staff and basically anyone that’s part of our bubble to come relax, listen to music and just enjoy each other’s company,” Bent said. “I enjoy making people happy so if it’s helping everyone even in the slightest, I have no problem arranging the set and spinning.”

For Vanney, the pandemic and operating outside of the team’s home market has meant any number of challenges. He said the team has used three different training facilities in Hartford, with varying field conditions. He recognizes that the trips home are vital for the mental health of his players and staff, but any breaks also mean less time spent on the practice field. The compressed schedule, which at times involved games every three or four days, has had an impact as well. Even the best-laid plans in terms of squad rotation were impacted as minor injuries began popping up.

“We end up with a lot of guys in different positions because they need special kinds of treatment or care to help them get fit and back to health,” Vanney said. “So it ends up being a lot of different things kind of going on all at once, and that’s been the challenge of it.”

Recovery from matches has been complicated by the fact that TFC doesn’t have access to the same level of facilities that it does at home — hence Liston’s emergency trip to Lowe’s to fashion impromptu ice baths for the players. Then there are the different ways the players occupy themselves on the road as compared to home, especially amid the pandemic.

“There’s really no life outside of the hotel,” Liston said. “[At home], you may go walk the dog in the afternoon or go for a walk with your wife or friend or girlfriend or family and you’re out and about. The recommendation [here] is to kind of stay put. So you’ve got a really active population and pro athletes, who we’re asking them to be sedentary the rest of the time, kind of stay in the hotel from a COVID and safety standpoint. That’s not optimal for recovery either.”

There are also the creature comforts of home that are no longer available on the road, which can impact sleep.

“Sleep is the number one tool for recovery, and that’s definitely been a challenge,” Liston said. “We do well-being questionnaires and the scores on quality of sleep, and hours of sleep, just drop.”

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Tom Barlow and Brian White seal Toronto’s fate in a 2-1 win for New York Red Bulls. Watch MLS on ESPN+.

Another change has been same-day travel, which has drawn mixed reactions from the TFC players and staff. Vanney and Westberg are generally in favor, saying it reminds them of when they each played in France. Flying back the same night also means a training day isn’t lost. Liston has a different perspective in that he prefers arriving the day before, and then leaving the same day.

“I think [same-day travel] makes for a really long day,” he said. “And there’s definitely a negative impact on performance, taking three bus rides and a plane ride before your game. You’re getting home — it can be 12:30, but it could also be 1:30 in the morning, and that’s where you know our well-being scores and sleep hours and quality just disappear. When you have so many games in succession, you can’t make up the sleep.”

With the playoffs set to begin for TFC on Nov. 24, the end is in sight, even as it makes for a complex — and even conflicting — set of emotions.

“This is the tricky part. I miss them a lot,” Westberg said of his family. “But in a way I want to see them as [late] as possible in December, because obviously, there’s this idea that we want to do well in the playoffs and we want to keep going. TFC has a history of setting high standards and high expectations. It’s a heavy load to carry but also an exciting one.”

Win or lose, it’s a season they’ll never forget.

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Bettman: NHL is mulling temporary realignment

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The NHL is considering a temporary realignment of its teams for the 2020-21 season due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, according to commissioner Gary Bettman.

Bettman said Tuesday that restrictions on travel across the Canadian border, as well as “limitations in terms of quarantining when you go from certain states to other states” within the United States, could mean the NHL creates a more regionalized alignment for its upcoming season.

“As it relates to the travel issue, which is obviously the great unknown, we may have to temporarily realign to deal with geography, because having some of our teams travel from Florida to California may not make sense. It may be that we’re better off — particularly if we’re playing a reduced schedule, which we’re contemplating — keeping it geographically centric and more divisional-based; and realigning, again on a temporary basis, to deal with the travel issues,” Bettman said during a 2020 Paley International Council Summit panel with fellow commissioners Adam Silver of the NBA and Rob Manfred of MLB.

The NHL board of governors has a meeting scheduled for Thursday which will provide a progress report and possible recommendations for a season format, based on talks between the league and the NHL Players’ Association. The target date for starting next season remains Jan. 1.

Bettman said the league is considering a few scheduling options for the 2020-21 season. Something that’s off the table: playing the entire season in the kind of bubbles the NHL had in Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta, to complete last season. But Bettman said teams opening in their own arenas is a possibility, along with a modified bubble.

“We are exploring the possibility of playing in our own buildings without fans [or] fans where you can, which is going to be an arena-by-arena issue. But we’re also exploring the possibility of a hub. You’ll come in. You’ll play for 10 to 12 days. You’ll play a bunch of games without traveling. You’ll go back, go home for a week, be with your family. We’ll have our testing protocols and all the other things you need,” he said.

Bettman also indicated that the NHL is exploring “a hybrid, where some teams are in a bubble, some teams play at home and you move in and out.”

The NBA’s board of governors unanimously approved a deal with the players’ union that sets the stage for a season that will open on Dec. 22 and with a reduced schedule of 72 games. Silver said that the commissioners are in communication on COVID-19-related issues, especially the NBA and the NHL, since the two leagues’ teams share arenas and, in some cases, team owners.

Silver said he senses that the NBA will have fans in many of its buildings this season.

“We’re probably going to start one way, where we’re maybe a little bit more conservative than many of the jurisdictions allow,” he said. “What we’ve said to our teams is that we’ll continue to work with public health authorities. Arena issues are different than outdoor stadium issues. There will be certain standards for air filtration and air circulation. There may be a different standard for a suite than there will be for fans spaced in seats.”

Silver said there will be standardized protocols that are consistent from arena to arena, such as proximity between players and fans: “In certain cases, for seats near the floor, we’re going to be putting in testing programs, where fans will certify that they’ve been tested — some within 48 hours, some within day of game.” While Silver supported a continued expansion of the NBA postseason through its play-in tournament, Bettman said that he’s not in favor of expanded playoffs or “playing with the fundamentals of the game.” The NHL had 24 teams in its postseason last summer.

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The Battleground States Where We’ve Seen Some Movement In The Polls

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With apologies to The Raconteurs, the presidential race continues to be “steady as she goes,” with little sign of tightening despite a plethora of new polls. FiveThirtyEight’s presidential forecast gives Joe Biden an 89 in 100 shot at winning the election, while President Trump has just an 11 in 100 chance. This makes Biden the favorite, but still leaves open a narrow path to victory for Trump, for whom a reelection win would be surprising — but not utterly shocking.

At the same time, we also have fewer polls from live-caller surveys, which have historically been more accurate and have shown slightly better numbers for Biden, than polls that use other methodologies, such as polls conducted primarily online or through automated telephone calls. Nevertheless, while the overall picture has shifted only a little in recent days, a few battleground states have seen at least some movement in their polls, which has slightly altered the odds Biden or Trump wins in each of those places.

What election stories need to get more coverage | FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast

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