. In the city of Toronto, it’s not an unusual name. Almost half of this city’s population was born outside of the country with roots that span the globe and many more are the children of immigrants. But emblazon a hockey jersey with the name Kadri, especially the blue and white of one of hockey’s most storied franchises, the Toronto Maple Leafs, and it might leave some people scratching their heads.
Hockey is certainly ingrained with the Canadian identity, a passion that has for years brought people together regardless of race, colour, class or creed, but as the face and complexion of this country has changed, a majority of professional hockey players still reflect the sport’s Anglo-Saxon Protestant roots. Kadri, drafted seventh overall by the Toronto Maple Leafs in last year’s entry draft, is at once an anomaly and not. He is the highest drafted Muslim in the history of the National Hockey League and certainly its highest-profile. But the story of his upbringing, childhood and background echoes the struggles and triumphs of the countless immigrants who have made their way to this country.
Kadri’s paternal grandparents were born in Lebanon; when his father, Sam, was three, the family immigrated to Canada, eager for a better life in a land of seemingly boundless opportunity. As a child, Sam developed, like thousands before him, a passion for hockey but was unable to pursue the game himself. His parents could ill afford the power skating clinics and hockey camps that were an absolute necessity for success. Sam, perhaps remembering the sting of a dream dashed, worked and worked hard to provide his son with the opportunities he lacked. The entire Kadri family sacrificed to guarantee that Nazem would have every chance to turn the dream of every Canadian who’s ever strapped on a pair of skates and felt the heft of a hockey stick in his or her hands into reality: to play in the National Hockey League.
Starting with Timbits hockey, Kadri rewarded his parents’ sacrifices with ceaseless devotion and dedication to the game. Constantly driving him was the knowledge and recognition that the success his parents had attained did not come without hard work and an ever present desire to do better and to be better. His work ethic translated into on-ice triumphs, victories that were savoured not only by his family here in Ontario, but also by those in Lebanon.
Last year, while playing for the London Knights, Kadri managed, even with a broken jaw, to notch 78 points over 56 games, finishing just second in team scoring behind eventual first overall pick John Tavares. He led the Ontario Hockey League with 10 shorthanded points, was second in shorthanded goals with 5 and was instrumental in the Knights’ championship season.
Through it all, his background and culture has never been an issue because he is, after all, a Canadian. Born in London, Ontario, Kadri was raised a Muslim and observed its traditions as best as he could. He also revered the Montreal Canadiens and idolized the Tampa Bay Lightning’s Vincent Lecavalier. In his free time, he watched the movies of Will Ferrell, played pick-up basketball with friends and dreamed of playing in the NHL.
And when the Toronto Maple Leafs, ironically enough, the hated rivals of his cherished childhood team, called out his name at the draft, he celebrated with his family, arguably the largest group of supporters at the draft for any single player. His success was one that all in his family, even those still in Lebanon, could share and in which they reveled. One of their own would have the chance to play on hockey’s greatest stage in the greatest hockey city in the world, to prove his mettle against the world’s best players and, most importantly, to inspire and to bolster the hopes and dreams not just of the hundreds of thousands of Muslims in the GTA and across the country, but also to all Canadians, both old and new. Over night, he has become a hero to Muslim children across Canada, a reminder that anyone, as long as he or she possesses the will and the drive, can persevere and thrive.
There will come a day when a name like Kadri will be commonplace on the back of hockey sweaters; when that day comes, Kadri will be remembered as one of the first of a new generation of Canadians who will see beyond culture, race and religion to the hopes and dreams at each and every individual’s core, those shared visions of prosperity, happiness and success that animate and shape the human experience.
While he won’t be wearing a Leafs jersey when Toronto take on the Colorado Avalanche at 7:00 pm on Tuesday October 13, LeafsTV will broadcast a special feature including an in-depth and revealing interview of the first-round draft pick.