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Kadri makes NHL debut with Leafs

by Jeremy Sandler
TORONTO – Shortly after taking to the ice for his first game in the NHL, Nazem Kadri received his unofficial welcome to hockey's grandest stage on Monday night at the Air Canada Centre.

San Jose tough guy Jody Shelley made quite an impression just a few shifts into the 19-year-old's first NHL game skating as an emergency replacement for the Toronto Maple Leafs team that drafted him in the first round (No. 7) in 2009.

"Yeah, I kind of got steamrolled there behind the net," he said after logging 17:26 of ice time. "I wasn't really expecting it, not many guys in the OHL are going to do that. But he's a pretty big boy and it only goes to show how much work I've got left."

Toronto called on its top pick from last year after a bug of some kind shelved both Christian Hanson and Fredrik Sjostrom for the 3-2 loss to San Jose.

A variety of injuries on the AHL Toronto Marlies meant only winger Andre Deveaux could be called up from the Leafs' farm team to fly cross-country from British Columbia and play against the Sharks.

Kadri, who has 26 goals and 66 points in 42 games for the OHL's London Knights, only needed agent Brian MacDonald drive him the two hours or so to the rink from his hometown southwest of Toronto.

Before that, Kadri had to be convinced Knights assistant coach Jacques Beaulieu was not trying to be the OHL's answer to Ashton Kutcher.

"I actually was asleep, just going about my business, thought it was a normal day for me, for my team," said Kadri. "I asked him if he was pulling my leg at first and just trying to get me out of bed."

Properly assured it would be worth it to leave his bed, Kadri achieved a lifelong goal.

"I've dreamed about this day for I don't know how long," he said. "For it to finally come, for it to be at the ACC with the Toronto Maple Leafs, makes it that much more special."

Kadri, who did not get a point, received solid reviews from his temporary teammates.

"It's a very special day for any hockey player," said defenseman Dion Phaneuf, himself a former first-round pick just four-and-a-half seasons removed from his first game. "I talked to him before the game he was pretty excited. I thought he played very well out there."

Toronto rookie center Tyler Bozak, who scored for the Maple Leafs against the Western Conference leaders, agreed with Phaneuf.

"My first game wasn't too long ago, so I definitely know how he feels," said the 23-year-old former college star from the University of Denver. "He gets to go back to his buddies in junior and probably had so many people watch him. He did a great job and it's just a great experience for him."

Leafs coach Ron Wilson agreed with the experience part, though he offered a more critical performance evaluation for Kadri's night that included two turnovers and a 2-13 record on faceoffs.

"This was a great opportunity for him to have a [look] see what the NHL is all about," said Wilson, who still had the teenager on the ice while trying to tie the game in the final minute with goalie Jean-Sebastien Giguere pulled from Toronto's net. "He had a lot of turnovers, things he could probably get away with in junior hockey he can't get away with in our League, let alone [against] a top team in the League."

Kadri said he learned a lot, chiefly the difference between junior or even the NHL pre-season and games that actually count.

"It's pretty tough, obviously there's a big difference and playing against grown men up here, guys are a lot faster and stronger," he said. "To play against a team like San Jose really kind of opens your eyes."

Still, despite the sudden call-up and trial by fire against a Sharks team that includes Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Dany Heatley, Kadri left his one-game audition feeling good about his effort while knowing he has a lot of work to do.

"I think I did pretty well for my first game, I think there's a lot of things I can improve on," he said. "I'm just getting my feet wet. Obviously this is where I want to be in the near future. So hopefully, it happens."

Jeremy Sandler covers sports for the National Post newspaper in Toronto.

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