TheStar.com - Hockey - Newest Leaf's hockey-mad home
June 28, 2009
MONTREAL – Nazem Kadri – the Maple Leafs' newest reason for hope – is all about family. And the Kadri family is all about sports.
But yesterday they were all about each other. Kadri's 9-year-old sister, Rema, was in hospital after an asthma attack.
She's okay, and the family breathed a sigh of relief as it began to absorb the life-altering changes Kadri will undergo after the Leafs made their historic selection in Friday's NHL entry draft. Kadri will be the first Muslim to play for the Leafs; at seventh overall, it represents the highest a Muslim has ever been drafted.
"It's surreal," said Kadri, a feisty 5-foot-11 centre who plays bigger with good speed and hands. "I've been waiting for this day a long time ... it's definitely special.
"It's going to be a big summer ahead of me, and hopefully I can crack that roster next year. My goal is to be on the Toronto Maple Leafs next season."
Much will be made of Kadri's background – there just aren't that many elite-level Muslim hockey players. Montreal-born Ramzi Abid played parts of four seasons in the NHL before moving on to Europe a couple of years ago, and Justin Abdelkader of the Detroit Red Wings is of Jordanian descent.
Kadri, who's of Lebanese heritage, may inspire youths from other immigrant families from the Middle East to take up the sport, a role he's very comfortable with.
"It's nice to be a role model, and hopefully I can open up some eyes," said Kadri.
The Kadri story reads like a slice of Canadiana. His father, Sam, came to the country in 1968 when he was 3 years old. One of seven children, Sam desperately wanted to play hockey like all the other kids, but his father couldn't afford it.
"I wish I played hockey, but hockey's an expensive sport, and very time-consuming," said Sam.
When he had a family of his own and a successful garage and car dealership in London, Ont., he made sure his son and four daughters could play the sports they wanted. For Nazem, it was hockey.
"He just loved the game so much," said Sam. "He was playing winter hockey, spring hockey, summer hockey, 24-7."
When Kadri was only 2, his father bought him rollerblades. "He tore up my hardwood floors learning," Sam says. "He was unbelievable, for that age. ... My hardwood floors were gone, but I didn't care."
When Kadri got out on the ice at age 4, "he was just skating around kids, so they ended up moving him up two age groups," Sam said.
In high school, Kadri was "Naz" to his classmates and teachers, but he was such a phenomenon on ice that he got the nickname "Phenaz" amongst his hockey friends.
About 100 family and friends were in Montreal two days ago for the NHL draft, cheering him on even as the Montreal crowd booed a Leaf selection. His cousins almost immediately started walking around with Leaf hats autographed by him.
Kadri calls himself a practising Muslim and tries to pray regularly and eat halal, but admits his busy schedule can make that difficult.
"I try my best," he says.
Defenceman Luke Schenn – the Leafs' first-round pick last year – wanted to know all about him. Schenn came away impressed with Kadri's hockey resumé, feeling GM Brian Burke has added the kind of truculent, pugnacious player he believes the Leafs have been lacking.
In 2008, at the Ivan Hlinka under-18 tournament in Slovakia, Kadri was one of the best players on a Canadian squad that featured Steven Stamkos – the No. 1 pick in 2008 – and Cody Hodgson – another 2008 first-rounder. Kadri had four points in four games.
Last summer, Kadri proved to be among the best in the world at the national junior team training camp. A jaw injury 20 games into the OHL season was why he didn't make the team. He got his jaw unwired early so he could go to the December camp, but not having played for a couple of weeks put him behind the other players and he was cut.
"It was an awful feeling," he said. "I set my goal to make that team."Al Murray, Team Canada's head scout, said Kadri is a better skater than John Tavares, the No. 1 pick in this year's draft.
"He can play all three forward positions, and all roles, from first line to fourth line," said Murray. "He's real versatile."Kadri was the best player on the London Knights last season, until an OHL trade deadline deal saw Tavares hop over from Oshawa. Kadri gave up his No.1 centre job, and moved to Tavares's wing. He finished with 25 goals and 53 assists in 56 games.
"He's got great skill and he plays with (heart)," said Knights coach Dale Hunter. "He hits hard. And he's a playmaker. He puts up points, and he's a winner.
"I know Burke wants the Leafs to be more aggressive. He picked the right guy. ... He's the type of kid who will run over the best player on the other team hard and score goals and get points. He's unique that way."
Note Hunter's use of "unique." It came up in a conversation with John Caldarozzi, Kadri's coach in bantam and minor midget with the London Jr. Knights.
"He's a unique kid. He's a throwback. He's not caught up in the silliness or ego. He loves hockey," said Caldarozzi.
In Arabic, Nazem means "leader." His father sees him that way.
"He was captain in a lot of his minor hockey teams," said Sam Kadri. "I can see him as captain in the NHL. He's that kind of player."
With files from Nicole Baute
This brother was the MSA president of his high school...
RYAN REMIORZ/THE CANADIAN PRESS FILE PHOTO
Nazem Kadri laughs with Brian Burke, left, and Cliff Fletcher as he slips on a Leafs jersey June 26, 2009. Kadri is the first Muslim ever drafted by the team. Kadri's father made sure son could play the sport his own parents couldn't afford for him