Kadri Had To Bite His Tongue

VANCOUVER (Dec. 2) — Nearly 7½ years after being chosen in the first round of the National Hockey League draft, Nazem Kadri might be getting a fair shake. But, even that is uncertain… and open to interpretation.

From the moment, it seems, that Brian Burke called his name seventh overall at the Bell Centre in Montreal, Kadri has been rather a whipping boy — among media, fans and the inner–sanctum of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Burke and his scouting staff made an impeccable choice, as it turned out, at the 2009 draft. The six players named before Kadri — John Tavares (New York Islanders), Victor Hedman (Tampa Bay), Matt Duchene (Colorado), Evander Kane (Atlanta), Brayden Schenn (Los Angeles) and Oliver Ekman–Larsson (Arizona) — have all distinguished themselves, at one point or another, in the NHL. Given hindsight, it can be argued, however, that Kadri may have been a more prudent selection than either Schenn or Kane.

Not that you’d know it around Toronto.

Initially recognized and celebrated for being the first Muslim player in Maple Leafs history — and one of the first to skate in the NHL (Beirut native Ed Hatoum appeared in 47 games with Detroit and Vancouver from 1968–71) — Kadri fell into disfavor with Leaf coaches and executives. Ron Wilson had difficulty harnessing Kadri’s skill. Randy Carlyle had no apparent use for the London, Ont. native, even after a splendid 44 points in 48 games during the lockout–shortened 2013 schedule. Peter Horachek won only nine of 42 games after replacing Carlyle midway through the disastrous 2014–15 season, yet he may have helped Kadri by trying to instill some defensive acumen. When Kadri was 15 minutes late for a Sunday practice (Mar. 8, 2015), he was benched for one game and suspended for two more by club president Brendan Shanahan.

Wrote columnist Bruce Arthur in the Toronto Star:

It wasn’t just that Nazem Kadri slept through an alarm on Sunday morning. NHL players don’t get publicly shamed, scratched, and then further shamed and suspended two days later for being a little late. Hockey teams, especially in Canada, don’t like to make their behind–the–scenes problems public, because they know what storms will come.

So when Toronto Maple Leafs president Brendan Shanahan came out Wednesday morning and announced that Kadri would sit for two more games after being benched Monday, it meant something. On Sunday, Leafs coach Peter Horachek sent Kadri home and indicated he might bench him Monday. He did. Kadri apologized, and seemed to think that one game was the story. Some time between then and Wednesday, after gathering information, the club decided one game wasn’t enough. “There’s more to this, obviously,” said Shanahan, in a rare and hastily–announced media scrum. “We like Nazem; his teammates like him. We expect a certain level of professionalism.

“It’s time for him to start making better decisions. There comes a point where you’ve got to grow up.”

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MY PHOTO OF NAZEM KADRI AFTER THE TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS PRACTICED ON FRIDAY AT THE UNIVERSITY OF BRITISH COLUMBIA. THE LONDON, ONT. NATIVE IS NOW IN HIS EIGHTH NHL SEASON.

I remember feeling that the team–issued suspension was a breaking point for Kadri in Toronto; that he would become the latest in a largely–unbroken string of heralded prospects who underachieved (or flamed out altogether) in the post–1967 era for the Blue and White. And, though I wasn’t party to the suspect “decisions” he had been accused of away from the rink, I never quite comprehended the Leafs’ approach to Kadri. What I saw from the moment he blossomed into a full–time NHLer (in 2013) was a determined, albeit raw performer; yet a polite, well–spoken young man from a wonderful family, aching to be understood.

“Look, I was young and I did make some mistakes, for sure. But, I always felt as if I was being singled out by the team and that bothered me,” said Nazem during a brief chat we had Friday after the Maple Leafs practiced for an hour at the University of British Columbia. “I’m a proud individual and I can be outspoken. I normally don’t allow others to have their way with me. So, I really had to bite my tongue when some of that stuff was happening with the team. I so badly wanted to speak out and defend myself. But, I felt it was better to stay quiet and tell others that I understood what the Leafs were thinking… even though I didn’t.”

With Mike Babcock’s arrival last season came a new opportunity — one that Kadri, in my opinion, has vigorously availed himself of. Again, without knowing what may have held him back in his private life, I saw a kid with swagger; an athlete of smallish–to–medium build that played “bigger” on the ice, in the manner of such popular ex–Leafs as Doug Gilmour and Darcy Tucker. Sure, he had much to learn (and still is learning) about defensive positioning and awareness in the neutral zone (between the blue lines). Show me a young player that doesn’t have such difficulty. But, his puck–handling skill and deft touch around the net was fairly good compensation. And, he always tried… even when mis–directing his energy and passion to succeed.

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KADRI IN A POST–PRACTICE MEDIA SCRUM AT U.B.C. ON FRIDAY.

“All I wanted was for the Leafs to believe in me,” Kadri lamented. “To maybe focus on some of the good things and not on the other stuff. Like I said, I was younger and I did things I wouldn’t do today. But, it’s not as if I was completely different from others [on the team]. For some reason, I got singled out. I don’t know, maybe it helped. But, it was hard, and I mean really hard, personally and professionally. Through everything, all I wanted to do was win hockey games. It was my only objective. And, nothing about that has changed.”

Babcock seems to have provided Kadri more rope than his previous NHL coaches. That and the inevitable maturity with age has cultivated an above–average–to–very–good performer on most nights. While playing with his typical edge, Nazem has a respectable 10 goals and 17 points in 23 games this season. Plus, 53 penalty minutes. He is all the rage here in Vancouver for the contentious hit on Daniel Sedin when the Canucks visited Toronto, Nov. 5 (a 6–3 Leafs victory). Many on this side of the country believe he should have been suspended for igniting a third–period war between the teams that resulted in more than 150 penalty minutes. Much of the discussion on Friday at U.B.C. was whether Kadri should expect some form of revenge when the Leafs and Canucks square off at Rogers Arena Saturday afternoon (4 p.m. Pacific / 7 p.m. Eastern).

Still, I couldn’t help but wonder if the checks have been balanced. Whether Kadri is now earning respect commensurate with the grief from his earlier days in Toronto. “That’s hard for me to say and — to be honest — I really don’t spend a lot of time worrying about it,” Nazem replied. “Sometimes I think people still look at me in a different way than other young players, but my only focus right now is to help this team get better.

“We’re making strides. And, that’s all I care about.”

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KADRI, AS ALWAYS, MADE TIME FOR LEAF FANS, YOUNG AND OLD, AFTER PRACTICE HERE.

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OTHER STUFF WE SAW ON FRIDAY…

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WITH ROGERS ARENA OCCUPIED FOR A CONCERT, THE LEAFS SKATED AT THE UNIVERSITY OF BRITISH COLUMBIA — LOCATED ON A MASSIVE CLIFF AT THE FAR–EAST END OF VANCOUVER.

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HARD TO TELL WHO LOOKED MORE STERN — MIKE BABCOCK OR LEAFS–TV LEGEND PAUL HENDRICK.

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THE COACH ALSO MADE TIME FOR A CLUSTER OF LEAF ROOTERS — UBIQUITOUS IN WESTERN CANADA.

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SPEAKING OF PAUL HENDRICK, HERE HE WAS AFTER PRACTICE WITH LEAFS–TV CAMERAWOMAN NICOLE BURNS AND FORMER TORONTO MARLIES VOICE JOHN ABBOTT, NOW IN HIS FIRST SEASON CALLING THE VANCOUVER CANUCKS ON TSN–1040 RADIO.

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LEAFS ROOKIE MITCH MARNER SPENT A FEW MOMENTS MUSING TO A LOCAL SCRIBE.

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EQUIPMENT MANAGER BRIAN PAPINEAU, WHO HAS BEEN WITH THE LEAFS SINCE THE DAYS OF KING CLANCY AND CHARLIE CONACHER (OR SO IT SEEMS), GUIDES A TROLLY OF DUFFEL BAGS TO A TRUCK BOUND FOR ROGERS ARENA AND SATURDAY’S GAME AGAINST THE CANUCKS.

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ANOTHER VISITOR ON THE LEDGE OUTSIDE MY HOTEL ROOM SQUAWKED LOUDLY FOR A BITE TO EAT.

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AND, IT WAS MISERABLE AGAIN HERE IN VAN CITY ON FRIDAY AFTERNOON.

EMAIL: HOWARDLBERGER@GMAIL.COM

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