Back home, Muslim hockey community beaming after Kadri’s historic moment

Colorado Avalanche forward Nazem Kadri speaks post-game about how grateful he is to win his first Stanley Cup, and mentions his team's belief and confidence in each other during this playoff run.

After the Stanley Cup had passed through the hands of every winner in a Colorado Avalanche sweater on Sunday night, after all but a small pack of fans had filtered out of Amalie Arena, and the frenzy had settled slightly, Nazem Kadri and his father Samir stood out on the ice, arms around each other, spinning with excitement. His mother Sue was nearby, head shaking and hand over her mouth in disbelief at what her son had just achieved, before soon joining in the embrace, too.

Huddled there, under the lights, the Kadris held each other and soaked it all in. And back home in Ontario, in countless households throughout the province, so many others watched on with that same look in their eye, that same joyful disbelief. Not simply for the end of Colorado’s two-decade Cup drought, or for the former Toronto Maple Leaf getting his ring, but for something bigger.

For the first time in NHL history, a Muslim player had won the Stanley Cup, and would have his name etched upon it.

Back in the Kadris’ home province, it was a moment many a Muslim hockey lover will never forget. And one that required some agonizing moments endured before it arrived.

Omar Essawi, who’s part of the committee that runs the Muslim ball hockey league I-Slam Hockey out of North York, spent those final, tense moments of Game 6 with eyes flitting between the television and his phone, where his WhatsApp group chats were chiming away frenetically.

“Oh, man,” he says. “Whether it was the I-Slam [group chat] or another hockey group with some Muslims that I play with on the weekend, we were all just kind of anticipating, all just counting down the end of the game.”

It was the same story for Humaira Sedu, founder of Toronto’s Muslimah Athletic Club, an organization providing community for Muslim women who want to play the game. “I was counting down. I was like, ‘30 seconds, 20 seconds, 15,” she says. “My brother had just come home — he was walking in the door and I’m yelling at him, counting down the numbers, like, ‘They’re doing it! They’re doing it!’”

Mohammad Hafejee was trying to get through his annual meeting to plan out the next season for the Scarborough Muslim Ball Hockey Association (SMBHA), the formalities pausing here and there as the score in the corner of a nearby screen ticked up. It paused for a longer stretch once that screen showed No. 91 lifting the Cup above his head. “We had four or five of us there, and were just so excited,” Hafejee says. “I’m so proud. … As a Muslim, a South Asian, we don’t have that many role models in sports. Especially when hockey is not very diverse.

“Even if you look at the Colorado Avalanche and the Lightning, there’s not much diversity there. You can see all the players, for the most part, they look the same. To see Naz up there, you could tell, ‘Hey, he’s one of us. He’s one of our guys.’ I felt honoured.”

“That is huge, absolutely huge,” adds Essawi. “What it really means to me, watching him gain this achievement, is just this possibility that we can do it, right? That we belong. That our children can now take up ice hockey and have someone to reference, someone to look up to and say, ‘He did it. His family did it. We can also do it.’”

For the Kadris themselves, the weight of that historic moment, and the impact it was sure to have throughout the country, wasn’t lost in the glorious chaos of that on-ice celebration.

“We’re Canadians at heart, first and foremost — and we’re proud to be Muslim Canadians,” Samir Kadri told Sportsnet’s Luke Fox on Sunday. “I think it’s gonna do a lot for the younger generations.”

Added his son, the man of the hour: “It means everything. I never forget where I came from, never forget my roots.”

Hafejee’s roots weren’t all that different from Kadri’s. Like No. 91, he inherited his love of hockey from his father, Saleh, who came to Canada in the ‘70s and instantly fell in love with the Montreal Canadiens. It was Saleh who founded the SMBHA back in 2004 as a way to allow Muslim kids in Scarborough a chance to play the game, even if their families couldn’t afford ice hockey’s hefty price tag. And it was Saleh’s games that inspired young Mohammad long before the NHLers, and long before the latter took the reins of the Scarborough league.

“Growing up, my dad used to play ball hockey — him and his buddies used to rent a gym or a cafeteria and they’d play hockey across community centres, across Scarborough. I remember going there with a stick, me and my brother playing after they finished their games,” Hafejee says. “And then with my friends, along the street we lived in, in Scarborough — Markham and Lawrence — we would always play hockey. Every day on the weekend, every day of the summer, we’d pretty much be up at breakfast, watch some cartoons in the morning, and then from the afternoon ‘til the evening, we’d play.”

Sedu’s life in the game began to bloom just as Kadri’s NHL career did, around a decade ago. As he was taking his first spins in big-league rinks, she was taking hers near Flemingdon Park. “That’s where I’m from, that’s where I grew up playing,” she says. “Then that just grew, ‘til I started playing in school, playing in leagues, playing recreationally.” It didn’t take long to spot the gaps in need of bridging, Sedu often one of only a couple girls on her team, and rarely teammates with anyone who looked like her. “Especially being a Muslim girl, a hijabi, you don’t really get to see it that often,” she says.

“Coming from this community where 90 per cent of people are Muslim, or people of colour… I know that people are interested. So I’m like, ‘Let me start something where I can create that opportunity to fill in the gap.'”

It was the era of No. 13 in blue and white that had a young Essawi first reaching for a hockey stick. But like many in his neighbourhood, he opted to pair it with an orange ball instead of a puck. “[Ice] hockey was cost-prohibitive at that time. I come from an immigrant family. So, naturally we picked up the next best thing, which is ball hockey,” he says, “trying to replicate the Sundin backhand, the Alexander Mogilny snapshot.”

I-Slam was founded nearly two decades ago, long before Essawi joined the organization, but now as a key part of its organizing committee, he’s continuing its original vision. “I-Slam was born out of the idea that we wanted to have a space for our community to develop our own hockey players,” he says. “The vision was that we were able to celebrate the game, this Canadian game, in our own community, and make it accessible for our families.

“Sometimes we feel a little bit apprehensive about holding space in some of the bigger leagues, so we decided to create our own. That way, our kids can get introduced at their own pace.”

Like Essawi, Sedu and Hafejee grew up as Leafs fans. And so it was a storybook turn of events when their beloved blue-and-white drafted Kadri, and even better when he went on to become the most prominent Muslim player in the game. It was a dream come true when the young centreman, during his time as a Leaf, showed up to The Salaam Cup — a massive, annual ball hockey tournament for Muslim players in Ontario — to cheer on the festivities, with I-Slam and SMBHA players in attendance.

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Nazem Kadri after being selected by the Toronto Maple Leafs in the 2009 NHL Draft. (Ryan Remiorz/CP)

It’s why, even after Toronto traded Kadri away, many back home continued to cheer him on.

“I’m not even an Avs fan, I’m really just a Kadri fan,” says Sedu. “I’m a Kadri fan, I’m a Leafs fan, that’s where my heart is.” Adds Essawi: “Even though he’s not necessarily a player of our home team anymore, he’s still someone that we were rooting for from the beginning. Even in the last playoffs. You know, once the Maple Leafs are out, we’re definitely on Team Naz from that point.”

And so they cheered on Kadri as he moved west, watching him don Avs colours and find a new level. Watching him turn in a dominant campaign in 2021-22, and emerge as a key piece of a contending Colorado squad. And watching as that career-best season was marred by an onslaught of racist abuse during these playoffs.

“It was absolutely disgusting, the threats him and his wife received in those messages,” Hafejee says. “And I think just the way that Naz responded to all of it shows his true character.”

“It’s been painful, and sad,” Sedu says, adding that it’s tough to understand how exactly Kadri made it through all that was thrown his way. “For a player of that level, you have to put so much focus on your game, and then people are saying mean things to you, your family, sending threats to your family. Now you have police involved. And then you’re injured, and you have surgery, and there’s all these things going on in your head.”

For Essawi, what stood out most was how familiar it felt. “I think [it’s] what a lot of Muslims go through when they’re trying to hold space in an environment where they’re not as commonly found,” he says. “I think what happened to him was definitely unfortunate — and I think it’s definitely something that we as a community deal with on a regular basis. Especially those that are maybe a little bit more representative of the community. … They definitely face these type of comments regularly.

“And I commend Naz and how he handled it, and how patient he was, how he didn’t really try to hurl anything back. I think he handled it in a way that we as a community can be proud of.”

And then came Sunday, those final seconds ticking down, the weight of the history setting in, a different kind of pride overflowing. Not just in Sedu’s house, or in Essawi’s or in Hafejee’s — but all over Ontario, amid all those households touched by Muslimah Athletic Club, by I-Slam Hockey, by the SMBHA, or any of the many other groups bringing Muslim hockey fans and players together.

“Five days ago, we introduced a one-day clinic for ball hockey. After that game, I looked at how many people have signed up for that clinic, and we had about 97 registrations,” says Sedu. “Ninety-seven people signing up in five days? That’s huge. That’s more than we can even imagine. … This is all Muslim women who are excited to play hockey, to learn to play hockey.” There’s no doubt Kadri’s moment of triumph played a part. “They’re all so inspired. Their love for the game grows. And that’s how we grow the game,” she says.

“You find people who you connect with, and they inspire you to keep going, keep playing. They inspire you to love the game.”

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Essawi saw it bubbling up in his community even before those final seconds ticked down. “I’m a teacher. You know, the buzz around school — even though he’s not a Toronto Maple Leaf anymore — the kids are bringing their hockey sticks to school, the Muslim kids in particular, and they’re really proud,” he says. “I mean, he represents a certain segment of Canadian society that, when it comes to professional sports, largely they feel like it’s out of their reach. … He’s showing a lot of parents that they can do it.”

That Cup-clinching moment meant just a little bit more for Hafejee — for his own fandom, but also for how it brought his family’s story full circle. “My father passed away last year,” he says. “We were cleaning up his stuff after he’d passed and we found this article.” It was a copy of the Toronto Star that Saleh had tucked away in his safe, without explanation. Combing through it, Mohammad found a piece penned by his dad, a letter to the editor about the Leafs drafting Kadri, what it meant to him and to the Muslim ball hockey community.

“The tournaments that my dad played in, the older generation, they used to get bullied. … So to see where we’ve come from and now where we are, it’s huge. It’s a monumental step. And now to say that we have our name on the Stanley Cup — a Muslim name on the Stanley Cup — it means the world to us. … In 2009 my dad wrote this [letter], and now we’re talking about him 15 years later being a Stanley Cup champion.”

More than anything else, though, it’s the little ones that Hafejee, Essawi and Sedu think of most when they reflect on what Kadri’s moment means, on who the ripple effects will move most profoundly. For those who were around to see No. 91 become the first, it was a great day. But for the kids who will grow up with Kadri’s championship ways to point to, it’ll be something else entirely.

“For our children to look at that moment and really feel like, you know what, maybe I can do that too, maybe I can have my name on the Cup… it really is a reference point for us,” Essawi says. “For all of us, [but] especially our young kids, to say, ‘I want to be like Naz one day. I want to have my name on the Cup. I want to play with the greatest of the greats, and the best players in the world.’”

It’s that permanence that ensures the impact of Kadri’s Stanley Cup moment will endure. Those 10 letters, soon to be etched forever in silver.

“All the kids are going to look for his name when they go visit the Stanley Cup at the Hockey Hall of Fame” Hafejee says. “They’re all going to be searching for his name, finding his name.

“Saying, ‘Hey, he’s one of us.’”

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