Kadri rings in new challenge against familiar foe in Flames’ season opener

Calgary Flames centre Nazem Kadri skates during first period NHL preseason hockey action against the Edmonton Oilers in Calgary, Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2022. (Jeff McIntosh/CP)

CALGARY – For openers, he’ll face off against Nathan MacKinnon.

Two nights later, his assignment will be Connor McDavid.

These, admits Nazem Kadri, are the assignments he chose, representing two of the biggest reasons the 32-year-old centre was signed by the Calgary Flames as the club’s summertime cherry on top.

But before all that, Kadri will be presented with a reward far greater than the $49 million he signed here for: his Stanley Cup ring.

Hand delivered by his former Avalanche teammates hours before facing them in his Flames debut, the 18.5 carat bauble he’s seen and read about online will be placed on his finger.

“I just felt like a little kid, I was very giddy and excited,” he said of his reaction when teammates sent him photos and video of Monday’s private dinner ceremony at which players received their 669-diamond keepsakes in a box that shows a replay of the players jumping onto the ice in celebration when opened.    

“They look fantastic. I think they did a great job with them. I’ve seen a lot of angles, they look pretty sweet.

“Something we earned, and I can’t wait to get my hands on it.”

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How perfect that the moment he’s dreamed of all summer will come as part of a Disney-like opening night matchup.

“It seems like the story just keeps getting better and better somehow,” beamed Kadri, whose dramatic return from playoff injury, celebratory invitation for doubters to kiss his ass, and Cup day at his London-area mosque have kept him in a perpetual spotlight.

“I obviously didn’t plan (playing the Avs first).

“I’d looked at the schedule after I signed with Calgary and saw that first matchup. It is a bit ironic, but at the end of the day it’s also kind of nice to get it over with and work on getting two points.”

Heralded as the most coveted free agent on the market this summer not named Gaudreau, Kadri spent plenty of time debating his next destination, as several suitors coveted his delicious blend of grit, offence, defence, leadership and experience.

A classic Darryl Sutter type, whose ability to limit the damage of the conference’s top centres had oodles to do with Brad Treliving’s month-long pursuit to move mountains and (Sean) Monahan to bring him here.

“I love it – I’d rather it no other way,” he said when asked about opening in Calgary against a double-dose of hockey deity.

“I embrace that.

“I know us as a team, but me as a player, I want to play against the best and with the best. It brings the best out of me.”

Sure did last spring when he followed up an 87-point campaign with seven big goals and 15 points in 16 playoff battles.

And that he completed the journey with a key goal in the final after returning from a mid-run thumb injury many believe would have shelved most players’ imminent comeback hopes.

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It was during his three-year stint in Denver where the former Maple Leaf learned the final lessons needed to ascend to hockey’s highest honour – something Sutter hopes “Naz” will impart on his brimming bunch.

Might he be willing to share how he intends to try shutting down the Great Nate?

“It’s a secret,” laughed Kadri, who will start the year with the tenacity of Andrew Mangiapane on his right and Dillon Dube on his left. 

“Thankfully, for the last few years I’ve been going head-to-head with him in practice and it’s not easy. He’s a great player and he’s certainly a hard competitor too, and wants to win more than anything. 

“I’ve got nothing but great things to say about that guy, and that team, and it’s going to be a chore. 

“But we can do it.”

Kadri’s presence up the middle gives the Flames the sort of strength and versatility up the middle the franchise hasn’t had since the early 90’s.

On any given night Sutter now has the luxury to deploy Mikael Backlund’s line (alongside Blake Coleman and Trevor Lewis Thursday) as its chief shutdown trio, while also feeling confident Kadri’s line or that of Selke Trophy finalist Elias Lindholm are up to the task.

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Asked why he thinks Flames fans are going to fall in love with Kadri from the get-go, Sutter smiled.  

“Old School,” said Sutter.

“Shows up for work. Remember the identity here, hard work and honest players. He’s a hard worker and honest player.”

Comfortably immersed in a tight dressing room that welcomed him and his toolbox, Kadri’s goal now is to quickly find chemistry with linemates and take full grasp of a system custom-made for a skillset and attitude like his.    

Kadri, was gathered by Sutter for an on-ice confab Wednesday with fellow Cup winners Lewis, Tyler Toffoli, Blake Coleman and Milan Lucic to establish the tone he wants them to set. 

“It was more of a leadership thing, lead by example and we expect that out of ourselves,” said Kadri, who was excited to watch Colorado’s banner unveiling on TV Wednesday night.

“Just making sure everybody is on the same page.

“I can’t wait to get started.”

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