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Nazem Kadri Breaks Barriers for Future Hockey Players of Color

When the final buzzer sounded during Sunday’s Game 6 of the 2022 Stanley Cup, I got a little teary-eyed.

It wasn’t because the Colorado Avalanche, who I had adopted as my second team after the Toronto Maple Leafs were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs (again), had clinched the Stanley Cup. Nor was it out of spite against the Tampa Bay Lightning, the reigning back-to-back champions who had eliminated my Leafs.

Those tears were for one player and what he meant to millions of hockey-loving Muslims and Middle Easterners across North America: Nazem Kadri.

On Sunday, Kadri, the Avalanche’s no. 91-wearing Canadian-Lebanese centre, became the first Muslim player in the National Hockey League’s 104-year history to win the Stanley Cup.

“I never forget where I came from, never forget my roots,” Kadri said following the victory.

The immigrant experience

Born to Samir and Sue Kadri in London, Ontario, the Kadri family story is one many new immigrants to North America can relate to. Kadri’s grandparents were born in Kfar Danis, Lebanon, and they moved to Ontario in the 1960s to provide a better life for their children. 

The family used hockey to assimilate into Canada and get a better understanding of Canadian culture. Kadri’s father, who goes by Sam, even wanted to play hockey when he was younger, but his family couldn’t afford the heavy equipment, league and travel fees that came with playing the sport. 

So when Nazem, Sam and Sue’s only son, was born Oct. 6, 1990, Sam wanted to give him the opportunity to play the game circumstances had prevented him from playing.

“For us, we’re Canadians at heart, first and foremost,” Sam told NHL insider Chris Johnston. “We’re proud to be Muslim Canadians. I think [seeing Nazem win is] going to do a lot for the younger generations.”

But despite many new immigrants like Kadri using ice hockey as a way to get to know their new country, the sport has rarely loved us back.

For decades, professional ice hockey was a white man’s sport. It took 31 years for the NHL to see its first nonwhite player, when Chinese Canadian Larry Kwong broke the colour barrier in 1948.

Other firsts soon followed. Art Dorrington became the first Black player to sign a contract with an NHL team in 1950; Fred Sasakamoose was the first Indigenous player to debut in the NHL in 1953; and in 1958, the NHL saw the first Black player (Willie O’Ree) and the first player of Lebanese descent (John Hanna) to make their debuts.

But those firsts all happened decades after the league’s founding, and many of those players faced racism and discrimination during their playing careers. 

Take Val James for example, the first African American player to play in the NHL. His stints in the NHL were short — 11 games across two seasons with two different teams. Yet, following his retirement in 1987, he couldn’t watch a hockey game for a decade without being haunted by the memories of his treatment as a Black NHL player.

Even at the junior level, there seems to be discrimination against BIPOC players. I should know because I believed it happened to me. 

My experience with ball hockey

When I was about 12 years old, I played in a house league ball hockey league in Scarborough, Ont. I don’t remember how much my family paid to register me in the league, but it was a substantial amount, especially when equipment fees were factored in. I was a goalie, and my dad paid nearly $300 for my mask alone.

The registered players were split up into various different teams, with each team given one goalie. I was on a team called ‘the Sharks’, and it appeared as though I would be guaranteed  good 10 regular-season games being the team’s only goalie. 

But before the second game of the season, my coach made an announcement: our majority-white team had gotten a new goalie. I was devastated.

After the game (in which the second goalie started; I was forced to play defense, a position I had never played before), my white coach spoke to me and the other goalie about the situation. He made it clear that he was going to split game-time between us evenly, with alternating starts.

It seemed fair, at least given the new situation. But the coach, despite being the one to promise equal game time, never delivered. After I played the next game in goal, the second goalie was given all of the starts for the rest of the season and the playoffs — and I was forced to play defense (again, a position I wasn’t accustomed to), looking like a doofus in my goalie mask because I didn’t have a player helmet.

Later in the season, I learned from one of my teammates whose family was close to the other goalie’s family that the coach had personally reached out to the other goalie and his family, asking them to sign up for the league and play for the team. 

Mind you, this was after the season had started — and while I didn’t have the best of games (I conceded somewhere between 5 and 7 goals), I don’t think it was enough for my coach to shop for a new goalie in this under-12 league.

I never suspected any discrimination at the time, mostly because my tween brain couldn’t fathom being discriminated against for my religion or background. But looking back at it after more than a decade, I question why the coach felt the need to replace the only nonwhite member of the ball hockey team, so much so that he personally reached out to another goalie to register with his team. I also wondered why he never honored the promise he made to me that I would get even game time in net. After all, I had signed up to play as a goalie, and my parents paid good money for this commitment.

Although I will never get an answer to these burning questions as to the coach’s intentions for me in regards to discrimination, this experience left a pretty sour taste in my mouth. I only played one more season in this specific league, and within a few years, I had given up on hockey entirely.

After all, why invest so much into a sport that just didn’t seem to love me back?

Hockey’s white problem

The situation has since gotten better for players of color. These days, there are more Muslim and Middle Eastern-specific hockey leagues in the Greater Toronto Area and around Canada, such as the I-Slam hockey.  

I also regularly play street hockey with some members of the Shia Muslim community in Pickering, Ont., and they are by far some of the best hockey players I’ve ever played against.

There are also more NHL players of African, Asian and Middle Eastern descent now than ever before.

Kadri isn’t even the first Middle Eastern player to win the Stanley Cup. Justin Abdelkader, whose paternal grandfather is Jordanian, won the Cup in 2008; Brandon Saad, whose father is from Syria, won the Cup twice in 2013 and 2015; and Patrick Maroon, who is of Lebanese descent from his father’s side, won the Cup in 2019, 2020 and 2021.

But the NHL still has a significant white problem. As recently as 2011, the league was more than 90 percent white. 

This stat pales in comparison to other major North American sports leagues, such as Major League Soccer, in which just over 50 percent of its players were African American or Hispanic; the National Basketball League, in which nearly 75 percent of players were African American in 2019; and Major League Baseball, in which only 57 percent of its players were white in 2020.

Despite measures to improve diversity and tackle racism in the NHL, such as the Hockey Diversity Alliance (of which Kadri is an executive board member), players of color like Kadri are still subjected to racist attacks.

Just take a look at what happened to Kadri earlier these playoffs. After Kadri collided with St. Louis Blues goaltender Jordan Binnington during Game 3 of the second round of the playoffs, Kadri received enough threats of violence that local law enforcement had to get involved.

Kadri’s wife, Ashley, later posted hateful messages the Kadris received on an Instagram account she runs for Jazzy, the family’s pet cat. These include comments that Kadri gets on a plane that “blows up in Muhammad’s name,” and questions about where a then-10-year-old Kadri was during 9/11.


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A post shared by Jazzy Kadri (@jazzykadri)

[Source: Instagram, @jazzykadri]

This vitriol was not uncommon in professional ice hockey, as other BIPOC players like Wayne Simmonds, Jalen Smereck and Jordan Subban can attest too. That’s why, despite the average NHL fan base being about 40 percent nonwhite, hockey still has a long way to go before hockey before becoming a BIPOC-friendly sport. 

An inspiration for future generations

Still, there’s reason to hope that change is on the horizon. There are more nonwhite players in the NHL now than there ever was before, and an average fan base racial makeup of 2/5 is not bad for a sport that long was — and still largely is — a white man’s sport.

Furthermore, there’s no doubt that the success of players like Kadri will contribute to the continued normalization of BIPOC players in the sport. The image of Kadri, a brown-skinned, bearded Muslim man, lifting the Stanley Cup high above his head is going to live in the minds of young Muslims and Muslimahs for generations to come.

And while I’ll never get to experience the joy of playing hockey at a professional level, it gives me comfort knowing that my — and the rest of my communities’ — future children and grandchildren won’t have to grow up doubting their place in hockey as much as I did. And it’s due in large part to the success of our brothers like Nazem Kadri.

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