Colorado Avalanche center Nazem Kadri has been the focus of much debate during his career, from questions about his maturity to his frequent run-ins with the NHL Department of Player Safety.
But the debate over whether the NHL snubbed him for its All-Star Game this season? That was a new one for Kadri.
“I believe that he deserves to be there this year,” said Avalanche coach Jared Bednar, standing up for his player. “It’s a career year. Just because he’s not a guy that’s been there every year … if you’re talking this year, he deserves to be there.”
Avalanche center Nathan MacKinnon, an All-Star captain, was less diplomatic, questioning the very structure of the event in calling for Kadri’s inclusion.
“It’s silly. I don’t think every team should send a guy. It’s a silly rule,” MacKinnon said. “Naz is, what, second or third in scoring in the NHL and he has to get voted in?”
Kadri did earn his All-Star spot thanks to the fans, who voted him as the “Last Man In” for the Central Division. Whether one believes the All-Star Game should be a meritocracy or a platform for the league’s brightest stars, Kadri belonged there in either case this season.
Through 33 games, Kadri was fifth in the NHL and first on the Avalanche with 49 points, including 14 goals — in a contract year, no less. He’s produced wherever Colorado has needed him this season, playing on its top line when MacKinnon was injured or with frequent linemates Andre Burakovsky and Valeri Nichushkin. In fact, Kadri has generated 4.7 points for every 60 minutes he’s played this season.
“I hadn’t heard that [stat] before,” he told ESPN, excitedly.
Kadri’s previous career best was 61 points in 83 games with the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2016-17. The center is producing at a rate that has him on track for 117 points this season.
What has turbo boosted Kadri’s offensive game?
“People keep asking me that, and I don’t know, man,” he said. “I’ve always tried to envision myself as a high-impact offensive player, while looking after my own end, too. I’ve put up some good offensive numbers throughout my career, even in junior. I’ve been a pretty prolific scorer. I definitely have a knack for the net. Playing for a great team, with such great teammates, they’ve put me in a position to really succeed. I’ve just tried to run with it.”
Bednar said Kadri’s success starts with his mindset.
“For me the biggest difference in Naz’s game this season is an increased level of determination in his play. A heaviness to this game, and a grittiness to his game. When he plays too cute of a game, it’s not as effective. He’s put in the work first and his skill has been shining through,” he told ESPN.
Bednar has rewarded Kadri with increased ice time. He averaged 16:28 per game last season. That average has jumped by over two minutes per game to 18:47 this season. He’s earned first-unit power-play time on a team loaded with offensive talent.
“As a competitive player, I want to be out there as much as I can. The coaching staff has really seen that,” he said. “I want to be an X factor. I want to be a difference-maker. Every time I step on the ice, I want to make something happen.”
In the playoffs, Kadri has been known for making something happen. Unfortunately for his teams, and his reputation, his actions have taken him off the ice in the most critical part of the season. Like last postseason, when an eight-game suspension caused him to miss the entirety of Colorado’s six-game second-round loss to Vegas.
“It was upsetting sitting out. I had that chip on my shoulder all summer,” he said.
Kadri has been suspended six times in his career, which is a significant amount for any 13-year veteran. But it’s not how many games he’s served, but when he’s had to serve them.
His first three bans were in the regular season, and all for hits to the head:
By April 2018, Kadri was squarely on the Department of Player Safety’s naughty list when he was suspended for Games 2 through 4 of the Maple Leafs‘ first-round series loss to the Boston Bruins for a brutal hit from behind on Tommy Wingels. He skated across the ice and jumped into his check while Wingels was on his knees near the boards — retaliation for a hit that Wingels had delivered on Leafs forward Mitchell Marner.
In April 2019, it was déjà vu: Kadri saw Jake DeBrusk of the Bruins deliver a hard check to teammate Patrick Marleau and retaliated with a cross-check to DeBrusk’s head in almost the same part of the ice where he delivered the hit on Wingels. Kadri was suspended for the remainder of the first-round series between Toronto and Boston, which the Leafs lost in seven games for the second straight season.
The 2019 playoffs were his last with the Maple Leafs, who traded him to the Avalanche in a deal for defenseman Tyson Barrie and forward Alexander Kerfoot. GM Kyle Dubas said it was a hockey trade; many in Toronto felt it was in response to his postseason suspensions. When a franchise hasn’t won a playoff series since 2004, the hot seats are always turned to boiling.
Now with the Avalanche, things were quiet for Kadri on the suspension front until May 2021. It was another playoff game, in a series against the St. Louis Blues. It was another hit to the head, this time on defenseman Justin Faulk.
From a punitive standpoint, Kadri was out of the “repeat offender” window for the department of player safety. But the NHL still took into account the totality of his suspension history and banned him for eight games — something Kadri appealed and had denied by an independent arbitrator.
“It was just a tad [not executed], for many reasons,” said Kadri, looking back on the hit. “It’s not like someone got under my skin and I did something stupid.”
Kadri feels these incidents get mischaracterized. But he knows, better than most, that once a player is on the radar of the department of player safety, it’s difficult to leave it.
“I’m not trying to hurt anybody. People don’t quite understand how quickly something can happen in the blink of an eye. Someone opens their body up or drops their shoulders … there are so many different variables to go through in a split second,” he said. “I’ve dealt with the consequences. I’ve answered the bell when I’ve had to. Now I’m hoping to put that stuff behind me.”
Kadri said he tries to keep criticism of his playoff suspensions “on the back burner” and control what he can control. “Nobody mentions that when I am playing, I’m playing pretty well in the playoffs. For me, that’s what it’s all about: focusing on playing hockey,” he said.
The only way to change the perception of Kadri as a playoff liability — not through his play, but through his attendance — is by avoiding further supplemental discipline. But he believes he’s in a different place than he was in those Boston series and believes an incident like the one against the Blues can be avoided.
“I think I’ve grown from that part of my life. I’ve grown as a player and a person,” he said.
Indeed, in the Colorado locker room, he’s one of the grown-ups. The 31-year-old Kadri is one of only four skaters on the roster over the age of 30.
“Yeah, don’t remind me,” he said, laughing. “It’s bittersweet. We’ve got a young team. I’ve embraced trying to be a leader and an example for the younger guys.”
Kadri said that when faced with a younger group of teammates, maturity just happens naturally for veteran players.
“You’re forced into that position a little bit,” he said. “But I’ve maybe had to grow up a little quicker than I wanted to.”
Kadri was born in London, Ontario, the province where his grandparents moved from Lebanon when Kadri’s father was 4 years old.
He began skating at 2 years old and joined his first hockey team around age 4. He had undeniable skill on the ice. What he lacked, Kadri said, were players in the NHL that looked like him, as he rose through the ranks in a predominantly white sport.
“It would have meant the world [to have role models]. Obviously, I had the type of personality to persevere, get through it all. But it was hard on me,” he said.
Kadri still carries the emotional scars from those early years.
“I can’t remember how many [racial] incidents I had to go through. Especially at a super young age, you know? These things become traumatic. I’m 31 years old now and I remember some of these incidents happening when I was 10 or 11 or 12. For them to stick with me this long, they must have had some impact on me,” he said.
Kadri was one of the first members of the Hockey Diversity Alliance, founded in June 2020 by several NHL players of color. Its mission is to eradicate systemic racism and intolerance in hockey. Its existence, Kadri said, would have been incredible when he was a young hockey player.
“If I had seen guys that looked like me and made it to the highest level — playing in the league that I wanted to play in — and they said they had to deal with this stuff too? I think it would have been very reassuring to me,” he said. “There was nothing around like this when I was growing up, or when Wayne [Simmonds] or Matt [Dumba] were growing up. For us to get people to see things from a different perspective, it’s all we want.”
Kadri was part of that remarkable news conference in August 2020 during the “bubble” postseason, when two days of playoff games were postponed as a form of protest against systemic racism and police brutality. He wore a Cassius Clay hoodie to the press conference, as rows of white NHL players stood in support of Kadri, Ryan Reaves and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare.
“That was incredible. Very powerful. To see everybody standing behind each other — literally and metaphorically. Even if they didn’t come from the BIPOC community. At the end of the day, they understand that no matter your ethnicity or your background, if you have the talent to play in this league, they want you as a teammate. It’s almost like a brotherhood,” he said.
Kadri, who identifies as Muslim, has used his NHL platform to create awareness for the causes for which he’s passionate. His Nazem Kadri Foundation has raised a few million dollars through the years for various causes, and has partnered with both Islamic Relief and the Humanitarian Coalition. He sought to bring attention to the humanitarian crisis in Beirut in 2020. “They’re in need right now and I’d do anything to help,” he said at the time.
In September 2021, he was one of the only NHL players to call out the Ukrainian Hockey League for its lack of suitable punishment for Kremenchuk player Andriy Deniskin, who mimed peeling and eating a banana in the direction of Donbass player Jalen Smereck, who is Black.
“There’s still a lot of work to do,” said Kadri. “People are evolving. Even those types of people that feel that have that hate deep down inside of them, they’re starting to closet it a little more. Because they understand that it can be hurtful. And there are more and more people around the world that are holding them accountable, because that’s just not the proper way to treat any kind of human being.”
For Kadri, speaking out and being visible is important for the next generations of BIPOC players.
“Luckily, I had the mental toughness to get through it all. In today’s generation, maybe not everyone is as mentally strong. Since mental health has become a big issue, I feel it’s important that we reach out,” he said.
Kadri believes that certain elements of hockey culture has prevented talented young athletes of color from participating in or sticking with the game.
“There was a lot of talent wasted. People see the dark side to any professional sport. There’s a lot that you didn’t understand how it would be until you’ve seen it firsthand. I think a lot of players in the BIPOC community, especially these days, might get a little bit discouraged and not want to play the game anymore,” he said.
“They might have an ultra amount of talent, future stars of the league possibly. I think we’ve got to make this a safer place for them, which is what we’ve been preaching this whole time.”
Bednar has been impressed with Kadri’s growth on and off the ice.
“He’s really bought into our team system. It’s been increasing over the years for me. He really wants to win and he’s doing whatever it takes. He’s become a real leader for us. An unselfish, team-first guy,” said the coach. “For example, he’s now killing penalties for us, and taking on a bigger defensive role.”
While his offensive game didn’t always get appreciated, Kadri’s defensive game has gotten noticed. In Toronto, he was seen as a shutdown center who could also score, hitting the 30-goal mark twice. It’s a role he’s filled with the Avalanche too. The only awards votes he’s ever received in his 13-season career were for the Selke Trophy, given to the league’s best defensive forward, and even then, he never cracked the top 20.
One of the NHL Awards voting tropes is that players only win the Selke after they’ve had an outstanding offensive campaign.
Like, say, the one Kadri is having.
“You know what? Start pitching it, man,” he said, laughing. “Get that out there.”
Kadri is his own best hype machine with this play this season, and his timing couldn’t be better. He’s in the final season of a cap-friendly, six-year deal that carries a $4.5 million average annual value. With his scoring breakout, his next deal will leave the current one in the dust.
Kadri said his contract talks are something for after the season.
“As much as I think about that, it’s something I try to keep in the back of my mind. Not get ahead of myself. Try to take it on a cliché basis: One day at a time, focus on the next game,” he said. “I don’t want to think about down the road or where I’ll be or at what number it’s going to be at or for how long. That can be settled after the season. I gotta take care of business first.”
The business at hand is helping the Colorado Avalanche get over the postseason hump to play for either a conference or Stanley Cup championship, something they’ve not done since 2002. The Avalanche have lost in the second round of the playoffs for three straight seasons.
The NHL is littered with recent Cup winners that had to stumble before they sprinted — the Washington Capitals and Tampa Bay Lightning being chief among them. Kadri said keeping the right mindset is paramount for the Avalanche.
“That falls on the guys in the room. We’ve got a great group for that. Everyone stays loose in the room. We enjoy being around each other,” he said. “That’s what comes with expectations: pressure. We try to embrace that as much as possible. We want to be considered as one of the best teams in the league. We’ve been knocking on the door for a few years now. We’ve all matured, all grown. I hope we can take that next step this year.”
For Kadri, the next step will be earned through personal and professional growth; through the maturity not to put his team at a playoff disadvantage again; and through the hard work he put in during the offseason that’s enabled him to be one of the 2021-22 NHL season’s breakout stars.
And, after some debate, one of its All-Stars.
“I worked my a– off,” Kadri said. “I’m having a good start. I’m hoping for a good finish.”