TORONTO – A big family celebrated in eye-catching fashion last June in Montreal’s Bell Centre when the Toronto Maple Leafs drafted Nazem Kadri, seventh overall. The 18-year-old is not your usual small-town Canadian talent. He’s the highest NHL-drafted Muslim, and the first Muslim Maple Leaf.
There have been only a few players with NHL experience of Arab or Middle Eastern descent. Like Alain Nasreddine, born in Montreal with roots in Lebanon, who played 74 NHL games and who is now playing in Nuremberg, Germany. Or Ramzi Abid, a Canadian with Tunisian roots, who had 70 NHL games and currently plays for Traktor Chelyabinsk in Russia. Justin Abdelkader, of Jordanian origins, is currently in the Red Wings camp and has played four NHL games in the last two years.
The first and, so far, most experienced player of Lebanese descent was John Hanna, who was born in Nova Scotia and didn’t learn to skate until he was 13. That didn’t hinder a career as a defenceman, playing 198 NHL games in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Ed Hatoum, who had 47 NHL games from 1968 to 1971, was even born in the Lebanese capital of Beirut.
Could Kadri follow in Hanna’s footsteps? Unlike Hanna, Kadri learned to play hockey as a little kid, like many Canadians do. His father Sam Kadri landed in Ontario in 1968 as a four-year-old and wanted to play hockey, but as one of seven children in an immigrant family, the parents couldn’t afford to fulfil his wish. Now his hockey dreams come true for his son, who early realized that hockey was his game.
Kadri played junior hockey in his hometown London Knights last year, alongside the number-one draft pick John Tavares. (Another “exotic” hockey name as his grandparents immigrated from Portugal and Poland.)
Kadri calls himself a practising Muslim, who prays regularly and eats food according to halal tradition. His religiosity became most challenging during the holy month of Ramadan, the month of fasting which ended last Saturday. It is the month, devout Muslims shall abstain from eating, drinking and smoking from dawn to sunset. Exceptions are traditionally only allowed to few, like the ill or pregnant.
While sport organizations in Muslim countries can be considerate when making their schedule, it can be a major challenge for Muslim athletes in other countries. Fasting during the day conflicts with the normal training and nutrition schedule of athletes, especially at a highly competitive level. In particular, refraining from drinking can be both demanding and dangerous when doing sports.
In European football for instance, only a few Muslim players follow strict fasting during Ramadan. Most of them either don’t do it, or they only fast on non-game-days.
In hockey, there is little precedence and Kadri went to his imam – to get advice and the clearance.
“I try to fast, but when you're on the ice a couple of times a day, it's physically pretty impossible. You need to be hydrated. You need your water, things like that,” Kadri told the Toronto Sun prior to the camp. “Obviously, it's pretty hard to (fast) now. But (the Muslim community) understands the situation and supports me.”
Al Murray, Team Canada’s head scout, said to the Toronto Star that he feels Kadri is even the better skater than Tavares. “He can play all three forward positions, and all roles, from first line to fourth line. He’s real versatile,” Murray said.
Should Kadri fulfil the expectations as a first-rounder, may it be this or next year, he would not only become an NHLer but also become an idol for the Muslim community in North America.
The short list of players with Muslim background shows that there is potential for hockey to reach out to new ethnic minorities.
“It’s nice to be a role model, and hopefully I can open up some eyes,” Kadri told the Toronto Star after the draft, hoping he could inspire youths from immigrant families on the continent.
Kadri survived the first cuts and wants to make the team but it remains unclear where he will land this season. If he doesn’t make the team he’ll be assigned to his junior team as he isn’t eligible for the AHL yet.
“Unless he can play on our top two lines, he'll be playing in junior,” coach Ron Wilson said to the Toronto Sun. “I don't see much of a chance of that.”
But Kadri is competing hard and he scored the game-tying goal in the 3-2 shootout victory against Stanley Cup winner Pittsburgh Penguins last Tuesday. It could happen sooner or later, that Nazem Kadri – his forename means “organizer” in Arabic – could become a piece in Wilson’s puzzle.
While the Muslim community in North America could celebrate its first ice hockey star in 40 years, the sport is also growing in Arab countries. It has been played for some years now in the United Arab Emirates, first by expats, now more and more by Emiratis.
Next April at the 2010 IIHF World Championship Division III group in Athens, the United Arab Emirates will be the first Arab team to participate in the World Championship Program and the second team from a country with a Muslim majority after Turkey.
Malaysia, an IIHF member since 2006, has also a national team which played in the IIHF Challenge Cup of Asia. And Kuwait, which rejoined the IIHF this year, already played some exhibition games. Other IIHF countries with a notable Muslim population are Azerbaijan, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Kazakhstan and Macedonia.
Also non-member countries like Algeria, Bahrain, Morocco and Tunisia are forming hockey organizations and national teams to play exhibition games.
The coolest sport on earth is growing both within and outside of its traditional borders.