The pain in Nazem Kadri’s thumb, operated on earlier this month, was so severe that he could not lace up his skates for the last three games of the Stanley Cup Final. Just gripping his stick was a chore, but he did it well enough to score one of the defining goals of a terrific series, the overtime winner in Game 4.
Nothing, Kadri claimed – not physical pain or racial abuse from opposing fans or even moments of his own indiscretion – would prevent him from participating in the final. So the medical trainers laced up his skates, as if he were a boy, and Kadri helped his teammates win the Cup, earning what he felt was a measure of redemption in the process.
“I just wanted to be in the thick of it,” Kadri said. “I didn’t want to be on the outside looking in, so I did everything I could, dedicated every hour of every day to get back in there.”
All across the ice, in the aftermath of the Colorado Avalanche’s championship-clinching victory in Game 6 on Sunday night, the joyful players told the stories behind their enormous smiles.
Nathan MacKinnon, the supremely gifted centre, had finally joined his mentor, Pittsburgh Penguins star Sidney Crosby, as an NHL champion. Jared Bednar, the coach who toiled for more than a dozen years in minor league hockey and then finished in last place in his first season with Colorado, had validated his general manager’s faith in him.
Cale Makar, who won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the postseason MVP, shared credit with his teammates. Jack Johnson, in his 16th year in the NHL, finally won a Stanley Cup after earning his degree from the University of Michigan during the same postseason. And Nicolas Aube-Kubel laughed off putting a dent in the base of the revered trophy when he accidentally banged it against the ice while moving into position for a team picture.
But perhaps none of them relished the moment more than Kadri, a 31-year-old centre, who was indeed in the thick of so much of what happened with the Avalanche during the playoffs – this year and in the past.
Kadri had a terrific season for Colorado, reaching a career-high 87 points and following it up with seven goals and eight assists when it mattered most, in 16 playoff games. But Kadri missed four postseason games after he was checked from behind into the boards by Edmonton Oilers forward Evander Kane in Game 3 of the Western Conference finals.
Kane served a one-game suspension, and Colorado took a 2-1 series lead over Tampa Bay with Kadri out of the lineup. But when he returned, he was the hero with his dramatic shot that beat Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy to win Game 4 in overtime.
“He’s a guy that in these situations, you want in your room and you want on your team,” said Colorado forward Andrew Cogliano, a 15-year NHL veteran who won his first Cup. “He proved that the other night by coming back from a serious injury that is not easy to come back from in that time frame. He makes things happen.”
Kadri also proved that despite what some may think, he can help a team win a Stanley Cup. That was in doubt for some critics, and Kadri let them all know, with a saucy declaration during a postgame interview with Sportsnet, that he remembered it all, and now has the upper hand.
It recalled David Price, the baseball pitcher who weathered years of criticism over postseason failures only to strike back after performing brilliantly in the 2018 World Series for the Boston Red Sox.
But if criticism and even abuse drive Kadri, they do not seem to consume him.
Born in London, Ont., the son of immigrants from Lebanon, Kadri proudly strives to be a role model for Arab and Muslim players in professional sports, and noted it Sunday, at the peak of his professional career.
“It means everything,” he said on the ice. “I never forget where I came from, never forget my roots. My hometown and people who have been in my corner from Day 1, and that’s my family, and I love them so much.”
Kadri was selected by the Toronto Maple Leafs with the seventh overall pick in the 2009 NHL draft, and played parts of 10 seasons in that hockey hot spot, amassing 161 goals and 196 assists.
For some Ontario natives, playing for the local Maple Leafs can be a weighty responsibility, especially because the Leafs have not won a Stanley Cup since 1967. Fairly or not, Kadri’s time in Toronto was characterized by some as a disappointment because of the team’s failure to get out of the first round.
At the same time, Kadri developed a reputation as a player who made dangerous checks that injured opponents.
He has been suspended six times for violent hits. In the 2019 playoffs, as a member of the Leafs, he delivered a retaliatory cross-check to the head of Boston’s Jake DeBrusk and was suspended for the remaining five games of the series.
And last year, his second season with Colorado, he was suspended eight games in the playoffs for a devastating hit to the head of St. Louis defenceman Justin Faulk. Without Kadri, Colorado lost its second-round series with the Vegas Golden Knights.
This year, when Kadri barrelled into St. Louis goalie Jordan Binnington during their second-round series, Blues coach Craig Berube noted Kadri’s “reputation.” Blues fans were incensed that Binnington was injured, and lashed out in the worst way.
Kadri and his family were the recipients of atrocious racial abuse and threats on social media, which his wife shared publicly. Kadri said he felt sorry for the misguided offenders, and continued to play.
As terribly as the opposing fans behaved, Kadri found comfort in support from his own fans, and thanked them for it Sunday night.
“That’s the one way to describe it, grateful,” he said. “I’m thankful for everybody that stuck by my side and been in my corner, including every single person on this staff, management, players, fans back home, fans of Denver. The fans of Denver have been unbelievable. I love those guys. It’s nice to reward them with a little something.”
That little something, of course, is the Stanley Cup, the third in the franchise’s history and its first since 2001. It is the first for Kadri, after 13 years in the NHL, including the past three with the Avs, with Kadri right in the thick of it.
“The chances aren’t great to even make the league, let alone lift the Cup over your head,” Kadri said. “What a feeling. It’s the opportunity of a lifetime, and I’m so happy we cashed in.”