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Mirtle: Leafs’ Kadri mourns but plays on for ‘the original Nazem Kadri’

Toronto Maple Leafs Nazem Kadri (43) balances the puck with his stick during practice at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto on December 04, 2013.

Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail

It was a trip Nazem Kadri had been planning for quite some time.

He had looked into booking a charter flight, from Toronto to Beirut, using his $2.7-million (U.S.) NHL salary to fund a once-in-a-lifetime trip with his ailing grandfather to Kferdenis, Lebanon, where he had grown up an orphan before emigrating to London, Ont., in 1968.

Kadri had always wanted to give back to the man he calls "the original Nazem Kadri," who had worked in factories and ran a bowling alley while raising a family of seven.

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But their trip together will never happen. Kadri's grandfather died in his sleep earlier this week, after battling a long series of illnesses, leaving behind more than 50 family members, including the Toronto Maple Leafs 23-year-old centre.

He admitted his grandfather's illness had weighed heavily on him.

"He was in and out of hospital the last couple weeks," Kadri said. "I'd be lying if I said that stuff wasn't bothering me. It's something I was always thinking about because I was basically raised by him and my father. It was very hard to see him go. But I'm glad he's at peace now."

Kadri missed the Leafs' loss against the San Jose Sharks Tuesday to attend his grandfather's funeral but was back at practice Wednesday with a heavy heart.

Suddenly, his team's five-game losing skid and difficult December schedule didn't seem particularly dire, nor did his struggles on the ice.

Instead, Kadri was thinking about the bigger picture, including how he became an NHL player and how much he owed to the sacrifices his grandparents made. (Lebanon was deeply scarred by a 15-year civil war from 1975 to 1990.)

"If he didn't come over to Canada, I might have been born overseas and my life would have been a lot different," Kadri said.

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As it was, his father, Sam, grew up in London in the early 1970s desperately wanting to play hockey with his friends. As one of many mouths to feed in the family, however, he was never able to join them on the ice because of the costs involved.

When he became the owner of a successful auto repair shop, however, he gave his only son every opportunity to succeed in the game. Kadri ultimately became just the fourth player of Lebanese decent to make the NHL.

"I mean, he had it tough," Kadri said of his grandfather. "He was an orphan. Didn't have any support. Just kind of made it all by himself. … It was tough for him to find financial stability [for his family], especially with hockey. It's very expensive. So my father gave me every opportunity that he didn't get. That's what's part of my journey."

Despite little understanding of the sport, the elder Nazem Kadri ultimately became his grandson's biggest fan, including developing a new vocabulary for the game by using the Lebanese word for "jail" for the penalty box.

He went to games often, as Kadri excelled from an early age, watching as his grandson became a scoring sensation with 92 points in 62 games as a 15-year-old midget player before starring in the OHL with the Kitchener Rangers and London Knights.

Poor health didn't permit Kadri's grandfather to attend many Maple Leafs games at the Air Canada Centre, but Kadri always knew he was watching and called him several times a week about the team. "There's no way he'd be missing one," he said.

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Their relationship was so close their last conversation was the night before his death, and it was about how the Leafs would do against the powerhouse Sharks later that week.

"He was just talking Sunday night – he passed Monday morning – about how excited he was to watch us play San Jose," Kadri said sombrely as he stood in the Leafs dressing room. "It seemed like every time we played, he'd no longer be sick. He'd just feel so much better and it'd give him a boost of energy. That's what hits you. He's not going to be able to watch any more games."

Kadri says he intends to visit Kferdenis for the first time in honour of his grandfather.

"It's hard," he said. "I wanted to keep that promise to him, and I wasn't able to. I was planning on going with him. That was the whole idea of it. I'll definitely be back there, but it's sad that I can't take him.

"He's definitely going to be dearly missed."

Follow me on Twitter: @mirtle

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