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Nazem Kadri is a junior hockey player and was the top draft pick by the Toronto Maple Leafs. He was up for several pre-season NHL games but is now back in his hometown playing for the London Knights of the OHL. (Peter Power)
Nazem Kadri is a junior hockey player and was the top draft pick by the Toronto Maple Leafs. He was up for several pre-season NHL games but is now back in his hometown playing for the London Knights of the OHL. (Peter Power)

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Nazem Kadri: Canada's new game face Add to ...

Hockey magic strikes with 35 seconds left in the first period. Before that, this Ontario Hockey League game between the London Knights and the Plymouth Whalers is clunky and scoreless. Nazem Kadri's father, Sam, mutters with exasperation in his first-level box.

"Come on, Naz," he grimaces each time the Knights' star forward lets the puck get away.

Nazem's mother, Sue, watches quietly but no less intently, fielding bathroom requests from her youngest daughter, Rayanne, 5, and organizing plates of chicken fingers. Sister Yasmine, 20, the eldest of the five, is texting, glancing up once in a while at a play. "Boys," her mom sighs.

For nearly 15 years - from the winter Nazem first donned a hockey jersey at age 4, and promptly helped lead his team to a championship victory, to the day this summer when the Toronto Maple Leafs called his name as a first-round draft pick - hockey has been the Kadris' full-time business.

Sam shines with pride as he recalls the day Nazem was born: As he raced into the hospital parking lot, he heard Tom Cochrane's Big League on the radio. "It just came right on: 'My kid is going to play in the big league,'" he says. "I swear to God."

Today, Sue still sends Nazem to games with spaghetti in Tupperware and frets about injuries and how soon he is likely to leave the basement of their home in the north end of London, Ont. Before his 19th-birthday party earlier this month, she found herself thinking, "This might be my last year putting balloons up."

The extended Kadri family - typically 60 aunts, uncles and cousins at each game - is scattered around the John Labatt Centre. Sam's own, elderly parents - his mother easily spotted in a white hijab among clumps of hockey jerseys - are across the ice, two rows up.

They don't speak much English - Sam's father refers to the penalty box as habis , Arabic for jail - but having arrived almost empty-handed 40 years ago from Lebanon, where they'd never heard of hockey, they understand the feat their grandson has achieved. They don't miss a game.

As the clock runs down on the period, No. 91, dancing on his skates, snatches the puck in a pass up the ice. Enough is enough, Nazem's body language says. He sweeps the puck gracefully around a Whalers defenceman, catches it again on the other side, skates in front of the net and flicks it in above the goalie's outstretched glove.

"Now that was pretty!" says Sam, when the cheering has died down. "That's what I'm talking about."

The next night, on Coach's Corner , a gushing Don Cherry will play a clip of this goal and criticize the Leafs for sending Nazem back to the OHL for experience despite a pre-season run in which he scored three goals and five assists.

But it's more than fancy stick handling that makes him special: He has a fairy-tale story that hockey, more than ever, wants to tell. Nazem Kadri is not the first Muslim to be drafted into the National Hockey League - perhaps his most prominent predecessor was Montreal's Ramzi Abid, a left-winger who played several seasons before heading to Europe in 2007. But none has faced such expectations of stardom.

It comes at a time when both minor and professional hockey are intent on drawing ethnic communities into the game.

Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke admitted on draft day that it would be good news if Nazem inspired more Muslim youth to take up the sport. "If that increases our player pool in a part of society that we're not touching right now, that's great," he said.It's often said that the great Canadian game has become a victim of complacency, watching while Canada aged, faces changed and soccer fields became more common than urban rinks.

"For a long time, the hockey tradition has been that if you open the door to the arena, the rink will fill with kids," observes Scott Oakman, executive director of the Greater Toronto Hockey League (GTHL). "That's simply not the case any more."

Hockey is still trying to build a following across ethnic groups, as basketball and soccer have done. Visible-minority teenagers play the sport at about half the rate of their white peers, according to 2005 Statistics Canada data. A study this summer found that only about one-third of Canadian teens regularly watched NHL games on TV in 2008, down 10 points since 1992.

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