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Nazem Kadri of the Toronto Maple poses for a portrait after being selected No. 7 overall by the Leafs during the first round of the 2009 NHL Entry Draft at the Bell Centre on June 26, 2009 in Montreal.
Nazem Kadri of the Toronto Maple poses for a portrait after being selected No. 7 overall by the Leafs during the first round of the 2009 NHL Entry Draft at the Bell Centre on June 26, 2009 in Montreal.

Diversity

The new face of the good ol' hockey game Add to ...

Sam Kadri was in his car racing through the streets of London, Ont., when his brother called to tell him he had missed the birth of Nazem, his second child and only son.

"When I hung up the phone, the next song that came on the radio was Tom Cochrane's Big League," he said. "I'm not making this up. You know how the song goes, don't you? 'My son is going to play in the Big League.' Somebody was trying to tell me something."

A father's dream of the NHL is unlikely for any Canadian kid, but even more so for Nazem Kadri. The centre will be only the second Muslim to play in the NHL when he suits up for the Toronto Maple Leafs, who selected him with the seventh pick in Friday's draft.

Canada's increasing diversity hasn't been quickly reflected in the nation's favourite sport.

"I can't speak for all immigrants," said Sam, who has a garage and car dealership. "But when you come here, you want to fit in as a Canadian. Getting your son involved in hockey was a way to channel or a vehicle to becoming Canadian.

"I look back and think how fortunate we were to get involved in hockey. I can't say a bad word about our journey in hockey."

Sam's best sport was basketball. But all his friends loved hockey, so he developed a passion for the sport. He cheered for the Montreal Canadiens because they were the best hockey team when he was growing up. Years later, when he married Sue, born in Canada but of Lebanese descent, he thought to himself that if they ever had a son, he would put him into hockey.

Born and raised in Montreal, Ramzi Abid was the first Muslim to play in the NHL after being selected in the second round by the Phoenix Coyotes 11 years ago. He played 68 games for the Coyotes, Pittsburgh Penguins, Atlanta Thrashers and Nashville Predators. But his brief foray into the NHL received little attention.

There will be a larger spotlight on Mr. Kadri. He will play for the iconic Leafs in a multicultural city that has 250,000 Muslims. "It's nice for my community to be recognized as a pro hockey player," Mr. Kadri said. "There's a lot of stereotypes about Lebanese, like they don't set foot on ice, but here I am.

"Being a role model is an important thing for me. Hopefully, these kids can look at me and use me as a role model. A lot of Muslim kids are going to start playing hockey because they see someone like them be successful in that area."

That remains to be seen. Willie O'Ree was the first black player to perform in the NHL in 1958. Fifty-one years later, there are only about 20 playing in the league. Sam Kadri, however, has noticed that more Muslims and other minority groups are playing hockey.

"Absolutely, I see it already," Sam said. "The kids of my younger brother are playing and so are kids of my friends."

There have been concerns that participation in minor hockey has dwindled and that a contributing factor has been the changing ethnic makeup of Canada.

Last fall, the Leafs expressed a need to broaden their fan base. They cited statistics such as minor-hockey participation in the Greater Toronto Hockey League having gone down to 37,000 from 46,000 in the past decade, as well as the changing face of the city. Half of those who live in the Toronto area were born outside Canada, and by 2018, studies predict half of the city's population will be visible minorities.

"If this has a ripple effect on the young players in the Muslim community to take up hockey, then that's a wonderful side effect," Leafs GM Brian Burke said. "If that increases our player pool in a part of society we're not touching right now, that's great."

Mr. Kadri, 18, was president of the Muslim student association at his London high school, but his father doesn't feel there will be any extra pressure for Mr. Kadri to perform well and do the Lebanese and Muslim community proud.

"Any hockey player in the NHL has pressure to play well and be a role model," he said. "Nazem always has handled pressure well. But he doesn't just want to set an example for Muslims, but also Christians, Catholics or Jews."

Sam Kadri added that he has realigned his NHL allegiances.

"Montreal is the archenemy now," he said. "I'm still in disbelief. It's a bit overwhelming. We have a close family, and we have been fortunate that Nazem played nearby in Kitchener in his first two years of junior and then played at home in London.

"Now, in the NHL, he'll only be two hours away. We couldn't be happier."

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