In the Stanley Cup, Nazem Kadri wanted to be “in the heart of the matter”

TAMPA, Fla. — Nazem Kadri’s thumb pain, after surgery earlier this month, was so bad he couldn’t lace up his skates in the last three games of the Stanley Cup Finals. Just grabbing his stick was a chore, but he did it well enough to score one of the defining goals in 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 stop him from making 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 saw as 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, devoting every hour of every day to going back there.”

All across the ice, following the Colorado Avalanche’s decisive Game 6 win on Sunday night, the cheery players told the stories behind their huge smiles.

Nathan MacKinnon, the extremely gifted center, had finally joined his mentor, Pittsburgh Penguins star Sidney Crosby, as the NHL champion. Jared Bednar, the coach who struggled for more than a dozen years in minor league hockey and then finished last in his first season with Colorado, had validated his general manager’s confidence in him.

Cale Makar, who won the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP, shared the credit with his teammates. Jack Johnson, in his 16th year in the NHL, finally won a Stanley Cup after graduating from the University of Michigan during the same playoffs. And Nicolas Aube-Kubel laughed breach the revered trophy base when he accidentally knocked him against the ice while getting into position for a team photo.

But perhaps none of them savored the moment more than Kadri, a 31-year-old center, who was indeed at the heart of so much with the Avalanche during the playoffs – this year and in the past.

Kadri had a terrific season for Colorado, hitting a career-high 87 points and chasing it with seven goals and eight assists in the most important moment, in 16 playoff games. But Kadri missed four playoff games after being checked from behind 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 lead over Tampa Bay with Kadri out of the lineup. But when he returned, he was the hero with his spectacular shot that beat Lightning goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy to win Game 4 in overtime.

“He’s a guy that in these situations you want in your room and on your team,” said Colorado forward Andrew Cogliano, a 15-year NHL veteran who won his first Cup. “He proved that the other night when he came back from a serious injury that is not easy to recover from in that time frame. He makes things happen.”

Kadri also proved that despite what some might think, he can help a team win the Stanley Cup. That was uncertain for some critics, and Kadri let them know, with a sassy statement in a post-match interview with Sportsnet, that he remembered everything and now had the upper hand.

He recalled David Price, the baseball pitcher who withstood years of criticism over playoff failures to fight back after brilliantly playing in the 2018 World Series for the Boston Red Sox.

But if the criticisms and even the insults animate 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 come from, I never forget my roots. My hometown and the people who have been around me since day one, 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 Entry Draft and played 10 seasons in the hockey hot spot, scoring 161 goals and 196 assists. For some Ontario natives, playing for the local Maple Leafs can be a heavy responsibility, especially since the Leafs haven’t won a Stanley Cup since 1967. Like it or not, Kadri’s time in Toronto was characterized by some as a disappointment due to the team’s failure. get out of the first round.

At the same time, Kadri earned a reputation as a player who performed dangerous checks that hurt his opponents.

He was suspended six times for violent beatings. In the 2019 playoffs, as a member of the Leafs, he delivered a retaliatory crossover to Boston’s Jake DeBrusk header 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 blow to the head of St. Louis defenseman Justin Faulk in the first round. Without Kadri, Colorado lost its second-round series with the Vegas Golden Knights.

This year, when Kadri slammed into St. Louis goaltender Jordan Binnington in their second-round series, Blues coach Craig Berube pointed to Kadri’s “reputation.” Blues fans were furious that Binnington was injured and lashed out in the worst possible way.

Kadri and his family have been subjected to horrific racial abuse and threats on social media, which his wife has shared publicly. Kadri said he felt sorry for the wayward offenders and continued playing.

As terribly as opposing fans behaved, Kadri found solace in the support of her own fans and thanked them for it on Sunday night.

“That’s the only way to describe it, grateful,” he said. “I am grateful to everyone who has stuck by my side and been in my corner, including every single person from this staff, management, players, home fans, Denver fans. The Denver fans have been amazing. I like these guys. It’s nice to reward them with a little something.

That little something, of course, is the Stanley Cup, the third in franchise history. It’s the first for Kadri, after 13 years in the NHL, including the last three with the Avs, with Kadri right in it.

“The odds aren’t even great of making the league, let alone lifting the Cup over your head,” Kadri said. “What a feeling. It’s the opportunity of a lifetime, and I’m so glad we took advantage of it.

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