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When Nazem Kadri hoisted the Stanley Cup, he lifted a whole community along with it

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This is a column by Shireen Ahmed, who writes opinion for CBC Sports. For more information about CBC’s Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

Throughout these riveting NHL playoffs, my mind was not only on the results of the games but the impact of the winners. As the Colorado Avalanche inched closer to clinching their Stanley Cup final win, my thoughts turned to the Av’s Nazem Kadri. 

Kadri is a Muslim man of Lebanese descent. Last month, Kadri’s wife, Ashley, posted the hateful messages the Kadris are getting on an Instagram account that she runs for Jazzy, the family pet. Yes, people were sending violently racist messages to the account of a tuxedo cat. 

The majority of the abusers were purported to be St. Louis Blues fans who were livid that Kadri was involved in a collision with goaltender Jordan Binnington. (Binnington later admitted he threw a water bottle at Kadri while in search of a recycling bin. “It is what it is,” Binnington said at the time. “It’s hockey. It’s a competitive game.”)

But while the subpar environmentalist Binnington casually tossed a plastic bottle at Kadri for his transgression, along with it came a deluge of anti-Arab and anti-Muslim hate from fans. It got so bad that the National Council of Canadian Muslims (NCCM) and the Canadian Arab Institute (CAI) called on the NHL for a lifetime ban on the abusers. 

In the following game, Kadri scored a hat trick. As pleased as I was for Kadri the player, my concern for Kadri and the wider Muslim and Arab community was that the narrative would be that Kadri “fought back against racism” by playing his best game possible.

But was it that, or was he simply a hockey player trying to defeat an opponent? How Kadri and his family process and manage this kind of abuse and stress is not something we are entitled to know. Navigating through racist abuse and violent threats is deeply personal and upsetting. I am all too familiar with it. And the burden of eradicating racism should not fall only on the shoulders of those experiencing it.

But being able to push that weight off and play at a top level is astounding. It is also a burden that more than 90 per cent of NHL players do not have to manage. Like other racialized players, a vast minority in the NHL, Kadri is judged differently than others by media and fans.

WATCH | Nazem Kadri celebrates Stanley Cup championship:

Nazem Kadri celebrates Stanley Cup victory

Avalanche centre Nazem Kadri overcame injury and racist taunts to eventually hoist the Stanley Cup in Colorado’s 2-1 victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 6 of the Stanley Cup final.

Kadri may not be the first Muslim or Arab to play in the NHL, but he is definitely the most prominent Muslim hockey player in the world. And he is not shy about his cultural and religious identity.

Kadri is from London, Ont., where just over a year ago, Canada saw a horrific terrorist attack that resulted in the brutal murders of a Muslim family. Kadri expressed his condolences and sadness online. The Nazem Kadri Foundation pledged to focus its work on mental health issues this year. 

In a recent article for The Players Tribune, Kadri wrote about sharing his identity with his two-year-old daughter, Naylah. “I can’t wait to take her to Lebanon so she can see her roots,” Kadri wrote. “I want to explain to her what it means to be Muslim in North America.”

The amount of support for Colorado’s win, and Kadri in particular, was astounding to me. It wasn’t only Muslim or Arab fans coming out, it was many marginalized and racialized fans cheering him on and holding space for that joy. To see a Brown, bearded man grin and hold up a trophy after a post-season filled with unwanted and unwelcome drama, injury and stress, was almost cathartic.

Kadri has been part of the Hockey Diversity Alliance and participated in a very powerful campaign to combat racism in hockey. He shared some of his experiences.

Hockey loves homogeneity and Kadri is not that. The Avalanche’s victory is a victory not only for him and his family, but also for his community. I found myself joining my dear friend Dr. Nida Ahmad, a Colorado-based sports sociologist, in her family’s jubilation. Nida sent me videos of her family cheering and her parents watching as if Kadri were their son. He is a Muslim player, one of us.

Nazem Kadri, right, celebrates his team’s Stanley Cup championship with family members on Sunday after the Colorado Avalanche defeated the Tampa Bay Lightning. (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

And that’s the thing. Kadri’s win is a win for many people. The young Arab kids who felt like their darker hues weren’t welcome against the white of the ice and the rest of the bench. The ones who constantly have to create space for themselves because the powers that be in hockey do not move fast enough to shift hockey culture away from the traditional toxic models. The little ones who say their prayers and include playing pro hockey as one of them. The ones who don’t give up even when it feels that everyone is against them. 

The ones who face adversity in the harshest of ways, find strength in friends and family, and the ones who power through to win by believing in themselves because it felt like no one other than their family believed in them. Kadri’s father, Sam, often recounts that as he rushed to the hospital for his son’s delivery, Tom Cochrane and Red Rider’s song Big League (about a son’s journey to the NHL)  was playing in the car on the way there. And the Kadri family fused together this dream and their own Muslim heritage. 

Arda Öcal is an ESPN hockey commentator and one of the only Muslim television anchors in North America, let alone hockey. Öcal is originally from Toronto from a Turkish Muslim family and someone who knows the game — all its good parts and the ones that are terrible. I asked him what it was like for him to watch Kadri hoist the Cup.

“Growing up, I didn’t have a Nazem Kadri in hockey to be inspired by… no Muslim, Turkish or Middle Eastern player to look up to,” he wrote me via text. “Naz is the only Muslim player in the NHL and now he’s won the ultimate prize. His name will be engraved on the Cup. Muslim kids will see “Nazem Kadri” decades from now on this beautiful trophy in sports and think ‘that name is like mine. That could be me!'”

While anti-Muslim and anti-Arab racism is far from over, there are moments of joy for us. This is one of them. Despite the work being done by racialized athletes and allies, there is still a lot to manage and a lot left to eradicate. Systems of white supremacy and abuse so deeply embedded in sport need to be internationally dismantled with vigilance and consistency. 

One thing we can learn from Nazem Kadri is to be unapologetic in how we approach anti-racism work and how we approach winning. I may not be a dedicated Colorado Avalanche fan, but absolutely I will thank Allah for this win when I say my prayers and hope that other boys and girls win it in the big leagues as Kadri did. 

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