Nazem Kadri has some experience navigating unexpected turns in the road. Following a pair of playoff suspensions, he was abruptly traded from the Toronto Maple Leafs to the Colorado Avalanche in the summer of 2019. Soon after, he found himself playing to empty stands as the pandemic locked down arenas. And then, as the Black Lives Matter movement exploded, Kadri, who is Muslim and the son of Lebanese parents, joined arms with fellow minority NHL players as an inaugural board member of the Hockey Diversity Alliance, which was formed to eradicate racism in the sport.
After a spate of COVID outbreaks delayed the regular NHL season until May 19, Kadri is now preparing to lead the Avalanche into the playoffs. He talks to John Stackhouse about a most unusual hockey season, Black Lives Matter and the importance of constructive criticism.
John Stackhouse: As a player and a person living through the pandemic, what’s been the biggest adjustment for you?
Nazem Kadri: Just the social aspect, not having that constant communication. And the rules and restrictions are a little bit different, especially in my line of work.
Is the relationship between teammates different?
Hotels are empty. You have to just hang out in team lounges or with board games. Ideally, we’d like to go to a restaurant or something. But unfortunately, we’re not able to.
What board games do you have?
I brought a Monopoly board with me. It’s something I was always into as a kid. It’s easy to pass a few hours playing. I don’t want to brag or anything, but it’s been going pretty well.
It’s got to be weird playing hockey in an empty arena when for most of your life you’ve played in front of loud, big crowds.
Yeah, playing in a hostile environment, there’s nothing like that, whether it’s at home or on the road. They play crowd noise in the stands now. So, I suppose you get somewhat of a similar feel, but it’s just not the same.
That's just how it is in professional sports and how it is in life. You just cross certain bridges when you get there and you don't try to think too much in the future. You just try to play in the moment.
We all feel like we’re just doing the same thing week after week through this crisis. How do you cope with that repetitive stress?
Well, you don’t have a choice so that certainly helps (laughs).That’s just how it is in professional sports and how it is in life. You just cross certain bridges when you get there and you don’t try to think too much in the future. You just try to play in the moment.
Can you share a bit about your own journey, and what you’d like people to understand about growing up in hockey as a minority?
I just feel like minorities aren’t given the same chances as your average white hockey player. The hurdles they have to overcome, with being called names and having to understand racism at an early age…when I grew up I don’t think there were any coloured players on my team. And even though I never experienced that with my teammates, it was opposing teams and opposing parents that would sometimes go a little bit overboard. That’s why grassroots programs are the most important initiatives for the [Hockey Diversity Alliance], because we want to try to shelter those kids.
Most of us as parents, we have kids in competitive programs or we’re coaching. What should we be aware of?
Emotions, feelings. The best part about hockey is the competitiveness. But sometimes, which I understand to a certain extent, that competitiveness almost takes over your body and you could make a mistake. Be aware of emotions and surroundings and be careful what you say.
I’m sure a lot of kids from visible minorities turn to you as a role model. What advice do you give them?
You know, it’s tough to give any advice when it comes to a touchy subject like that, but you’ve got to have the mental toughness to just ignore it and move on. I was one of the lucky ones to not let much bother me.
Some people would say, ‘well, wait a second, we can’t just all muscle through it. We have to change and help each other change.’ How do you help people balance those things?
It’s hard to say because not everyone has gone through this situation. In fact, very few actually have. I think everyone’s just got to hold each other accountable. You know, if you hear somebody that crosses a line, maybe confront them about it.
Black Lives Matter led to profound changes across all of the leagues. Has that been enough?
I think the start has been good, maybe a little bit better than good. But I think there’s always more to do. It can’t just be a publicity stunt to make your viewers happy. And then after you weather the storm, you just move on. Some serious change needs to be made.
Just because someone looks like they're not struggling doesn't mean they're not struggling. I think mental illnesses are often held on the inside.
Some of your foundation’s focus is on mental health. Why is that important to you?
I know especially in the profession I’m in how important mental health is and how detrimental it can be if you start losing touch with that. Obviously with concussions and things of that nature, mental illnesses come pretty frequently.
What do we need to understand about mental health that maybe we don’t fully appreciate?
Just because someone looks like they’re not struggling doesn’t mean they’re not struggling. I think mental illnesses are often held on the inside.
You’ve talked about the competitive values of hockey, both in a good and a bad way. What should we learn as a community in terms of building competitive strengths, but not debilitating kids?
It’s a fine line because if you don’t hear some constructive criticism at a young age, you’ll never survive playing professionally because it’s a results-based business.
Sometimes you’re going to hear things you don’t want to hear, things that may upset you. It’s just about having that short term memory and being able to turn the page and hit the reset button. I’m a big believer in positivity and optimism. But at the same time, constructive criticism builds your character and helps you become a better player.
In your experience, what’s the best way to give feedback in the moment?
I always enjoyed coaches and managers that would say something positive first and then give you something to improve and work on.
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.
John Stackhouse is a nationally bestselling author and one of Canada’s leading voices on innovation and economic disruption. He is senior vice-president in the Office of the CEO at Royal Bank of Canada, leading the organization’s research and thought leadership on economic, technological and social change. Previously, he was editor-in-chief of the Globe and Mail and editor of Report on Business. He is a senior fellow at the C.D. Howe Institute and the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy and sits on the boards of Queen’s University, the Aga Khan Foundation of Canada and the Literary Review of Canada. His latest book, "Planet Canada: How Our Expats Are Shaping the Future", explores the untapped resource of the millions of Canadians who don’t live here but exert their influence from afar.
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