With the 7th pick in the 2009 Draft, the Toronto Maple Leafs have selected the highest-profile Muslim player in NHL history.
The reason I say highest profile, and not first, is because Kadri is not the first Muslim to play in the NHL. That distinction, as far as my research indicates, belongs to Alain Nasreddine, who, like Kadri, is also Lebanese-Canadian-Muslim. Nasreddine was the first Muslim in the NHL, having been drafted 135th overall by the Florida Panthers in the 1993 Entry Draft. He is currently still playing professionally, albeit for the Pittsburgh Penguins' AHL affiliate team. Thus far in his career, Nasreddine has played only 74 games with 4 different teams and scored only 9 points.
But back to Kadri.
When first selected, video captured him being congratulated by his family, including his grandmother, who could be seen hugging and kissing him while fully covered, wearing a jilbab.
Such an image is powerful, in that it basically sums up the trend of Muslims in Canada. It shows how immigrant Muslims and their Canadian-born children are seamlessly integrating into Canada and Canadian culture. And they are doing so without feeling the need to entirely shed their old cultures, and without feeling like social outsiders in the process. You'd be hard-pressed to find similar images in the United States; especially for someone of Arab descent. And you'd be even further pressed to find a similar situation in Europe, where Muslims are finding themselves increasingly becoming outcast.
I think it also shows the increasing popularity of hockey amongst young Canadian Muslims. Muslim youth have really taken to the game, but like many other immigrant groups, the price for playing is too steep for too many families. However, that doesn't mean the youth don't find other ways to play. There are plenty of streets around the GTA that are housing road hockey games. Playgrounds in schools are filled with children who use jackets as goal posts and baseball caps as goalie gloves. And there are plenty of ball-hockey leagues and teams that are comprised almost entirely of Muslims. Just this year, Team Pakistan, a team housed entirely of young Pakistani-Canadians from the Greater Toronto Area, went to compete in the 2009 World Ball Hockey Championships in Pilson, Czech Republic. They came in 14th place this year.
While I'm sure Kadri is going to be a very good player at the NHL level, I'm sure marketing and tapping into untapped demographics was a key factor in Brian Burke's and the Toronto Maple Leafs decision. After all, there are more than 250,000 Muslims living in Toronto and the Greater Toronto Area, so hockey is gaining momentum amongst Canadian Muslim youth. Naturally, the next logical step, would now be to find a face to market. Kadri could be that person, should he develop into the type of player Burke thinks he can be.
The NHL and its affiliates in the GTA have already recognized the sizable South Asian community, and have already started to do simulcasts of Hockey Night in Canada in Punjabi. So there is precedent for programs designed to tap into these markets.
Being a high pick in a deep draft for the most popular franchise in hockey, is a lot of pressure to put on Kadri. But if he can make it to star, or even superstar status, he can be the face to which hockey is promoted to Muslim communities and, maybe even the Muslim World. It means his value to the franchise and the league could very well extend far beyond the reach of current NHL markets.
As a Leaf fan and as a young Muslim, I know I'll be watching closely to see how Kadri will be marketed, and how he develops. But more importantly, I'll be watching to see if he can be the leader the Blue and White need to end their championship drought. '67 was along time ago and we need someone to bring the Stanley Cup home. I'm doing du'ah that Kadri will be the one to do it.
Islamoblog: Nazem Kadri: A Muslim in the NHL