I Am Who I Am

Aaron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post via Getty

These days I try not to do too much talking. I’ve been doing my best to let my play speak for itself. But this time of year is special to me. Nothing is better than playoff hockey. This is why I play the game. And I feel like I’ve been a little misunderstood these past few years, so I want to get a couple of things off my chest, if you don’t mind. 

1. I’ve got to start with what happened last year. 

I didn’t sleep for a week straight after I hit Justin Faulk in the playoffs.

I hate letting people down, I really do. And when I looked up from the ice and saw Justin lying there … I knew what was coming. I knew. When I was sitting in the penalty box, my mind was just spinning. I was frustrated with myself, with the situation. I wanted to be anywhere else. It was a bang-bang play and I made a mistake. I’m never trying to hurt anyone out there. I know people might not want to hear any of this, or they’ve already made their minds up about me. I get that.

The next few days, all the calls with the league, the hearings — the process just wore me down. I really didn’t agree with the league, and I felt like what happened wasn’t portrayed fairly. I watched us struggle in the next round against Vegas, and it killed me. At night I was anxious, I was restless. I wanted to be out there. I live for playoff hockey. I sat at home and watched us lose our second round series. I looked over at my daughter, Naylah, who wasn’t even two yet. She didn’t care about what was happening. All that mattered to her was that Baba was home to sit on the floor with her and play with her Play-Doh.

One of her name’s Arabic meanings translates to “go-getter.”

I couldn’t think of a better way to describe a Kadri.

Because that’s who I’ve always been. I want to be the difference-maker. I want to be the guy with the puck on his stick in the last minute.

2. I used to study Kobe’s interviews when I was younger.

I’d watch them. Then I’d rewatch them. The Mamba Mentality was something that fascinated me. He was just different, right? I don’t think it took much watching Kobe, or listening to him, to understand how badly he wanted to succeed. We’d always have Laker games on in our house in London. And I remember when I was 11 or 12, my dad got tickets to a Lakers-Raps game up in Toronto. I remember getting into bed that week like, Three more sleeps until I see Kobe.

We drove up to the ACC, and you know how when you’re on the Gardiner passing by, you can see the logos on the arena? Man, I remember that so clearly. Everything felt so big. The lights, the court — it was mesmerizing, I don’t really know how else to describe it. And Kobe was That Guy. All eyes on him, all the time. The way he moved, the way he carried himself … he was the main character, you know? I could see how his team relied on him. Not just his skill or his performance, but his energy.

I wanted to be that guy.

Nazem Kadri | I Am Who I Am | The Player's Tribune
Michael Martin/NHLI via Getty

3. I think Colorado traded for me because they believed I could be that guy.

Not Kobe, of course. But a guy who could bring energy every single night, who wouldn’t take a shift off. A guy who would do whatever it takes to win. Because that’s who I strive to be. I said it in my draft interview in 2009, and I still mean it now.

I learned pretty quickly that you can’t really be Kobe in this league. There’s not much place for that type of external self-confidence. You have to internalize it. When I was drafted in the top 10 by Toronto, it was a different time for young players than it is today. I came in for my first camp in 2009 and I thought I had a really strong showing. I think I led the team in points. But there was a bit of an old-school mentality back then. Our front office didn’t want to rush my development, so they sent me back to juniors. I couldn’t really break into the team for a few years. They were pretty critical of me in meetings and there were a lot of ridiculous headlines written about me and my game. But I’ve always been someone who, if I’m told I can’t do something … it just makes me want it so much more.

The pressure, the attention, the scrutiny — none of that scared me.

I wanted it.

I know it’s not for everyone, but it’s never bothered me.

To succeed in a place like Toronto … I think you need to have that. And some people might say, “Well, Nazem, you never did succeed in Toronto.” I hear that. I do. It digs at me as much as anyone that we didn’t get more done in the playoffs. But I got to play for the Toronto Maple Leafs for nearly 10 years. I got to play under those same lights, at that same arena where I’d watched Kobe do his thing.

And I have so many great memories of being a Leaf.

We filled up the big house.

We won playoff games.

We didn’t get there in the end. But I’ll be damned if anybody says I didn’t give everything I had.

4. I never wanted to leave.

I vetoed a trade to Calgary in the summer of 2019. And it didn’t have anything to do with the Flames or really any other team in the league. There are lots of great clubs with amazing fans and loud buildings. But the team, the city — it was a part of me.

Because the thing that I think always connected me to Toronto was that I got it, you know?

I got how badly the fans wanted to win.

I got how frustrating the jokes about ‘67 were.

I got the passion.

I understood.

And Toronto was my home.

I made my case to management that I wanted to be there. We had an exciting young core with Auston, Mitch, Willy, Morgan — a great, talented group. And I just wanted to be part of the team that finally won a Cup. That’s all I wanted.

But it’s a business, and what happened in those 2019 playoffs against the Bruins made it tough. I know.

When I hit DeBrusk in Boston, I never thought that would be the last time I’d wear a Leafs jersey. I think about that moment from time to time because, yeah, I wish my stick hadn’t got that high — but that play? That’s who I am. I saw a cheap hit on one of our leaders, and that doesn’t get to happen on a team I play for. I’ll always stand up for our guys. But I crossed a line — again — and I let our guys down. And I can see now that, at the end of the day, it was time for a fresh start.

Getting the call from Kyle Dubas, it was tough.

Spent my whole hockey life in Ontario, really, and to have it end like that … I was sad, I won’t lie.

I was a player on the team, yeah, but I was a fan, too. Always will be.

5. Naylah was born six days later.

When I held her in my arms … it was the most magical feeling in the world. I looked at her eyes, and I held my wife’s hand and I just forgot about everything else. There were no trades, no hockey, no pressure. There was just love. Naylah was born in Toronto, and I know that one day she’ll understand what that city means to us. But we moved to Colorado that summer and the entire Avalanche organization was so incredible in helping us get settled.

In Toronto we were living in an apartment. But in Denver, there’s a lot more space, so we were actually able to get a house with a yard, a grill, all that stuff. The COVID-19 league-wide shutdown happened the following spring, and I was able to spend all this time with Ashley and Naylah at home. I got to see her first tooth come in, hear her first word (which was Baba, by the way). I feel so fortunate to have been able to be there for all that. My diaper-changing isn’t as good as my hockey yet, but we’re working on it. Trust the process.

I can’t wait to take her to Lebanon so she can see her roots. I want to explain to her what it means to be Muslim in North America. Being a father, I see so much more in myself than I ever have before. I know that how I carry myself, it reflects on my family, on who Naylah might become one day. 

The player I am — the one who gives everything, who plays with an edge, who still pretends he’s Kobe out there, I’m still that guy. That part of my game that walks the line, it’ll always be there. It’s how I got here. It’s how I proved to Brian Burke that I could play in this league. But I know I have to adapt too, I have to mature. It’s something I work on all the time.

I think I’ve shown that this year.

6. Denver has been more incredible than I ever could have imagined.

I feel privileged to be a part of this team, this community.

I know I spoke about how difficult leaving Toronto was, but it had nothing to do with Colorado. That was between me and the Leafs. Denver has been great for me and my family, and we couldn’t be happier to raise Naylah here. It’s such a beautiful city and the people have made us feel right at home.

And, man, our building … the best way I can describe it? Hostile.

It’s awesome. Our fans are unreal. I can’t imagine being a road team coming in here the last few years. It's as loud as any building I’ve been in. Packed from puck-drop until the final whistle. We’ve been up five or six a few times this year and I can remember looking around with a few seconds to go and nobody’d left their seat.

Nazem Kadri | I Am Who I Am | The Players' Tribune
Michael Martin/NHLI via Getty

Even after what happened in the playoffs last year, I feel like I’ve been embraced by the fans. And I thank you guys for that. It means the world to me. Spring hockey means the most to me. Always has — because I’ve hated losing my whole life. You can ask my elementary school coaches how I handled losing. Not well.

I want to end this season with a win.

7. I believe in this group.

Because I look around our room, and I see a bunch of guys who want the pressure. They want the expectations. A few years ago, maybe there were some fans and players who were happy to just make the playoffs, but we know what people want out of us. Nobody is shying away from the moment. I see Nate, Gabe, all of our leaders — everything we've worked on, from the time we got to camp last summer, to game 82, has been with the playoffs in mind.

We’ve worked hard to establish this reputation. And we plan to capitalize on this chance.

We’re not afraid of the lights, the moment. We’re not afraid to fail.

I’m not afraid to fail.

And that, right there, is who I am.

So I’m going to give everything I have.

See you on the other side, Colorado.