Kadri leaves behind a complicated, nuanced legacy with Leafs

When this year comes to an end, a number of best-of-the-decade assignments will be doled out by various editors, and a fundamental question needs to be answered: How do you assess a person on their body of work over 10 years? Do you take into account their growth, or is the review more slated towards their most recent act?

Nazem Kadri’s legacy with the Toronto Maple Leafs is subject to this exact dilemma. He grew up in front in the league’s most scrutinized media market and was a bridge between the truly dreadful Leafs teams to a more promising future. But his final moment is imprinted as an act of jaw-dropping madness when he was suspended against the Boston Bruins in the playoffs for the second consecutive year after cross-checking Jake DeBrusk.

Now Kadri is a member of the Colorado Avalanche after being traded in a blockbuster deal on Canada Day, with that boneheaded play a lasting memory. To unpack his nuanced, complicated legacy, we may have to start from the beginning of his journey.

Kadri was selected seventh overall in the 2009 NHL Draft by the Maple Leafs, and it would be revisionist to say that it was an unpopular choice - although I am guilty of preferring Magnus Pääjärvi-Svensson at the time. He didn’t make the team immediately, with head coach Ron Wilson leaning in favour of Christian Hanson. General manager Brian Burke provided a scathing assessment in September 2010, telling reporters “he’s not ready at all to contribute at this level”, and while it may have been unfair, Kadri took the message to heart.

It was a catalyst for change and served as welcome relief to Leafs fans who grew weary of the John Ferguson Jr. era and temporarily sought solace in Burke’s style. That would soon change, too, but Kadri posted 44 points in 48 games during the lockout-shortened 2012-13 campaign and his ability to play a high-end skilled game was a minor victory of sorts.

Don Cherry kissed Kadri on Hockey Night in Canada after he notched a hat trick against the Ottawa Senators on March 30, 2013. It was a Canadian Heritage Moment to be sure, and perhaps the last admirable moment of Cherry’s career before he devolved into an incomprehensible punchline for good. The kiss mirrored one that Cherry gave Doug Gilmour decades earlier — the ultimate seal of approval from Canada’s hockey grandfather.

Kadri’s tenure with the Maple Leafs was always complex. From the on-ice perspective, his early years with the team were marked by flashes of brilliance, a lot of poorly executed attempts to split multiple defenders as he did so easily with the OHL’s London Knights, and of course, his unabated temper. Still, Kadri matured in front of our very eyes and was a source of comfort during the truly dreadful years, when the team underwent open-heart surgery in an effort to rebuild from 2013-14 to 2015-16.

The lottery finally worked in Toronto’s favour as Auston Matthews landed in its lap, but Kadri was the bridge between the dark times of the Maple Leafs, and the promising future.

Off the ice, Kadri’s maturation into one of the Leafs’ stalwarts was always compelling, even if he was usurped by Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander immediately during the 2016-17 season, when a team full of rookies arrived ahead of schedule. Kadri was a fun guy, becoming the team DJ and appeared to be beloved by his teammates, which is probably why it was so easy to forgive him during his consecutive acts of madness against the Bruins the past two summers.

Kadri’s wedding was one of the highlights of last summer for the Maple Leafs. Just look how happy Marner, Zach Hyman, Jake Gardiner, Morgan Rielly and company are, taking part in the Dabke.

There’s a more compelling part of Kadri’s off-ice appeal, too.

Utilizing Kadri as a conduit for representation in a sport that overwhelmingly pays lip service to those outside of its core audience may be better suited for someone much smarter than I am. Kadri sometimes didn’t seem to want to be the avatar for every brown hockey fan, but to say he shied away from racial issues would also be wildly unfair to him as well. He was an active and cherished member of the Muslim community, and Toronto is better off for having him in town over the past decade.

He listed Donald Trump as ‘delusional’ during his presidential campaign, and then would rip into the sitting commander-in-chief again after he implemented a horribly cruel Muslim ban.

If you’re a person of colour and supported the Maple Leafs, people often asked you why you weren’t a Raptors fan instead (both can be true, and the Larry OB coming home has dissipated this notion) or why you subscribe to a sport that does little to include those outside its target demographic. Just having Kadri on the Maple Leafs felt like there was one of us, and that meant the world.

So, how do we remember Nazem Kadri on the Maple Leafs? Is it all about his emerging skill game, going from not being defensively responsible enough to crack the team, only to become a shutdown centre? Do we remember him as the bridge between the tanking years and Cup contention? Do we remember him for his off-ice efforts and what he meant to so many fans who often feel disenfranchised by hockey’s culture? Or do we remember him for his maddening acts of aggression, which he ought to have learned from?

It’s a complicated legacy to be sure. Summing up a decade of growth, development and misfortune was never meant to be a neat, easy task.

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