Playoff hero Nazem Kadri returns tonight, as the Avs host the Flames

Feb 25, 2023, 3:08 PM | Updated: Feb 26, 2023, 9:41 pm

Nazem Kadri spent more than a solid minute just staring. Dressed in his Calgary Flames morning skate outfit, standing against the boards at mid-ice, one of the biggest heroes of the Avalanche’s Stanley Cup run looked slightly out of sorts as he turned his gaze skyward towards the Avs championship banner.

“Oh yeah, it’s special,” reflected Kadri, freshly showered and dressed to the nines after the skate. “It’s surreal just to think that’s gonna be hanging there forever. It’s a special moment. I think that’s kind of the realization set in (that we won the Cup) seeing that banner hang. Some unforgettable moments. I met some great people that I will never forget.”

Kadri truly went full circle with the Avalanche and their devoted fan base. He was acquired in a deal in the summer of 2019 that involved trading away Nathan MacKinnon’s bestie, Tyson Barrie, to Toronto. Kadri, who had a knack of getting suspended in crucial moments for the Maple Leafs followed in that tradition as he was benched by the NHL for eight games after a hit to the head to the St. Louis Blues defenseman Justin Falk in the first round of the playoffs in 2021.

While the Avs would get past the Blues, they folded like a lawn chair against Vegas in the following round after leading 2-0 in the series. A heavy favorite to win the Cup, Colorado would lose games 3, 4, 5 and 6 to suffer another humbling early exit. Kadri would’ve been eligible to return for game 7.

Kadri felt he had let his team down. In an article he penned for The Players Tribune in the spring of 2022, Kadri reflected on that experience.

“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 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.”

So how would a player who would be defined by his aggressive tendencies reel those in to the degree he could perform well while not damaging his team by losing his cool? Nobody was put under more pressure in that regard than Kadri.

Sure enough, the Avs would face the St. Louis Blues in the second round of the playoffs in the spring of 2022. Kadri was enemy No. 1. Blues goalie Jordan Binnington actually threw an empty water bottle at Kadri during a postgame TV interview after the Avs 5-2 victory in game 3.

Kadri and Blues defenseman Calle Rosen collided with Binnington earlier that night. The collision, which Kadri was not penalized for, caused a knee injury that would knock Binnington out of the playoffs.

“I’m walking down the hallway, couldn’t find a recycling bin on my way down the hallway, and right before I walked into the locker room, I see him kind of doing an interview there, smiling, laughing. I’m there in a knee brace, limping down the hallway, and I just felt like it was a God-given opportunity,” Binnington said. “I could just stay silent and go in the room, or I could say something and just have him look me in the eye and understand what’s going on: (Give him) something to think about.”

Meanwhile, Blues head coach Craig Berube stoked the fire. “Look at Kadri’s reputation,” he said. “That’s all I’ve got to say.”

How did the Blues fans respond to an accidental collision that involved Kadri? Horrifically. Police had to be called to the Avs hotel as a series of racist death threats were hurled toward Kadri. It was a shameful situation. Hockey has had a checkered history in terms of race and diversity. The NHL has worked hard to correct the wrongs of the past, but in this instance, they flowed like lava to the surface.

When I asked Berube the next day about his response to the threats, instead of acknowledging and condemning the obvious, he replied, “I got no comment on that stuff.” Two days later, Berube would apologize for his lack of empathy. But the stage was set for one of the most dramatic playoff games in NHL history and boy did Kadri respond.

Game 4 in St. Louis was a show unlike any other. Not that the Avs needed a ton of help as they were already a dominant team, but often the difference between really good and great can be determined by the willingness of players to play for each other.

Kadri and crew blistered the Blues and in a Hollywood movie script-like game, winning 6-3. Kadri recorded his first career playoff hat trick.

After the game, Kadri exhaled.

“I know those messages I got don’t reflect every single fan in St. Louis. But for those that hate, that one’s for them.”

The Avs would lose game 5 at home and for a moment the nightmares of an early second round exit came back, only to be snuffed out by Darren Helm’s late-game heroics in game 6 that finally secured a second-round series.

While getting the 10,000-pound gorilla off their back by moving past the second round, the drama wasn’t over for Kadri. Evander Kane did his dirtiest deed he could do by running Kadri into the boards in Game 3 of the Western Conference Final. Kane would get a major penalty for boarding and a one game suspension. Kadri would get thumb surgery.

Nobody thought he would return for the Final against Tampa Bay. Nobody. Except perhaps Kadri. It was revealed in August that the expected return from his thumb injury was eight weeks; Kadri would be back in 18 days.

Late in game 4, in overtime, Kadri stepped out onto the ice and quickly into Avalanche history as he gathered the puck milliseconds after leaving the bench and roofing the puck past all world goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy.

“I’ve been waiting for this my whole life, so I figured I’d stop waiting and just try to join the party,” Kadri told ESPN’s Emily Kaplan in a postgame interview on the bench. “I’m just grateful I’m able to be in this position and with this group of guys, you couldn’t have written a better story.”

But even this amazing moment for Kadri got cloudy after Lightning head coach Jon Cooper shook his head postgame stating, “You’re gonna see what I mean when you see the winning goal. My heart breaks for the players because we probably still should be playing.”

Cooper then dramatically walked away from the podium after answering only one question. Later, it became clear that the Lightning were upset about a too many men on the ice non-call that Avs head coach Jared Bednar dismissed as nothing.

Kadri, not afraid of stirring the pot or trolling, wore a “Too Many Men” burgundy t-shirt the day of the Avs victory parade. It turned out to be the final chapter in his short but dramatic stint as an Av.

Weeks and weeks went by and nothing happened in free agency for Kadri. Whether or not to re-sign Kadri became a topic of fierce debate. It was seen as a Sam Girard or Kadri issue. Kadri eventually got a deal in length and cash from the Flames, which the Avs just couldn’t compete.

And with that, a hero was gone.

Saturday mornings return felt nostalgic as the now-Flame Kadri addressed what made his former team so special.

“I think good teams, it’s preached on by the coaching staff. Great teams, it’s preached on from inside the locker room and the guy sitting next to you.”

No team was bonded closer through their disappointments than the Avs. And no championship team was ever better defined than the spirit brought forward by Nazem Kadri.

In terms of what Kadri would like to be remembered by, I asked him if (when) there is a video tribute to him tonight what he would like to see.

“I don’t know. I think there’s a couple to choose from,” Kadri said with a friendly chuckle. “You know my favorite was obviously the goal in the Final (game 4 winner). That was pretty sweet. That puck’s going on my wall for sure. Hopefully that makes the cut.”

I playfully chided him. “Not too many men on the ice, right?”

Kadri flashed a brilliant smile and laughed, “Yeah, I mean hey, depends on how you look at it. Regardless, we kind of buried the hatchet there. You know it was obviously a fun gimmick and you know just part of the memory bank.”

As Kadri returns all the memories are good and joyful decorated with his infectious attitude and relentless spirit.



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