Toronto Maple Leafs centre Nazem Kadri has been called all kinds of things by his opponents and their fans: an instigator, an agitator, a rat, “a pain in the ass,” “kind of a jerk.” None of that bothers him, as long as he’s helping his team win. His mix of physical play, verbal provocation and skilled goal scoring has made him a crucial part of the Toronto line-up.
In his episode of Inside an Athlete’s Head, Kadri talks about how he’s learned to embrace his role as one of the NHL’s villains, as well as how he copes with Toronto’s intense media spotlight.
Pressure is a constant for a professional athlete. What do you off the ice to deal with that pressure?
Find other things to do away from hockey, hang out with the family, or with the guys away from the rink. You gotta relax and take your mind off the sport.
Do you remember the first time you really felt pressure as an athlete?
Probably when I first started junior hockey, when I was 16 or 17. The realization of trying to become a professional athlete, being on good teams and being expected to win. It was around that time that it started to sink in that this could be something that was gonna happen for the rest of my life.
I don’t mind playing the villain every once in a while… if you get booed or heckled, you’re doing something right.– Nazem Kadri
Who is the person in your life you turn to when you feel like you need advice or find yourself struggling on the ice?
Usually family. I’ve got a great support system with my family being around me and influential in my life. They’re the people I turn to most. And I have some really good friends that I grew up with who are in the city, so I’m lucky to have them around.
What’s it like for you to walk into an opposing team’s arena and know that you’re going to be on the receiving end of a lot of hostility from their fans?
I actually really enjoy it, to be honest with you. I think I thrive, I try to embrace the challenge, and I don’t mind playing the villain every once in a while. I enjoy going into opposing buildings, and if you get booed or heckled, you’re doing something right.
I’ve heard a lot of pro-wrestling heels say that boos are like cheers to them.
That’s exactly how I feel. It’s something I really enjoy. I think it’s pretty surreal, and I’ve never shied away from the spotlight and doing the best I can under those circumstances.
Being a Toronto Maple Leaf comes with a notoriously intense media spotlight. How do you adjust to that?
I think it’s an adjustment you gotta make. For me, it’s all I’ve ever known [as an NHLer]. Through trial and error, you start to understand how things work, what should be said and what you might need to bite your tongue about. I think the media and I have a pretty solid relationship. We’re honest with each other.
Does that spotlight come with any advantages?
In terms of branding off the ice, trying to bring more of a profile to you as a player, in a market like Toronto that’s easier to do.
What are the real rivalries? The ones that the guys in the dressing room get the most fired up for?
Divisional teams, we see them a lot more often, so those rivalries escalate. The Bruins, the Lightning, the Habs. Those teams that you see four and five times a year, plus the playoffs.
When you face a guy like Brad Marchand — who plays a similar role to you for the Bruins — does he get under your skin, the way you sometimes get under opponents skin?
Not really. I don’t know many people that really do. I pride myself on that mental toughness and being able to keep my emotions in check. There’s gonna be times where you’re really passionate and emotions get the better of you, but players like that, I respect. They’re double threats: they can agitate with physical play and verbal encounters, but they can also be productive in terms of scoring goals and making plays. I enjoy seeing that.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Season 2 of Inside an Athlete’s Head is now streaming on CBC Gem.