When Nazem Kadri was growing up in Canada, there were no Muslim or Middle-Eastern players in the NHL.
Today, this Toronto Maple Leafs forwards is one of those few.
Born to Lebanese parents, Nazem was named after his grandfather who settled in Canada with his wife and seven children in the late 1960s, escaping the upheaval and uncertainty back home.
He admits his lack of fondness for the tag, but the inspiration from the impact he’s had on a new generation of minorities balances things off.
“If you can be a guide to these kids, show them the right path and help them not get in trouble, it's a huge achievement," Nazem told Al Jazeera at the Mastercard Centre in Toronto.
My father is living his dream through me a bit. He wished he had the opportunities to go on and do some of the things that I have
His father, Samir Kadri, believes his son’s rise to stardom was his destiny.
Samir was driving to the hospital where his wife had just gone into labour when he heard Tom Cochrane's song 'Big League' on the radio. As a passionate hockey fan, Samir knew there was a deeper meaning to that timing.
"The song talked about my kid going to play in the big league. It was a sign."
Nazem lived up to the hopes from an early age. His father built an ice rink in the backyard and Nazem took to ice like ducks take to water. Aged four, he was already skating and playing hockey with six-year olds with extra help from his father who made him a year older on paper given the minimum-age criteria. Nazem’s dedication helped too.
Reminiscing about that past, his father admits Nazem’s success was an extension of his own desires and dreams he was not able to pursue, a thought his son has realised.
"My father is living his dream through me a bit. He wished he had the opportunities to go on and do some of the things that I have. But he couldn’t for various reasons – family, finances and his background.”
Picked up early
As Nazem worked his magic, it didn't take long for agents to take notice as he quickly rose up the ranks playing Triple-A hockey in the province. He grew up as Montreal Canadiens fans. His father would take him to the games in Toronto and they would cheer on their beloved Habs. But it the team’s arch rivals, the Toronto Maple Leafs, which would draft him into the NHL.
Nazem was never short of confidence and knew he was destined to make it big. Once, as his father recalls, Nazem refused to do his homework and as the teacher asked the reason, he replied that he did not have to because he'll play in the NHL one day.
Unlike most stories of minorities trying to enter a predominantly-white sport, the 23-year old understands his experience was rather pleasant and lies in stark contrast with the more hostile environment his father and grandfather lived in. Samir concurs but he knows that the problem has not been eradicated.
Three years ago, a fan threw a banana at Philadelphia Flyers Wayne Simmonds in Nazem's hometown during an exhibition game. The incident sent shockwaves throughout the country, reminding onlookers that racism was alive and kicking. But Samir acknowledges the sport’s role in uniting the nation.
I was told that when immigrants arrive, sport at the new destination is very important in assimilating with the rest of their peers
"If you mention hockey, whether it's in business or elsewhere, it automatically breaks you into the crowd."
Using a country's national sport to help newcomers integrate is not a bad idea. Naveed Bahadur, a social worker, helps run the ball hockey league for kids in a Toronto neighbourhood and is a strong proponent of using sports to integrate.
"I was told that when immigrants arrive, sport of that country is very important in assimilating with the rest of their peers," Bahadur said.
That's one reason his organisation has created an ice rink in a nearby field. Bahadur hopes it will build stronger bonds between the different ethnic groups and apart from engaging kids to participate in the national sport, it'll also teach them about teamwork, responsibility and a sense of community.
But the inability to see value in sports among some minority groups, including Muslims, is still a reminder of why progress has rather been slow when it comes to hockey.
"It's not like they're against it,” added Bahadur. “Unlike other communities, they don't realise sport is important for children's development. It keeps their brains active, develops teamwork and these things are very important."
While these walls will not disappear anytime soon, changes are already being witnessed on many levels.
Nazem’s father taught the young player about successful athletes like Muhammad Ali, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Hakim Olajuwon when he was growing up.
"What's cool is that someone could be having this conversation and be talking about Nazem one day," Samir said.
While Nazem may not grasp the full extent of his influence just yet, he is certainly a catalyst to the very transformation he is witnessing.