Growing up in Edmonton as a hockey-crazed Oilers fan in the late 1990s and early 2000s, one of my favorite players was, ironically, Jarome Iginla – then featured for the rival Calgary Flames.
My other favorite player as a kid was Paul Kariya. I had their posters, tracked their stats, and always created characters named after them in video games.
Both had mind-boggling stats that eventually led to countless accomplishments and Hockey Hall of Fame enshrinement. But that’s not the main reason I identified with them. I distinctly remember thinking at the time that Iginla and Kariya just looked… different. They didn’t look like most NHL players.
Of course, they were a little different. Iginla’s father is from Nigeria, while Kariya has Japanese roots. I saw something in me in those two – even if I couldn’t quite express it at the age of 10.
Although I had never seriously practiced athletics outside of the recreational leagues, at that age I was keen to become a sports journalist. At the time, approaching my teenage years, I was similarly distantly related to TSN’s Farhan Lalji watching him on TV. He was someone who, like me, looked a little different and successful.
Seeing these three examples ingrained in me that being different didn’t have to be a deterrent and that I could finally force myself to be whatever I wanted – even if I was different by name, culture, or skin color. They showed this Edmonton kid what was possible – and perhaps more importantly, that nothing was impossible.
On Saturday, thousands of Muslims across the continent will experience a similar moment when Nazem Kadri brings the Stanley Cup to the Muslim Mosque in London. It is believed to be the first time Lord Stanley’s Mug will enter a mosque in its 124-year history.
At a time when the very fabric of sport is being re-examined following multiple scandals involving allegations of sexual assault and racism, and amid very real concerns over the accessibility of sport, a Muslim who has been a key contributor of the best team in the league will bring the holy grail of hockey to a prayer room at the London Muslim Mosque in his hometown in Ontario. The importance of this cannot be underestimated.
Muslims in Canada have been through a lot in recent years.
On June 8, 2021, just minutes from where Saturday’s celebration is due to take place on Saturday, four members of the Afzaal family were murdered in a drive-by attack by police described as a crime motivated by Islamophobia.
A year earlier, in September 2020, Mohamed-Aslim Zafis had been stabbed and killed outside a mosque in Toronto. In January 2017, a gunman stormed the Islamic Cultural Center of Quebec, killing six worshippers.
Beyond the many other physical assaults, there are the thousands of undocumented incidents of verbal abuse and online threats – many of which Kadri himself has suffered during the playoffs and throughout his career. It takes its toll on a person when you constantly see this hatred towards your community in the news, on the internet, and often in your social media mentions.
Kadri has been open about the challenges he faces as a Muslim man playing hockey and is a member of the Hockey Diversity Alliance, whose mission is to eradicate racism and discrimination in sport. His foundation currently raises funds for the people of Beirut, Lebanon, and supports various local causes. Ahead of the playoffs, Kadri wrote that he wanted to explain to his young daughter “what it means to be a Muslim in North America.”
Although Saturday will not cure Islamophobia, it will bring hope, optimism and inspiration to so many. It won’t just be another player having his day with the Stanley Cup.
The Muslim community will see one of their own bring Canada’s most revered trophy to the mosque. Children who look a little different because of their name or skin color or culture will see Kadri hoist the Stanley Cup – a trophy with his name engraved on it – outside the prayer hall. They will be inspired to dream big and know they can pursue any dream they want. Kadri has proven it and embraced her role as a leader in her community.
There’s something incredibly powerful about seeing someone like you do amazing things. When Kadri steps into the Muslim Mosque in London, the possibilities for community and sport will truly be endless.
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