Kadri lives out Leaf dream

BILL LANKHOF, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 8:42 AM ET

Many people envision themselves playing with the Toronto Maple Leafs but wake up to find it is only a dream.

Nazem Kadri woke up and found his dream was as real as the Maple Leaf on his sweater on Monday.

The Leafs’ No. 1 draft pick was awakened on Monday by his assistant coach with the Ontario Hockey League London Knights and was told to get out of bed and that he was going to suit up with the Leafs as an emergency replacement for the ailing Fredrik Sjostrom and Christian Hanson.

“I was asleep. I thought it would be a normal day for me when I got the call. I thought he was pulling my leg at first,” Kadri said.

A two-hour drive later, his ordinary off-day with the Knights had him facing off against San Jose’s Joe Thornton to open the game.

“I was nervous when I first got the call and it kept building right up to game time ... then, looking up I see four Olympians,” said Kadri, admitting it took a couple shifts to get his legs and lose the butterflies.

Coach Ron Wilson used him in key situations, as he has done with all the other youngbloods that now dominate the lineup.

He was on the ice for power plays and was parked in the crease in the final seconds as the Leafs crashed the net looking for a tying goal.

“I held my own,” said Kadri, of his one-game cameo. “I’ve been dreaming of this day I don’t know how long. To have it happen at the ACC makes it that much more special.”

The only thing that would’ve made it perfect would’ve been a victory. Instead, the Leafs lost 3-2 but they out-played the Western Division leading Sharks for extended stretches on a night when fans got a peek at general manager Brian Burke’s vision of what this team will look like next season and beyond.

There was Kadri, after losing the opening faceoff, threading a nifty pass off the boards to send Viktor Stalberg streaking through centre on a partial break. There was rookie Tyler Bozak opening the scoring. There was Phil Kessel, just 22, returning to sniper form with his sixth goal in five games. And everywhere there was the fuzzy-cheeked optimism of youth.

The game also was to mark the first appearance together in an NHL regular-season game of the Frat Pack — Stalberg, Bozak and Hanson. Then Hanson came up ill at gametime. Still, there were 17 players dressed in blue and white who were not Maple Leafs last season. Only two players, Tomas Kaberle and Alexei Ponikarovsky, have been Leafs longer than two years. The only players who has seen 30 candles on the birthday cake are Jean-Sebastien Giguere and Kaberle.

Optimism

That kind of inexperience can cause heartbreak but it also brings enthusiasm and optimism.

“They’ll all be regular NHL players. I have no doubt about that,” Wilson said of Stalberg, Bozak and Hanson.

Still the transition this season has not been easy. When Burke took over Nov. 29, 2008 the Leafs were on a five-game losing streak and had just three wins in 12 games. Last night they skated on to the ice having won three times in 11 games.

But there is a difference. This is a team re-energized by Dion Phaneuf’s tenacity. More than that, this is starting to have the feel of that team Burke foresaw, from Colton Orr’s belligerence to a blossoming offensive affair between Bozak and Kessel and the promise of youth exemplified by Kadri.

It is not yet a team that can be a Stanley Cup pretender (or even a playoff contender), but it has something that it didn’t have when Burke arrived, or even when 2010 arrived. The difference is that this is a team with a future; one that has found hope where before there was none.


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