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Kadri answers NHL wake-up call

In bed, asleep, Nazem Kadri(notes) had no idea what was coming. His phone rang. He answered, groggily, to hear London Knights assistant coach Jacques Beaulieu bearing good news. Kadri had been called up to play for the Toronto Maple Leafs – that night.

“I said something to him that I’m not going to say right now,” said Kadri, smiling. “Then I just hung up the phone.”

“He basically told me to go to hell,” said Beaulieu with a laugh. “ ‘Don’t mess around with me at 8:30 in the morning.’ ”

Kadri thought it was a joke. The Leafs had drafted him seventh overall in 2009, but sent him back to the Ontario Hockey League to beef up and work on his game. He was only 19. It was a Monday in early February. Beaulieu had to be kidding.

But he wasn’t. Beaulieu called back and insisted it was true. Kadri came down to the coaches’ office and heard the news again, and it finally started to sink in. The Leafs needed him for a one-game emergency assignment because some players were ill. He would be in the lineup against one of the top teams in the NHL, the San Jose Sharks.

“I was just like, ‘Oh my god. What’s going to happen? Unbelievable,’ ” Kadri said.

Now, just seven months later, Kadri knows it’s no joke that he could be playing for the Maple Leafs. He turns 20 on Oct. 6. The Leafs open the 2010-11 regular season the next night against the Montreal Canadiens.

Kadri will have to earn a spot among the team’s top six forwards – he won’t be handed an NHL job by default – but he’s in position to seize it. The Leafs’ weakness is at center, where he has shown grit and skill in junior, and Kadri – a confident, charismatic kid – should be about as comfortable as can be under the circumstances.

The first step starts on Saturday, with the Leafs’ rookie tournament against the Chicago Blackhawks, Ottawa Senators and Pittsburgh Penguins. It will be held in London, Ont., where Kadri grew up and played for the Knights. The next step will be training camp in Toronto. Kadri has been through it once already, and he has spent most of the summer at the Leafs’ facility, getting bigger and getting to know his future teammates.

“We’re confident he’ll make the next step,” said Leafs general manager Brian Burke. “The question is how quickly. If he has a good training camp and the coaches will keep him and play him in the top six, then he’ll start here.”

Kadri knows what he needs to do.

“I think the opportunity’s there for me to take,” Kadri said. “It’s just if I grasp it or not.”

* * * * *

Kadri will never forget the wake-up call he got from Beaulieu. But he hasn’t forgotten another wake-up call he received last season. This one was from Burke.

After posting three goals and five points in six exhibition games with the Leafs last fall, Kadri found himself back with the Knights. He weighed 167 pounds. The Leafs said he needed to increase his size and strength.

That was true. But it was also true that Kadri needed to improve his two-way game and overall approach. By late December, Burke was so displeased with Kadri’s progress that he met with the hot-shot prospect and “basically woke him up,” according to Beaulieu.

“I think he’s matured a lot since,” Beaulieu said. “I think he realizes what he has to do to become a pro, which is being in the gym, eating well and resting properly. I think at the beginning of last year, I didn’t think he was doing those things to become a pro.”

Kadri said the Feb. 8 game against the Sharks gave him “a little sample of what it takes.” This wasn’t an NHL exhibition game. This was the real deal against a real lineup full of real good players. Kadri took the opening faceoff against Joe Thornton(notes). He held his own in more than 17 minutes of ice time in a 3-2 loss, but failed to register a point, struggled on draws and turned over the puck too often. He left Air Canada Centre motivated for more.

“I got a feel for the NHL,” Kadri said. “I got a little taste of it and it’s definitely somewhere I want to be in the near future.”

Kadri returned to the Knights and finished with impressive numbers – 78 points in 56 regular season games, plus 27 points in 12 playoff contests. But another important number was 170, as in pounds. That’s about where he was at the start of the summer, and that wasn’t nearly enough.

When Kadri asked himself what he needed to do in the offseason, this was his answer: “My head’s there. My hockey IQ’s good. All my senses to the game, all my skills, I think are pretty sharp right now. But it’s just the physical aspect. I think the more I mature physically, the better it’s going to be.”

Kadri went to Prince Edward Island for a Special Olympics event early in the summer. He was supposed to work out with fitness fanatic Dion Phaneuf(notes), the Leafs’ new captain, at Phaneuf’s summer home. His plane was late, so the workout never happened. He said Phaneuf was “heckling” him about it.

But Kadri and a buddy had lunch with Phaneuf and Phaneuf’s girlfriend, actress Elisha Cuthbert. Phaneuf cooked what Kadri called “a mean chicken breast” and counseled him to work hard and keep playing his game.

The gesture meant a lot to Kadri, who returned to Toronto and, as he puts it, went to “work, work, work.” He trained at the Leafs’ facility during the week, going back to London on weekends. He drank protein shakes. He ate the right foods – and ate them five or six times a day. He grew, the right way, to 188 pounds.

“That’s above the target the strength coach gave him,” Burke said, “so we’re very pleased with his application here and his dedication.”

Burke believes most players benefit from spending time in the minor leagues. He could shore up the Leafs’ weakness at center by making a trade before the NHL season begins next month. Right now, these are the Leafs’ only other candidates for the top two center spots: Tyler Bozak(notes), 24, who posted 27 points in 37 games last season as a rookie, and Mikhail Grabovski(notes), 26, who had 35 points in 59 games last season as a fourth-year pro.

But Burke said that doesn’t mean Kadri is destined for the minors. The coach picks the team. And Ron Wilson has said Kadri could be a No. 1 center in the NHL as soon as this season. Based on what Kadri has done over the past few months, Beaulieu thinks he is ready.

“I think he realized that he had to do more to get a chance to crack this lineup this year,” Beaulieu said. “Junior hockey and pro hockey are two different things. Sometimes you’ve got to spend time in the American League to figure that out, and some kids figure it out before. I think Nazem figured it out before.”

* * * * *

How can a player Kadri’s age survive, let alone thrive, in the pressure-cooker that is Toronto?

“It’s always tough jumping in as a 19- or 20-year-old guy,” said defenseman Luke Schenn(notes), whom the Leafs drafted fifth overall in 2008 and already has two seasons of NHL experience at age 20. “But I know he’s probably going to get a great opportunity here. He’s a real skilled player.”

Kadri seems particularly equipped to do it. He has a strong support network nearby – at least 20 friends and family members attended each of his games in London – and he knows the deal.

“That’s the territory that comes with playing in Toronto,” Kadri said. “You’ve got to be able to handle the pressures and handle the criticism and take it as constructive criticism. For me, I just thrive off pressure, really. I really don’t mind it. I think I rise to occasion. It’s something hopefully I can handle well.”

In Kadri, Burke sees the swagger that helps many offensive players succeed. The kid has a fun, no-fear attitude. He has the edge to take care of himself on the ice, and he knows what to say to keep things in check off the ice. He can balance staying humble with dreaming big.

“I think I’m confident in myself,” Kadri said. “I think that’s how you have to be to make the NHL. I think really there’s no other way. You’ve just got to be careful. You can’t be too overconfident, because that’s when you kind of start to steer yourself in the wrong direction. I’m in a good place right now and hopefully I can keep it going.”

Speaking of steering, Kadri drove a black Saab from London to Toronto when he made his Leafs debut. It was a nice car, a 2009 model, but not quite the wheels of which he grew up dreaming as the son of a garage owner – not quite the wheels of a hockey superstar.

“I didn’t bring, like, a Ferrari or Lamborghini to the game or anything,” Kadri said. “I kept it safe.”

When will he allow himself to do that?

“The next few years, I hope,” he said, smiling.