February 26, 2021

Akim Aliu: advocate for diversity in hockey

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Part 1

In June 2020, a group of nine current and former NHL players established the Hockey Diversity Alliance (HDA), an organization dedicated to social justice issues in the world of hockey. One of the two co-chairmen of the HDA is Akim Aliu, a 31-year-old former NHL defenseman of Ukrainian origin, who shook the sport in November 2019 by exposing his encounters with racism. The first and primary principle of the organization’s action plan was to initiate important conversations about race needed in the game. This was a dialogue Aliu had been attempting to advance ever since the Blackhawks’ second-round pick revealed on Twitter that his coach in the minor leagues, Bill Peters, had “dropped the N-bomb” on him during the 2009-2010 season because he didn’t like Aliu’s choice of music. (After several witnesses confirmed the account, Peters, then the Calgary Flames’ head coach, resigned, apologizing publicly to the Flames, but not personally to Aliu.)

Aliu hoped his revelations would spark a long overdue reckoning for the very white hockey world and its shut-up-and-skate culture. The 2019-2020 NHL season saw 18 Black players dressing in more than five games despite the United States growing much more diverse, and the Black population in Canada doubling to some 1.2 million (2016 census). The NHL largely looks the same as it did back in 1999 when a Sports Illustrated article projected 20 Black players emerging as stars in the pro ranks.

It was in November 2019, when Aliu was reading about how just-ousted Toronto coach Mike Babcock – a mentor of Bill Peters – had humiliated a Leafs player, that he decided to share his story with the hockey world. He revealed how Peters had slurred him, how he pushed back, and then how he was demoted to a lower minor league. He received supportive responses from fellow Black players and other members of hockey’s underrepresented communities. But those were drowned out by tons of bigoted social media posts with words and phrases not suitable for print.

Aliu has known bigotry most of his life. He was born in Nigeria to a white, Ukrainian mother and a Nigerian father. The family moved to Kyiv when he was a baby. He vividly recalls his mother once hailing a taxi for herself, Akim and older brother, Edward, when a cab driver slowed down long enough to spew in Russian that he wouldn’t pick her up because she had two n—- with her, before speeding away.

Desiring a more welcoming world for their family, Tai and Larissa Aliu packed up and relocated to the Toronto suburb of Parkdale when Akim was eight. They rented a one-bedroom apartment in a stranger’s house and each parent worked multiple jobs to make ends meet. Akim saved up for a pair of used skates and fell in love with the local pastime, skating for hours on area outdoor rinks.

Rocketing up the hockey ladder thanks to his excellent skating, tough frame and strong shot, racism met Aliu at almost every rung. He went sixth in the 2005 Ontario Hockey League draft, and on his first day with the Windsor Spitfires, the 16-year-old met some teammates at the billet home of recent Philadelphia Flyers draft pick Steve Downie, only to be asked why this n—- was in his house? Later that season Aliu refused to participate in a team hazing ritual and had seven teeth knocked out by a Downie cross-check in practice, resulting in a fight in front of teammates. In 2011, an equipment manager with the East Coast Hockey League’s Colorado Eagles dressed as Aliu for a team Halloween party, arriving in blackface and a custom Eagles jersey with Aliu’s longtime nickname, “Dreamer,” sewn on the back. (The nickname was a nod to fellow Nigerian and NBA star Hakeem Olajuwon.) The experience caused Aliu much anxiety and insomnia, resulting in a brief hospital stay.

When he made his NHL debut for Calgary in April 2012, notching two goals and three points in his first two games, the triumph came at a personal cost: an official of color in the Flames’ farm system urged Aliu to shave off his Afro prior to his call-up at the risk of “standing out” in a conformist sport.

Much of this personal history gushed forth on December 3, 2019, when Aliu visited the NHL’s Toronto office eight days after his tweets about coach Peters. Along with his new three-man legal team, Aliu met for one hour with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and deputy commissioner Bill Daly. In addition to details about the Peters incident, Aliu and lawyers presented measures for the NHL to enact, like a whistleblower hotline, which the league implemented a week later at a Board of Governors meeting (without crediting Aliu).

Akim Aliu, whose lifelong dream was to be an NHL superstar for 10 to 15 years, found himself potentially in a position to do more to change the game than he ever could have as a mere player. The reality was hockey, out of all the major sports, needs the most retooling, and Aliu was thrust into a position to spark that conversation.

Two days after the meeting in Toronto, Aliu sent out a message about a Hockey Diversity Committee. Initially it comprised some 10 NHL players of color, then grew to 20-plus within two days, including All-Stars P.K. Subban and Seth Jones. The goal was a safe space for members to share their experiences and create a unified force for change. Topics for discussion included zero Black general managers in the NHL’s 103-year existence, only one Black head coach, and just two Black assistant coaches have ever hoisted the Stanley Cup. Ditto for lack of diversity in on-ice representation: the 2019-1920 season saw eight Asian, six Indigenous, four Hispanic/Latino and four Arab/Middle Eastern players in addition to the 18 Black players appearing in more than five games.
The desired forum never came to fruition. Some players were intimidated that Aliu included his lawyers on calls, wondering if he was planning a lawsuit. Others were concerned about the career risk of speaking up. A few players simply walked away.

When Aliu signed to play with a Czech club in January 2020 – his 15th pro team in his sixth country since he last played in the NHL in 2013 – it became very hard to keep in touch with his NHL brethren. When he returned to Toronto in early March, just as COVID-19 was attacking North America, momentum was fading. The conversation, however, was not going away as racist incidents continued. January saw AHL defenseman Brandon Manning suspended for slurring a Black opponent; in April, the comment section of a fan chat with New York Rangers prospect K’Andre Miller was spammed with the n-word; in early May, Capitals forward Brendan Leipsic was waived after his misogynistic comments on Instagram.

Stay tuned for Part 2 of Akim Aliu’s quest for diversity in the sport of hockey…

Ihor Stelmach may be reached at iman@sfgsports.com.