The game is not over for Akim Aliu: ‘My goal is to come back and play’

Akim Aliu’s first NHL goal wasn’t pretty. His snapshot bounced off a defenceman’s skate and dribbled in. But it counted, both toward a 5-2 Calgary Flames win and as proof that Aliu, then 22 and in his second NHL game, could produce at hockey’s highest level.

Another score helped burnish a stat line befitting the NHL power forward many experts thought Aliu would become: two goals, two hits, 10 penalty minutes.

That was April 7, 2012, two seasons after then-coach Bill Peters berated him with N-words while both were with the Rockford IceHogs, a Chicago Blackhawks farm team. Aliu made that incident public last month.

And it happened five months after the minor-league Colorado Eagles invited Aliu to a Halloween party where a team staffer wore blackface, an afro wig and a jersey emblazoned with his nickname “Dreamer.” Aliu went public about that stunt last week.

Back then, Aliu thought two goals signalled the beginning of a successful NHL career. Nearly eight years later we know it represented his pro hockey peak, and Aliu blames deep-seated racism for stunting his growth in the sport.

Aliu maintains that the racist run-ins in Rockford and Colorado left him with a reputation as a malcontent and bad teammate, even as perpetrators like Peters, who resigned as the Calgary Flames’ head coach after his tirade went public, advanced their careers.

The 30-year-old spoke up hoping younger hockey players of colour wouldn’t have to confront the racism and toxic locker-room culture he says have hamstrung his career. Aliu’s revelations have propelled him back into the spotlight, and he hopes that hockey’s reckoning on racism lands him one last good-faith shot at the NHL.

“I hear a lot from people saying I’m retired. I don’t know where they got that. I haven’t said that,” Aliu said during a recent interview with the Star. “I’m in the best shape of my life. My goal is to come back and play.”

When NHL commissioner Gary Bettman announced two weeks ago that the league planned to take concrete steps to combat racism, he acknowledged a “change in culture” was necessary.

“This is an opportunity, and a moment, for positive change,” Bettman said in a statement issued Dec. 9. “Even while change is taking effect, we still must acknowledge things that were wrong in the past. That acknowledgment allows those who were wronged to be heard.”

While Aliu has called for a similar culture change, he stresses that he’s not calling all hockey coaches and executives racist. Indeed, Aliu has had advocates in the industry.

He went 56th overall in the 2007 NHL draft, picked by the Chicago Blackhawks under general manager Rick Dudley. Three years later, with Aliu’s Blackhawks career stagnating after the Peters incident, Dudley, then the Atlanta Thrashers’ GM, traded for Aliu.

They assigned him to the Chicago Wolves of the AHL, and his progress appeared to stall — just four goals, five assists and 43 penalty minutes over the next 43 games — and stats sheets reveal a paucity of ice time. Just under six minutes one night, while his teammates all logged double digits. Zero minutes in a Jan. 22 win over Grand Rapids.

Here, you could ask whether Aliu simply lacked AHL-level skills, but he insists that, at 21, he was still improving. Instead, he says he simply wasn’t a priority for the Wolves, who were privately owned and not motivated to develop Thrashers talent.

Frustrated with Aliu’s playing time, the Thrashers sent him to their ECHL club, where he tallied 20 points in 16 games, while Dudley brokered an unusual deal with the St. Louis Blues. The Thrashers paid Aliu’s salary, but he finished the 2010-11 season with the Peoria Rivermen, the Blues’ AHL farm team.

Aliu says Peoria’s coaches, including current Colorado Avalanche head coach Jared Bednar, simply let him play and he responded with some of the finest hockey of his pro career. He moved from right wing to defence and put up nine points in 16 games for the playoff-bound Rivermen. Those totals include two goals and two assists in three games against the Wolves.

“The coaches were unbelievable,” Aliu said. “They let me be myself. It’s one of the last places I felt 100 per cent, completely free.”

But in a closed industry like pro hockey, it’s tough to outrun bad relationships.

When the Thrashers moved to Winnipeg in the summer of 2011, the new ownership replaced Dudley with Kevin Cheveldayoff, who was the Blackhawks’ GM when Peters hurled those racial slurs and part of a front office that Aliu says didn’t support him afterward.

Aliu says the spat with Peters tainted his dealings with Cheveldayoff, and that he met with the Jets GM to request a fresh start after the feud with Peters. Instead, he says, Cheveldayoff quickly reassigned him from the Jets to their ECHL affiliate in Colorado.

In an email to the Star, a Jets spokesperson said the team sent Aliu to their AHL team’s training camp for a week, then demoted him to the ECHL.

The Jets said they hadn’t heard about the racism Aliu faced until the player spoke publicly about it in November.

“We were disturbed to learn about the reprehensible situations Mr. Aliu described with the Rockford IceHogs and Colorado Eagles,” the Jets said in an email. “They had no effect on any player personnel decisions involving Mr. Aliu.”

According to a 2014 study by the Workplace Bullying Institute, people of colour are significantly more likely than their white colleagues to experience workplace harassment. Where 24.1 per cent of white survey respondents reported having been bullied at work, that figure jumped to 32.5 for Hispanic workers, 33 for Black people and 33.3 for Asian respondents.

Whether or not you believe racism derailed Aliu’s NHL career, the harassment he endured on the job isn’t up for debate. The only question surrounding the now-public incidents: Which one was most racist?

Aliu first made national news in 2005 as a rookie with the OHL’s Windsor Spitfires. When veterans told first-year players to strip naked and crowd into the cramped bathroom of a team bus, Aliu refused to participate in the hazing ritual. In response, team leader Steve Downie blindsided Aliu in practice, knocking out three teeth with a cross-check to the jaw.

Downie was suspended three games for the attack, Aliu one game for fighting back. Both players were subsequently traded.

The Windsor incident isn’t explicitly about race, but Downie, the white player who instigated it, emerged without reputational damage. He went on to represent Canada at the 2006 world junior hockey championship and play 434 NHL games. Aliu, meanwhile, says his refusal to be hazed earned him a rep as a difficult teammate, and that the label cost him opportunities later in the OHL and beyond.

“I don’t think the things I’ve done and the things they think I’ve done would be looked at the same way (if I were white),” Aliu said. “It’s an unconscious bias.”

The racism in the blow-up with Peters in 2010 isn’t ambiguous. The coach used the N-word several times when berating Aliu about playing hip-hop in the Rockford IceHogs locker room. The incident precipitated Aliu’s demotion to the ECHL. Peters eventually became an NHL head coach.

Two seasons later, the blackface fiasco in Colorado demeaned Aliu before his entire team. Aliu didn’t understand the gravity of the insult until he called his older brother Eddie, who explained the history of blackface minstrelsy and the disrespect the gesture intended.

“I was shocked, taken aback. I’m still speechless right now,” Eddie Aliu said. “It was really shocking that a grown man would do that, and that no other grown man would be like, ‘Hey, that’s a bad idea.’”

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From there, in November 2011, Aliu returned home to Toronto and requested a trade. He also says stress from the incident led to insomnia and a brief stay in hospital. In late December the Jets traded him to Calgary, who assigned him to their AHL team in Abbotsford, B.C.

Three months later, Aliu scored twice against Anaheim to end one of the strangest individual seasons in pro hockey history. Aliu thought scoring those two goals in Calgary after starting the year in an openly racist minor-league workplace proved he belonged in the NHL.

“You see it on his face, how happy he is,” Flames teammate Mike Cammalleri told reporters after Aliu’s two-goal game. “It makes for a great story. Go ahead and write it, guys, because it’s a romantic story.”

But it also prompted a question that seems clearer now: What else could he accomplish in the NHL if he didn’t have to overcome so much to get there?

Some of the factors shaping Aliu’s career are common to pro athletes everywhere. Ankle injuries. A bad wrist that required three surgeries. Regime change in Winnipeg. An NHL lockout that sent him back to the minors in 2012.

But the racial microaggressions are unique. Aliu says one minor-league coach demanded he shave his afro, but had no hairstyling advice for white guys with long hair. And the Rockford and Colorado incidents were downright demoralizing.

“It almost became normal, and you just kind of learn to fight through it,” Aliu said. “You know it’s going to happen. You’re kind of ready for it. But you can never totally act on it because then you’ll be looked at as a guy causing trouble.”

Aliu’s profile has skyrocketed since he went public about the Peters incident. He has appeared in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal along with nearly every major Canadian outlet, and he has met with NHL officials in Toronto. This past week, he helped run a hockey clinic for immigrant children at Angela James Arena in North York, invited after organizers saw his name in the news and contacted Aliu through his lawyer.

Aliu says he also spoke up to help uproot the racism he says is entrenched in the culture of pro hockey.

Coverage of the issue provides a case in point. Earlier this month, Pierre LeBrun of the Athletic interviewed members of the NHL’s board of governors about racism in hockey. A pair of them asked for and received anonymity, presumably so they could speak more honestly.

“That was unacceptable in the ’50s, let alone 10 years ago,” one executive said.

“No matter in what era, that’s always wrong,” another added.

Imagine being so wary of backlash from your NHL executive peers that you can’t attach your name to bland statements denouncing racism. Now imagine being a Black player with a speckled reputation and just seven NHL games to your credit, trying to convince those same decision-makers that you’re better than your resumé indicates.

“I’ve always felt that if I was given a fair opportunity I could get back to the NHL,” Aliu said. “I felt like everywhere I went, if I could dominate I would get a look, and get another chance at the NHL. It’s never happened.”

If you’re seeking signs of progress, they’re there.

The NHL recently introduced a zero-tolerance policy to deal with racial abuse. And Colorado Eagles officials called Aliu to apologize for the blackface stunt.

“I’m appreciative that Akim was willing to take my call and listen to what I had to say,” said Eagles owner Martin Lind, in a news release issued Monday. “I am excited to work with Akim as he implements initiatives to promote diversity in the sport.”

But does pro hockey owe Aliu more than an apology?

His lawyers haven’t ruled out legal action. Meanwhile, Aliu, who last played professionally with the ECHL’s Orlando Solar Bears, remains in training on the ice and in the weight room. If pro hockey is indeed set to become less racist, Aliu feels entitled to experience the culture change first-hand, while he’s still young enough to play.

“I feel the best I’ve ever felt right now,” Aliu said. “I can’t quit. I’m (still) in love with the sport. I love the competition. I don’t know when I’ll quit on the dream. It’s not right now.”

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