Racism took a toll on Akim Aliu early in his life, and he is determined to bring about change in ice hockey.
Akim Aliu is a professional ice hockey player on a mission to change the sport.
Being exposed to racism at an early age took its toll on Aliu, and high-profile incidents during his career left him with the view “ice hockey is not for everyone”.
“I feel like the game has given me a lot, but it has also blackballed me,” the 31-year-old former National Hockey League player tells BBC Sport.
“I didn’t get a lot of opportunities because of the colour of my skin, because of the way I looked.
“I feel like I’ve missed out on a lot of money, a lot of opportunities I feel I should have deserved, but I sleep well at night knowing what I stand up for is right – standing up for a lot of people who otherwise wouldn’t have a voice, standing up for the next generation.”
‘Racism took a toll at an early age’
Aliu was born in Nigeria to a Nigerian father and Ukrainian mother. He grew up in Ukraine before the family moved to Canada when he was seven.
“I grew up seeing my mom being the only white lady in the village in Africa where I was born and where my dad is from,” he says.
“My dad would get strip-searched and beaten up by hooligans in Russia for being black… at a young age, it takes its toll on you so you start to look at life a little differently.”
Aliu describes being bullied during his first years in Canada for not speaking the language, and recalls being racially abused as an 11-year-old at a youth tournament in Quebec.
But he refused to let it derail his dream of being a professional ice hockey player.
Aliu spent most of his career in the minor leagues, but did play for the Calgary Flames in the NHL between 2011 and 2013.
But, regrettably, the two incidents that propelled him into the headlines were not related to his performances on the rink.
During the 2005-06 season, while playing for the Windsor Spitfires in the Ontario Hockey League, he was involved in what was described as ice hockey’s most infamous incident of ‘hazing’external-link – when members of a group deliberately embarrass or harm new or prospective members. Aliu refused to take part in an apparent initiation, reportedly leading to a fight with a team-mate.
And in November 2019 he went public with an allegation that Bill Peters, then the Calgary Flames head coach, had used racist language towards him when he coached him at the Rockford IceHogs a decade earlier.
He said the incident had caused him to “rebel” against his coach, and Peters had recommended his demotion to a lesser league.
Peters resigned, apologising to the Flamesexternal-link – but not Aliu by name – for his “offensive language”.
“It’s been tough,” says Aliu. “That’s why I chose to take a stand, to be able to speak out for people who are battling the same issues of being alone and not having a voice.”
‘Keep your mouth shut to fit in’
In May 2020, Aliu wrote an essayexternal-link in the Players’ Tribune in which he opened up about his experiences.
The following month – after the death of African-American George Floyd – Aliu helped found the Hockey Diversity Alliance (HDA).
Ex-Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin has been accused of killing Floyd, who was unarmed at the time. Chauvin was filmed kneeling on Floyd’s neck for more than eight minutes in an incident that sparked global protests over racial inequalities. He is accused of unintentional murder and manslaughter and his trial will start on 29 March.
Aliu and San Jose Sharks forward Evander Kane lead HDA, which was formed by nine former and current NHL players with a mission to “eradicate racism and intolerance in hockey”.
It set the NHL an eight-point pledgeexternal-link in August, and a month later the league published initiatives to combat racism.
But in October the HDA walked away from the partnership, saying the league was “focused on performative public relations efforts that seemed aimed at quickly moving past important conversations about race needed in the game”.
Aliu says: “It’s a 95% white game, so the few of us that do get to the highest level feel we can speak on and impact the next generation and do our best to change the culture of the game, just because of the experiences we have been through.
“We feel as a group that the league is not ready to take tangible steps in that direction and make the game for everyone.”
In response, the NHL said “for nearly three decades” it had funded and instituted programmes designed to make the game more diverse.
“Everyone should be able to live and work in an environment that is inclusive, and one that is free from racism and discrimination in any form,” it said.
“In our sport, from the NHL to youth programmes, we must take actions to achieve that goal, and to make our sport available and accessible to all.”
In an interview with The Athleticexternal-link earlier this month, Kim Davis – the NHL’s executive vice-president for social impact, growth initiatives and legislative affairs – said commissioner Gary Bettman had a “real passion” that changing the demographics of ice hockey was “the right thing to do”.
But Aliu, who most recently played for Czech club HC Litvinov, believes it is “tough for anyone to feel welcome in hockey unless you are caucasian”.
“It is a sport that from an early age doesn’t breed inclusivity,” he says.
“Hockey is ‘put your head down, show up at the rink, play hard, keep your mouth shut and just try and fit in’ so I think anything that is different, hockey excludes.”
So what now?
Aside from his continuing work with the HDA, Aliu has set up a BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Colour) youth team in Toronto, funded by his Time to Dream foundation. The aim is to make youth sport “more diverse, inclusive, affordable and accessible to all”.
“My greatest accomplishment to this day is forming my foundation and that, to me, far outweighs playing in the National Hockey League,” he says.
“It is about the youth and the next generation coming up now, to give them opportunities that I didn’t have, and I couldn’t be more excited about it.”
But he adds: “I don’t think you can flick a switch. I definitely think hockey is still not for everyone, it’s not even close, but I think we have to wake up every day to tackle these issues and make sure it is for everybody.
“If I kept my mouth shut, would I have had a long and positive career? Maybe, but I feel like what I’m doing, and my group is doing, is more important than that.”