Akim Aliu faces off against hockey's harsh realities in graphic memoir for kids
Former pro player hopes his battles against intolerance will inspire others to dream
Hockey hasn't always been kind to former professional player Akim Aliu, but he loved the game too much to quit.
"I had so much love for the game ... that I didn't let any of those other things bother me," he told The Sunday Magazine's Piya Chattopadhyay.
For Aliu, those "other things" included dealing with racism and facing the consequences when he spoke up about the treatment — which got him labelled a "difficult" player. Among his challenges, he fought an Ontario Hockey League teammate in response to severe hazing that he refused to participate in and faced racial slurs from one of his own coaches.
Aliu, who was born in Nigeria and spent his early years in Ukraine, had a professional career that spanned 12 years and included stints in the United States, Sweden and with the NHL's Calgary Flames.
Now 33, he wants to inspire the next generation of hockey players, while also preparing them for some social issues they might confront along the way.
Aliu's new graphic memoir, Dreamer, which gets its title from his nickname as a child, illustrates his relationship with hockey — from the highs of scoring to the lows of intolerance.
The book, for children aged eight to 12, was co-authored by Greg Anderson Elysée, and illustrated by Marcus Williams and Karen De la Vega. It was released on Feb. 7.
"I want kids to know that, hey, you're going to deal with trials and tribulations, but it shouldn't deter you to get to where you want to be," Aliu said.
Playing hockey brought challenges
Like many young immigrants in Canada, Aliu experienced obstacles to playing hockey after the family moved to Toronto in 1997. Along with not being able to speak English, he faced the cost of new hockey equipment and cultural barriers.
For Aliu, whose father is Nigerian and mother is Ukrainian, playing hockey meant wearing second-hand equipment and dealing with the view at the time that "hockey is for white people."
But with the encouragement of his parents — who Aliu said taught him to speak up when he saw injustice — he kept on skating.
"I was on the ice and I was enjoying myself, and I knew that I had the opportunity to do something special with it if I dedicated myself to it."
One of Aliu's most difficult trials came at the hands of one of his teammates.
In his rookie OHL season, Aliu was cross-checked by Windsor Spitfires teammate Steve Downie during a practice session, and the two then fought.
The 2005 incident stemmed from Aliu's refusal to participate in a hazing ritual that would have forced him and other rookies to stand naked in a cramped bus washroom.
"That's a ritual to conform you to a team, and essentially it makes you part of the team. It just never made any sense," he said. "I don't think any mom or dad wants to see their kid stripped down ... naked and being peed on."
Downie was suspended for five games, Aliu was suspended for one game and the Spitfires were fined $35,000. The league also suspended coach Moe Mantha.
OHL commissioner David Branch said at the time that the league has "zero tolerance against hazing," and called what transpired "dishonourable and prejudicial."
"The league and its members are committed to providing an environment where each player joining the league is welcomed in a professional and dignified manner," he said in a statement.
Aliu was traded to the Sudbury Wolves shortly after. There, he scored 27 goals and recorded 55 points in one and a half seasons, including a 20-goal season in 2006-07.
Despite his success on the ice, Aliu said because hockey is such an "old boy's club," he was still made out to be the villain — and that "snowballed into people painting this picture of me being a kid that's difficult to deal with," he said.
"I was a first round [OHL draft] pick, [but] I never played on any Team Canadas," said Aliu, who was picked in the second round of the 2007 NHL draft. "[I] didn't make it to any all-star games, even though I was one of the top scorers in the OHL."
He added, "As I get older and understand and reflect on what's happened, I think that there is subconscious biases and literally outward racism in those spaces."
Striving to improve diversity
Aliu's NHL career lasted just seven games — and his last appearance came nearly a decade ago. But he's left an impression on hockey in another way: by co-founding the Hockey Diversity Alliance (HDA) in June 2020, an organization he co-heads with Evander Kane, who currently plays for the Edmonton Oilers.
The group's goal is to eradicate racism and intolerance in hockey. It operates independently from the NHL but aims to work alongside the league and organizational bodies like Hockey Canada to make the sport more accessible and inclusive.
"One part of it is morally, that I think doing what's right and getting kids from these underserved communities on the ice that would have never had an opportunity to play and completely change the trajectory of their life," Aliu said.
"That's why I'm so passionate about this, because myself and other members of the HDA, we were those kids. And without help at a certain time, a particular time in our life, we wouldn't be where we are today."
Last August, the alliance proposed a set of actions for the NHL to take to tackle racism, including mandatory anti-racism training for all league employees and hiring more Black executives.
But by October, the group had cut formal ties with the league, due in part to the NHL being "performative in their actions," according to Aliu.
"They say all the right things, but they're more concerned with catering to their current base, that being middle-aged white men," he said. "When it's time to do the work, there's always a reason of why we can't do it."
Aliu said this is why the NHL lags behind other major North American sports leagues when it comes to promoting the game outside of their traditional audience — and why a complete overhaul in leadership is needed from the top down.
"I could never understand why a league that we've prayed to play in and dreamed to play in would not want to support its current and former players to do that," he added.
The NHL did not respond to a request for comment from The Sunday Magazine.
Despite the obstacles Aliu has faced due to his race, he thinks it's worth fighting for the next generation of hockey players.
"I'm fighting for the next Akim Aliu, I'm fighting for the next Wayne Simmonds," he said. "I'm fighting for the next Black kid coming up in the game that doesn't feel that he belongs."
For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.
Produced by Andrea Hoang.