NHL·Q&A

Akim Aliu: NHL not 'fooling' anyone with 'performative' efforts to fight racism

​​​​​​The NHL’s “hockey is for everyone” slogan isn’t accurate, says former player and Hockey Diversity Alliance co-founder Akim Aliu. Aliu spoke with CBC Sports concerning the league's "performative" actions to fight racism and how the HDA is hoping to help.

Hockey Diversity Alliance recently split with league over perceived inaction

Former NHL player Akim Aliu, seen above with the Calgary Flames in 2013, says the league must admit it has a diversity problem before it can truly help combat racism. (Derek Leung/Getty Images)

​​​​​​The NHL's "hockey is for everyone" slogan isn't accurate, says former player and Hockey Diversity Alliance co-founder Akim Aliu.

"It's just absurd to me how you can say things like that when your league is 96 per cent white. I don't know who they're trying to fool with statements like that."

A September study from the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport showed that 5.7 per cent of NHL players are Black, Indigenous and people of colour (BIPOC).

In October, just months after Aliu and eight other active and retired NHLers formed the HDA, its relationship with the league ended.

At the time, the HDA said it didn't believe the NHL was committed to fighting racism, instead opting for "performative" actions.

Now, Aliu says not much has changed. The group continues to work behind the scenes to bring hockey to the BIPOC community. He says there's been "zero" communication with the NHL.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

CBC Sports: How has the direction of the HDA changed since parting with the NHL?

Akim Aliu: I wouldn't say that direction has changed. Our goals and objectives have always been the same. And we were hoping to grow and do that with the National Hockey League. But in a lot of ways they move at a snail's pace.

We wanted to get going right away, so that's one of the biggest reasons why we parted ways with the league. And at the same time, we still feel like the league has failed to recognize that we have an issue with race. I don't think they've ever come out and said that. 

They keep telling everyone that hockey is for everyone. But it's just absurd to me how you can say things like that when your league is 96 per cent white. I don't know who they're trying to fool with statements like that.

CBC Sports: Has there been any communication at all with the NHL since the split?

Aliu: Zero.

CBC Sports: Would you say it's been a positive thing splitting with the NHL?

Aliu: I don't think the league's even come to grips with the fact that it has a problem. So I think it's positive in the sense that we can move quicker and build out what we want to do. But at the end of the day if the league is on board and willing, why wouldn't we want to work with the best league in the world in hockey?

CBC Sports: Is the Tony DeAngelo situation representative of where the NHL is on issues of equality?

Aliu: There's a lot of good guys and all my best friends are in hockey, right? You can't fault someone for their views, but I think when it becomes racial — and he's had instances before in junior where you've known the type of person that he is — it's beyond views.

The biggest problem we have in our world is racism. It's the truth. It's 100 per cent the truth. That's the biggest virus in the world right now.

So it's a good example of white people in hockey getting away with a lot more than someone that's Black would get away with. I had my instance with Bill Peters where I was called the N-word and pretty much got exiled from the NHL and made out to be that it was my issue. But this kid has had countless opportunities at the NHL level. And you knew what kind of person he was going into it and he still got the opportunity.

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CBC Sports: Does it show any sort of progressiveness that DeAngelo was eventually waived, not picked up and appears to be banished?

Aliu: I don't know how long that's going to last. I mean, it's one of those things where for me, it lasted 10 years and it's still going on and for him it might be a couple of months. I guess we'll see. We'll see the difference.

CBC Sports: What do you think when you're watching a game and see a sign that says 'end racism' in the arena?

Aliu: It's one of those things that are unfortunate, but at the same time, I'm happy that it's coming to a head now and only time will tell if there's going to be any real meaningful change. I think people of colour have been hoping and waiting for change for hundreds of years. So I think we deserve it. And it's time. The time is now for some real, impactful change.

CBC Sports: What has the HDA been up to since its split from the NHL?

Aliu: We want to be a hands-on entity where we want to lend our expertise and our experiences through nine current and former NHL players to help kids of colour and to help grow the game and be more diverse and inclusive. Obviously, with COVID, it's a tough situation and you can't really do anything in person. But behind the scenes, we're building programs with people like Scotiabank that we're really excited to roll out here soon, barring any setbacks.

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CBC Sports: What can the NHL do to further combat racism?

Aliu: I think the first step is admitting that there's a problem. When you haven't admitted that you have a problem, how can you progress and how can you start to enact change?

I can see right through what's going on with the league or some of the performative things that they've done. First and foremost, we still have owners in the National Hockey League that think that race is not a problem. We've had fans that we know of after the Matt Dumba speech in the bubble that had issues and didn't renew their season tickets because they didn't like the whole Black Lives Matter movement. That just shows what the fans of the NHL mindset is.

CBC Sports: How can you get through to the NHL?

Aliu: They seem to think that whatever they're doing is working. But clearly, it's not because hockey is dying a slow death. It's the truth. We have a lot of sports getting close or have already passed us. And that's because we're not diverse. A lot of kids don't see themselves playing the game and we just don't understand how the NHL doesn't realize that the more demographics and cultures you get playing the game, that means that's just going to grow a pool of talent that's going to make our game overall better.

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