Akim Aliu, Vanessa James, Asher Hill know fight for diversity on ice is just beginning

Three Black Battle of the Blades competitors — former NHLer Akim Aliu and figure skaters Asher Hill and Vanessa James — recently joined alliances fighting for inclusion in their respective sports. With Aliu's hockey group recently cutting ties with the NHL, the trio knows the battle is just beginning.

Trio recently created alliances to push for inclusion in mainly white sports

Nigerian-born and former NHL player Akim Aliu, right, will be paired with figure skater Vanessa James for the upcoming sixth season of Battle of the Blades. (CBC)

The landscape on ice is changing rapidly.

For years, hockey and figure skating have been dominated by white athletes, and to varying degrees, they still are today.

But three Black competitors on the sixth season of CBC's Battle of the Blades — former NHLer Akim Aliu and figure skaters Asher Hill and Vanessa James — are making efforts to change that.

Aliu first spoke about the racism he experienced in hockey in November, when he said he was targeted by then-Calgary Flames coach Bill Peters while the two were in the minor leagues together. Peters was fired soon after.

That revelation became the tip of the iceberg, with multiple other NHL coaches being called out for abuse.

In May, as the NHL was getting set to restart its season amid a worldwide racial reckoning following the death of George Floyd, Aliu and a group of BIPOC hockey players formed the Hockey Diversity Alliance (HDA).

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Requests to NHL

Aliu, 31, was born in Nigeria and lived in Ukraine until he was seven and moved to Toronto. He serves as co-head of the organization alongside San Jose Sharks forward Evander Kane which pledges "to eradicate racism and intolerance in hockey."

In July, the HDA made a series of requests to the NHL including more inclusive employment practices and supporting social justice initiatives that target racism, among other asks.

Earlier this month, unsatisfied with the NHL's response, the HDA cut ties with the league over what it called "performative public relations."

"It would be a lot easier to implement some of the things we want to do in some of the NHL cities with their fans and with their following but they're not there yet," Aliu told CBC Sports' Jacqueline Doorey.

"They feel that things are good status quo and we don't, so we feel it's up to us to take the reins of the conversation and I do believe that sooner or later they'll have no choice but to jump on board."

Aliu said he's encouraged by the first few months of the HDA despite the difficult relationship with the league.

"I think we found a little bit of trouble getting pulled in different directions with some of the objectives and missions that we had, but we stuck together as a group and I feel like we're doing a lot of good in the game of hockey right now and in society as well," he said.

The goal now is to ensure the conversation around racial injustice in hockey doesn't get swept under the rug.

"We didn't want it to be a moment, we wanted it to be a movement. So we don't want it to be one of those trendy topics like it's been in the past," Aliu said.

Aliu is paired on Battle of the Blades with James, a six-time French pairs champion, 2018 Grand Prix Final champion and 2019 European champion. The two are skating for The Time To Dream Foundation, which aims to make youth sports more inclusive and accessible.

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Transition to figure skating

James says Aliu is making the transition from hockey to figure skating quite swimmingly.

"He's phenomenal, he's a hard worker, he's naturally talented, very agile and flexible and he has these long legs that make beautiful lines when they're straight. He's doing a great job," James said.

The two have already made a solid connection due to their shared experiences in predominantly white sports. James is also part of the Figure Skating Diversity and Inclusion Alliance (FSDIA), which carries similar goals to Aliu's HDA.

"There's always been a little bit of isolation and not feeling included. … If you look at [clothes] for figure skating, you don't find tights for Black girls or people of colour, you don't find skates that are the same colour, it's hard to find matching things like that. So it gives the idea they're not welcomed," James said.

For James, the main goal is to ensure the next generation of figure skaters feel welcomed in their sport.

Hill, a 29-year-old ice dancer paired with hockey player Jessica Campbell, is skating for FreedomSchool – Toronto, which aims to intervene on anti-Black racism in the school system.

His mindset is similar to James in trying to create a more inclusive sport than he came into, and he's also a member of the FSDIA.

"I think oftentimes we don't see Black people in winter sports, [it's] assumed that we don't like the cold or we're afraid of ice [or that] it's a white man's sport or a white person's sport," Hill said.

"But it's just if you have access and if you're able to do it and I think having the representation of so many Black athletes will show that you can occupy any space as long as you have the opportunity."

Hill is aiming to create more opportunities and accessibility in the figure skating community. Like Aliu, he says the sport's organizations fall short.

"I think it comes down to the mindset of the gatekeepers and the leaders in the sport which are our coaches and our federation heads. … It's just changing the mindset that anyone can be part of figure skating as long as you give the opportunity," Hill said.

Along with Aliu, James and Hill, former NHLer Anthony Stewart rounds out the Black skaters on the newest edition of Battle of the Blades. Beyond the ice, junior Canadian champion and international competitor Elladj Baldé will serve as a judge and singer Keshia Chanté joins Ron MacLean as a co-host.

"I think it's a beautiful cast because there's so much diversity and so much inclusion," James said.

The season premiere airs Thursday at 8 p.m. ET.

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