Dave Feschuk: Hockey still isn’t for everyone, but Akim Aliu sees signs of progress — inside and outside the NHL

Canada

In the days before Akim Aliu helped thrust the issue of race into the centre of the hockey conversation in November of 2019, he sought the counsel of a friend named Colin Kaepernick.

The former San Francisco 49ers quarterback and activist was at the time residing in his ongoing exile from the National Football League — an apparent blackballing that’s seen Kaepernick fail to find NFL employment since the end of the season in which he famously took a knee to protest police brutality and racial inequity. So as much as Kaepernick encouraged Aliu to talk candidly about the perils of growing up Black in a hockey universe that’s predominantly white, he did not spare Aliu a pre-emptive glimpse at the potential consequences of such truth telling.

“(Kaepernick) was honest enough to tell me, ‘Hey, this might ruin your career at all levels of hockey,’” Aliu was saying in a recent interview. “But he said at the end of the day that people are going to look back at you as somebody who did something that was ultimately way more important than on-ice success.”

A lot has happened since they had that conversation and Aliu, fully aware of the potential harm he could cause his playing career, effectively launched a campaign meant to shake up the status quo of his sport. Perhaps you remember some of the headline-making moments. In one Twitter post, Aliu recalled how a former minor-league head coach, Bill Peters, repeatedly hurled racial epithets at him in a dressing room more than a decade ago — a story that, after it was corroborated by teammates, led to Peters’s resignation as head coach of the Calgary Flames. Not long after, Aliu put his name to a Players’ Tribune essay in which he mocked the slogan of the NHL’s annual diversity campaign, “Hockey is For Everyone.”

“Right now,” Aliu wrote, “hockey is not for everyone … This game, it’s not for me. Never has been.”

And in a move Aliu hopes will prove to be one of his most important, a year ago this week he announced himself as one of the founding members of the Hockey Diversity Alliance (HDA). Now headed by nine current and former NHLers — among them Maple Leafs forward Wayne Simmonds and former Toronto centreman Nazem Kadri — the group’s stated mission is to eradicate systemic racism and intolerance in hockey while inspiring a new and diverse generation of players and fans. Year one hasn’t come and gone without its growing pains.

“It’s been really tough, to be honest,” Aliu said. “We still have those naysayers who are obviously telling us to leave their game alone. And the fact that they look at hockey as ‘their game’ is obviously something that’s alarming.”

What’s also alarming, to some ears, is that the HDA’s early attempt to partner with the National Hockey League was ultimately abandoned. The way Aliu tells it, the relationship got off on the wrong foot when members approached the league the day before they announced their launch.

“They weren’t happy with the short notice, and I think that’s where things started to go downhill a little bit,” Aliu said.

While Aliu was careful to say that the group has vowed not to “close any doors” to the league, he said more than once during an interview that the NHL “isn’t doing enough” to address hockey’s problems around diversity and inclusivity. And he hypothesized that the HDA’s approach was “too blunt” for a league that he said prefers to “sugar-coat” thorny issues.

Working for change through the Hockey Diversity Alliance is his primary goal, but former Calgary Flame Akim Aliu also holds out hope for an NHL camp invite in the fall.

“We’re willing to work with the league at any time where they address and come out blatantly and say, ‘We have a racial problem with our league.’ And I don’t believe that’s going to happen,” Aliu said. “I think when it came to cut ties we were talking for three or four months and just spinning in circles, and we were never really getting anywhere. What our group wanted to have were tangible targets we could go after: hiring targets, accessibility in underprivileged communities, educational programs. Things we could identify as issues and go and tackle them. For them it was more, ‘Let’s do data around is. Let’s take our approach slower. Let’s have a five- to 10-year plan.’”

The league, of course, has framed the situation far differently. Kim Davis, the NHL’s executive vice-president of social impact and growth initiatives, has said the league was “shocked” to learn the HDA was ending its dialogue with the NHL. Earlier this year, Davis told Sports Illustrated that it was her sense the HDA wanted to control how the NHL was executing its diversity plan. If partnership is a two-way street, Davis said, the HDA’s definition of collaboration “was pretty one-way.”

Aliu said the HDA hasn’t had any contact with the NHL “in months.” But rather than paint a bleak picture of hockey’s landscape, he enumerated a list of positive developments.

If the league hasn’t been a fit as a partner, some sponsors have proven otherwise. This past week it was announced that Kraft Heinz Canada has committed to kicking in $1 million over a four-year span to team with the HDA on a program to bring ball-hockey equipment to kids in communities that wouldn’t otherwise have an easy connection to the game. Aliu said the HDA is in the midst of launching a grassroots hockey program focused on BIPOC kids — an endeavour that’s proven both challenging and educational for a group of players turned organizers.

“I’ve learned more in the last year than I learned in the (previous) 31 years,” said Aliu, 32.

Aliu applauded the Boston Bruins for launching a diversity and inclusion scouting mentorship program meant to offer an entry into the hockey business for hopefuls from under-represented backgrounds. He gave kudos to Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment for its commitment to increase the diversity of representation in senior roles, among other initiatives. He spoke of the importance of the Tampa Bay Lightning icing the NHL’s first all-Black line this season.

And he made a point of mentioning that, for all the friction with the league office, there are those within the league who’ve been supportive. He singled out Tod Leiweke, CEO of the progressive Seattle Kraken, as a mentor.

If none of it amounts to a sea change, Aliu said all of it amounts to progress.

“I truly believe this is the first time, in hockey as a whole, that we’ve had not just a moment but a real movement,” he said.

If he’s at the forefront of a movement, he’s also making time to achieve a personal goal. Though Aliu hasn’t played in the NHL since 2013 — and though he’s spent the bulk of his career as a minor-league journeyman, finding work most recently in the Czech Republic — he said he’s not yet ready to give up on his big-league dream. Currently rehabbing after February knee surgery, he said he’s hoping to secure an invitation to an NHL training camp next fall.

“I’ve still got a lot of game in me. I feel just as good now at 32 as I did in my mid-20s,” he said. “It’s one of those dreams I’ll never let go. Because I still think, given the right opportunity, I could be useful. I go to bed every night thinking that opportunity is going to come one day.”

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Thanks to his conversations with Kaepernick and others, mind you, Aliu said he’s fully awake to the notion that there are those who would rather not see him succeed on the sport’s biggest stage, let alone a minor-league rink. If Aliu always knew he was putting his playing career at risk, he’s hoping the HDA’s work will ultimately reap more important rewards.

“I’m not naive. I know for a fact there’s some people who won’t touch me with a 10-foot pole, won’t even bring me to camp because it may be a circus,” Aliu said. “That’s what’s been really hard for me my whole life. It’s never been about, ‘What can Akim bring us on the ice?’ It’s always been about, ‘What else comes with that package?’ It was always painted in a negative way.

“At the end of the day, I always wake up knowing I’m doing something positive that’s going to help the next Akim Aliu or the next Chris Stewart or the next Joel Ward or the next Nazem Kadri, or whoever it may be. So I’m OK with whatever the consequences.”

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