Akim Aliu didn’t know when and how he would share his story of racial abuse at the hands of his coach before he took to Twitter in late November 2019 to write a series of tweets that would upend the hockey world.
During the first intermission of Hockey Night in Canada‘s primetime game on Saturday, Sportsnet aired an interview of Aliu discussing with Ron MacLean what his life has been like since that fateful evening.
“I’m not trying to burn the whole village down, but I think that, at the end of the day, when you look at the stuff that happened with Bill Peters, I truly believe that he ruined and deterred my career,” Aliu told MacLean, referring to the now-former coach of the Calgary Flames who directed racist slurs toward him a decade ago, when Peters was coaching Aliu in the minors.
“But it’s a tough question to answer for me because my career has gone out the window and he’s been making millions of dollars in the NHL. So that’s obviously a tough and sensitive subject for me to talk about.”
Aliu’s allegations against Peters — which were subsequently corroborated — came on Nov. 25 after he saw a report on how recently fired Toronto Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock had mistreated player Mitch Marner.
The 30-year-old journeyman professional hockey player knew that he would be touching some nerves, but not even he expected the furor that followed.
Peters would be fired by the Flames by the end of November, and the Dallas Stars later dismissed second-year coach Jim Montgomery, stating: “Unprofessional conduct inconsistent with the core values and beliefs of the Dallas Stars and the National Hockey League.”
Before he knew it, Aliu, found himself in the middle of a storm.
My career has gone out the window [while Bill Peters made] millions in the NHL.– Akim Aliu
Part of the problem, Aliu said, is that the NHL is “a bit of an old boys club.”
“I feel like if a coloured person, or a minority, does something the same as maybe a Caucasian person, it’s looked at a little bit differently. What they wear, how they act, what kind of music they listen to, how they speak. I felt for a lot of my career I was walking on eggshells in the room.”
Aliu, who came to Canada when he was eight, has played a total of seven NHL games. He credits his parents, who bought him an early pair of skates at a garage sale, with introducing him to both sides of racism.
“My mom was the only white person in our village in Africa. And [when we] moved to Russia, my dad was one of the only black people in Russia. That’s a tough place to survive as a black man in the Soviet Union in the 70s and early 80s. So I have their perspective on things. I’ve seen a lot of things with myself and my brother growing up.”
Tough road ahead
These experiences, as well as his own while slogging through the minor leagues, have helped Aliu understand why many still don’t feel comfortable speaking up about abuse in the professional game.
“A lot of them are afraid of retaliation,” Aliu said. “I know guys are on one-year contracts. I know guys are afraid of their brands and stuff like that. They’re worried about the way management and ownership are going to look at their look at their message and being only one of a few. That’s a tough spot to be in.
“But to grow it and to bring more minorities to the game, we have to be the first ones to kind of stand up and start having this conversation.”
A good step toward making the game more inclusive, says Aliu is exposure. “Why don’t we start moving the game around … [making it] more global. It will entice other ethnicities and other people that don’t really think of hockey as a sport to play it. Hopefully a lot of these things come to fruition.”
It’s a message that Aliu says he has shared with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman when they met in December. But, for now, Aliu has turned his hopes to making things better for future generations.
“What I went through…it was really tough. It’s a really, really tough road to be on,” he said. “So, if I can help make it easier… a little smoother, that would be worth it.”