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'I didn’t have a voice': Former NHL player Akim Aliu discusses racial divides in hockey
TORONTO -- Former NHL forward Akim Aliu is calling on the league to do more to end the racism that “permeates the culture of hockey” as protests fueled by rage over police mistreatment of African Americans flares in the U.S. and Canada.
In a powerful piece titled “Hockey is Not for Everyone,” published Tuesday in The Players' Tribune, Aliu details years of alleged race-motivated abuse and bullying at the hands of his teammates and coaches as he pursued his dream of playing in the NHL.
“You know what I think is amusing? The NHL’s title for their annual diversity campaign, ‘Hockey is For Everyone,’” reads the editorial written by Aliu.
“Makes me crack up. Because, right now, hockey is not for everyone. I learned that when I was 16.”
The Nigerian-born player also included details about the alleged bullying and racial slurs he faced from former Calgary Flames coach Bill Peters, including an instance where Peters allegedly used the “n-word” towards him in a dressing room because of his choice in music.
“Surrounded by teammates. Surrounded by the boys. But completely alone,” he wrote. “The way he used that word, he completely stripped me of my humanity.”
Speaking to CTV News Channel on Sunday, Aliu said his decision to publish the piece was fueled by the motivation to provide a voice to young players facing discrimination.
“It’s been something I’ve been sitting on for a long time… I wanted to do something in my own words, I thought it would be the most raw and authentic way to get out my message and my experiences in the game,” he said Sunday from his home.
“I think getting the story out to kids and other people playing the game, just to understand that they’re not alone in the fight, has been a positive message to me.”
Though Aliu stood up to discrimination on and off the ice as a rookie, he says the decision pegged him as a “bad player” and his career suffered because of it.
“That derailed my career, which has been super tough to live with, so I’m just trying to have a voice for others that may be in my situation,” he explained.
“I didn’t have a voice, I didn’t know who to talk to. I tried to get my story out but it seemed like no one wanted to listen.”
Aliu first made allegations against Peters public last November, prompting a Flames investigation that ended when Peters resigned as coach.
His complaints sparked conversations with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and deputy commissioner Bill Daly where he expressed his concerns with discrimination the hockey community.
Though he says, for now, all he has is the word of NHL executives, he’s hopeful that the league will start to embrace policy changes and attitude shifts that are necessary in preventing discrimination of any kind -- not just racism.
“Our game needs a lot more diversity. Our game needs a way to be more inclusive, not worrying about your gender, sex, where you’re from, your background, what your hair looks like,” he said.
“I’m hoping that the conversation is going to continue and continue to be positive, but I feel like we have a long way to go. It’s going to be a long road, but I hope they will at least lend an ear to listen to our message.”
In the midst of increased tension and anti-racism protests in both the U.S. and Canada, Aliu isn’t the only person speaking out about the issue in the hockey world.
This week Canadian sports writer Salim Valji revealed that he’s reached out to no fewer than six players, including superstars Connor McDavid and Sidney Crosby, to discuss race and has been rejected every time.
“Pens PR: ‘I’m not sure why you are pushing this with us.’ I've asked NHL why [players] remain silent and not gotten a response,” he tweeted Wednesday.
San Jose Sharks player Evander Kane also addressed the issue of discrimination on the ice while speaking out about the death of George Floyd, a black man who died after being pinned under the knee of a white Minneapolis police officer.
Teammate Logan Couture has also weighed in on the issue in a show of support for both Kane and Aliu.
"Racism exists in society, it also exists in hockey. That’s a fact," Couture wrote on Twitter.
"Growing up in this game is a privilege. At times, I think most of us have been at fault for turning a blind eye when it comes to racism. It cannot continue. I've had the opportunity to play with some incredible teammates. Black, white, all colours. Getting to listen to them talk about things they have gone through in hockey/life is eye opening.”