When Akim Aliu dressed for his first career NHL game on Thursday night, in the 81st game of another lost season for the Calgary Flames, it was more than just a roster-filling, late-season call-up for the 56th overall pick of the 2007 NHL Entry Draft. It was the fulfillment of a dream that has taken Aliu across the globe — from Okene, Nigeria to Peoria to Calgary. The 22-year-old’s unorthodox journey to the NHL is finally in the books. And after a strong performance — that included his first career point — in front of a hometown crowd, it likely won’t be his last.
Mired in 11th place in the Western Conference with 86 points heading into Thursday’s contest against the first-place Vancouver Canucks, the Flames are in audition mode, and Aliu fits that bill perfectly. Since being drafted by the Chicago Blackhawks, the right-winger has played for eight professional teams in four years, nine including the Flames. When Troy Ward, coach with the Abbotsford Heat, called Aliu Wednesday post-practice, the 6’3, 220lb-forward had to pull the car over he was so excited.
“I actually thought I was in trouble,” Aliu said. “He beat around the bush for a second then let me know I was going to play in my first National Hockey League game. I was in absolute shock.”
After falling out of favour at the Winnipeg Jets training camp at the beginning of the 2011-12 season, Aliu returned home to Toronto to do some soul-searching, crestfallen.
“It was probably the worst experience of my career,” he said. “I didn’t really see eye-to-eye with Winnipeg, especially with (GM) Kevin Cheveldayoff and I just wanted an opportunity.”
The fact the highly-touted junior and minor league reclamation project resurrected himself so quickly after being castoff once again is remarkable. “I’m really thankful to the Calgary organization for taking a chance on me.”
It’s not without risks. Aliu started the season playing for the Colorado Eagles of the ECHL, not exactly high society in hockey land. He was loaned to EC Red Bull Salzburg in Austria and subsequently arrived in Abbotsford in late January, where he’s become a permanent fixture with the Flames’ AHL affiliate, racking up 10 goals and four assists in 40 games as a reliable third-line winger. The former goal-dependent power forward has been embracing the defensive role.
“Usually I’m a guy who worries more about offence and trying to get on the board but when I came to Abbotsford, Troy Ward changed my whole game around,” Aliu said.
Embracing change is something that came early to Aliu. Born in Nigeria, he moved to Kiev, Ukraine at a young age and still speaks fluent Russian. His Nigerian father and Russian mother brought Akim to Canada when he was 12, along with his brother Edward. They settled in the Dufferin/Dundas area of Toronto, living on welfare for a short time while Aliu’s father, Taiw, a former track athlete, trained to become a computer software engineer. No surprise then that Aliu’s first phone call upon hearing the unexpected news was to his dad in Toronto. His father flew out to Calgary first thing Thursday morning and was “jumping off the walls” in the Saddledome watching his son’s first NHL practice, where he took drills on the second line with Mike Cammalleri and Matt Stajan.
It must have been particularly poignant for Akim’s father seeing another half-Nigerian NHL star, Jarome Iginla, skating on the same ice surface as his own son, the first time that has ever occurred. “He’s really proud of me and where I came from and to play in the NHL is something he never thought would be possible,” Aliu added.
Unlike many Canadians who lace up the skates by the age of five, Aliu is a relative outlier. When he arrived in Canada, he didn’t speak English. He’d never skated. He’d never even witnessed a hockey game. But he was a natural athlete, and rapidly ascended the local minor-league ranks. A first-round pick by the OHL’s Windsor Spitfires, Aliu joined a powerhouse junior club that must have salivated at the size and speed Aliu offered. But things went awry quickly for Aliu. The 16-year-old refused to participate in a team hazing ritual that saw naked teenagers forcibly jammed into the bathroom on the back of the team bus, called “hotboxing.” He was ostracized. Three weeks later, Aliu and future NHL forward Steve Downie dropped the gloves at practice after Downie’s unprovoked cross-check to Aliu’s face chipped three teeth, and both players were subsequently traded. The hazing incident garnered national media attention and general manager Moe Mantha was suspended for one year and fined $35,000.
While Downie went on to win gold at the 2006 and 2007 World Junior Hockey Championships, Aliu’s difficulties continued, assisted in part by the verbal abuse lobbied at him by opposing players. He was criticized for having a temper and not towing the line. Coaches and scouts saw raw talent fused with a hardheaded personality. Considered a frustrating prospect, Aliu brought loads of talent to the table but an up-and-down work ethic. By the 2007 draft, his stock had dropped and Aliu spent several years toiling in the Blackhawks’ and Atlanta Thrashers’ minor-league systems, yo-yoing between the AHL and ECHL, seeing ice time for rather inglorious franchises as the Toledo Walleye and Gwinnett Gladiators.
Now, with a new lease on life from the Flames organization, it could prove a godsend for Aliu. The rookie is a restricted free agent next season and the Flames, desperate to find some young working parts on a veteran-laden team, are undoubtedly taking a late-season look at the Nigerian-born forward to measure his effort level before tendering an offer, hoping the attitude issues are behind him.
They’ll like what they saw on Thursday: Aliu drew 10:34 of ice time in the Flames’ 3-2 victory, registered four hits, mixed it up with Canucks forward Maxim Lapierre and, most importantly, did not look out of place, especially notching an assist on Calgary’s first goal. By the end of the game, he was trending on Twitter.
It’s a fine line between playing on the edge and letting your emotions get the best of you. For a passionate player like Aliu, who has experienced a lifetime of bumps in the road during his short hockey career, it may have taken a few extra years to decipher how to control himself, but perhaps the scales have finally tipped his way. His attitude certainly has.
“I think the last 2-3 years has made me more mature. I changed my image and I did a lot of little things to turn my life around. I still got a lot of work to do.”
Adam Elliott Segal is an Assistant Editor with Sportsnet Magazine. You can reach him on Twitter @adamellsegal.