Akim Aliu’s phone has been ringing off the hook and he isn’t much inclined to pick it up. Even before he checks his messages, he knows who’s calling, that being reporters, and what they want to talk about, that being hazing in major-junior hockey.
Hazing landed back in the headlines in November, when Toronto police arrested seven young football players at St. Michael’s College who now face charges relating to an array of assault and sexual-assault offences. So far, eight students have been expelled and the school’s two top officials have resigned. As the awful story has unfolded, other athletes have come forward to talk about hazing incidents in their own pasts; their accounts are disturbing but, for all the details, they don’t start to explain the underpinnings of this toxic culture in sports. Why do teenage athletes — and sometimes older ones — feel the need to humiliate their younger peers? And why do their victims so often submit and stay silent?
That’s where Akim Aliu comes in, why his phone is ringing and his voicemail is full of reporters’ requests for interviews. They want him to revisit the story of a team hazing that was national news more than 13 years ago. The way they see it, if anyone can speak as an expert about these incidents it’s Aliu, whose hazing laid bare the awful degree to which teenagers were capable of brutality, and eventually compelled the OHL to become more engaged and vigilant in protecting young athletes’ welfare.
This is the story of, perhaps, the most famous hockey hazing incident of the past few decades, how the victim is still looking to fulfill a dream that he believes was stalled by his decision to stand up for himself, and what lessons can be learned from the fallout for all involved.
In 2005, Akim Aliu was a sixth-overall pick in the OHL draft beginning his first year with the Windsor Spitfires, when a bunch of older players forced four rookies to strip and locked them all in the cramped bathroom at the back of the team bus on the drive back from a pre-season road trip. Aliu didn’t like it one bit and refused to play along. He also wasn’t going to suffer that treatment in silence.
People who knew Aliu before he arrived in Windsor knew he was a kid who always stuck up for himself. It went to his background. He was the son of a Nigerian father and a Russian mother. Born in Lagos, he’d spent years of his youth in Kiev before moving to Toronto, where he grew up in hard-scrabble circumstances, his family living on welfare for a time. Aliu didn’t speak English at first, which made him the target of bullying, even though he soon grew a head taller than kids in his class. When he started playing minor hockey, his parents bought him a pair of second-hand skates and a hockey bag of well-used equipment for $50 and teams found ways to wave fees and carpool him to games. The arena became his safe place and comfort zone.
Three weeks after the hazing on the bus, a video showed up on the news, first in Windsor, then nationally, and soon thereafter on YouTube. A cameraman for a local television station grabbing some footage at Spitfires practice happened to catch a wild fight between Aliu and a veteran, Steve Downie, a first-round pick of the Philadelphia Flyers. In the clip, Aliu swings wildly; Downie pulls Aliu’s sweater off and connects with a bunch of right hands. What the video didn’t capture was an incident earlier in practice, when Downie skated up to Aliu and cross-checked the rookie in the face, bloodying him and knocking out seven teeth.
With the video everywhere, Aliu spoke his piece with the media. He aired out the whole hazing incident — or at least most of it, anyway. Notes taken by the Windsor front office during its internal investigation at the time indicate that he declined to name some of his teammates involved in hazing. One note read: [Coach and GM Moe] Mantha asked if Steve Downie spat on the floor and asked [Akim] to clean it up. Akim said it was not Steve D but another veteran [and] he would [not] name names as he did not want a player sitting in the stands. Another: [Owner] Steve Riolo asked about any racial slurs. Akim indicated not, but “guys have jokingly … and that’s the way I took it … [called me] ‘the eight-ball.’”
Aliu also held back from the media the fact that Windsor police asked his parents if they wanted to press charges against Downie — because Aliu was 16 at the time, it was his parents’ call, but he told them he didn’t want this to go to court and they acquiesced. (Today, Mantha says the league exerted “pressure to keep the team out of court”; OHL commissioner David Branch says he doesn’t recall the police being involved and he “would never stop a young person from going to police.”)
The league and the owners of the Spitfires went into spin control.
For both parties, the optics were bad, the backstory worse and the fallout swift, if curious. The league fined Riolo $35,000. Mantha was suspended and later fired. The league suspended Downie five games and Aliu for a single game. (It seems curious that Aliu was sat down at all. Branch says that, to his recollection, both suspensions stemmed from the fight and not the hazing.) When Aliu returned to the lineup, he was booed by Downie’s diehard fans in Windsor and shunned by some of his teammates. Subsequently, Downie was traded to Peterborough, then Aliu to Sudbury. Riolo sold the team weeks later.
Though significant, the sanctions were, to my mind, dubious. If Downie had deliberately knocked out an opponent’s teeth he would have been looking at a lot more than five games. And what had Aliu done to earn any suspension at all? Return to the ice with fewer teeth and a mouthful of blood?
The fallout seemed not to end there for Aliu, either. Despite his high placing in the OHL draft, he didn’t get an invitation to the Ontario team that played at Hockey Canada’s international under-17 challenge tournament that December. Though his skating was high end — he later posted the fastest time by far in the one-lap skating drill at the CHL prospects game — Aliu didn’t get a sniff of Hockey Canada’s summer under-18 team. In his NHL draft year, I managed to get a copy of the report NHL Central Scouting Services had on file for him. His grades were off the charts:
Bottom line: By professional assessment, Aliu was in the junior ranks’ elite in skating and puck skills, got full marks for his shot and toughness and he was six-foot-three and 215 pounds when he was 18. Says Mantha: “All Akim wanted to do was play in the NHL. He was a determined kid, a real warrior.” He had a combination that should have spelled a slot in the first round, in the top 20.
This, however, wasn’t the consensus opinion. One long-time NHL scout, who had followed Aliu for a couple years and seen him play a dozen or so times, vouched for the Very Goods and Excellents on Aliu’s NHL CSS report but wasn’t completely sold on him. “He’s an athlete but the question is whether he’s a player,” the scout said then. In the end, Aliu was seen by some in the industry as a malcontent instead of what he clearly was: Someone who would not go along to get along when things were so clearly wrong.
Hockey Canada selected Downie for the world juniors in Vancouver where he was a key figure for a gold-medal-winning team. It seemed like one of those instances of situational conscience: Winning heals all. You could easily look at Akim Aliu’s story and his refusal to submit to hazing and think, A fat lot of good it did him.
More than 13 years after the fact, the principals aren’t inclined to talk about the Windsor hazing. A text to Steve Downie through his agent did not elicit a reply from the player. D.J. Smith and Bill Bowler, Windsor assistant coaches back in 2005, declined to speak to Sportsnet. Several former Spitfires players did not respond to interview requests. Aliu’s closest friend on the team, Mickey Renaud, died suddenly of a heart disorder in 2008.
Akim Aliu will talk, however. Just this once, though. Then he wants the whole thing to be put to bed forever.
This is what he has to say. Aliu wrote this. He wanted every word to be true and measured. And, please, don’t bother calling again. He intends this to stand as his last word on the subject. No interest in advocacy, a role as a spokesman, none of it.
“While I’m declining interviews with the media with the hope that people will respect my privacy, I feel it would be wrong to stay silent and not express disapproval of all forms of hazing. I believed hazing was wrong when I spoke up in 2005. I still do. I feel absolutely terrible for what happened to those kids at St. Michael’s College and it’s sad these things still go on. Does hazing in sports and other avenues of life still happen today? Yes. Is it wrong? Yes, 100 per cent. They call it hazing, but let’s call it what it is — abuse. It’s unacceptable.
“I really believe in standing up for something that’s wrong in the moment. Hazing exists only because of secrecy. Hazing exists because of the belief that what happens in the dressing room stays in the dressing room. Hazing exists simply because of the fear of reporting it. No one should be scared or shamed into silence.
“I’ve made mistakes in my career and I’m the first to admit them. I will never use what happened in a well-publicized hazing incident in Windsor as an excuse for the way things turned out for me. I was angered by it, of course, but I wasn’t broken by it. I feel I never got on track with my career in part because I spoke my mind. Obviously, not everyone appreciates that I spoke up. Obviously, the players involved didn’t like it but neither did some coaches and executives in junior hockey and the pros.
“After the incident in Windsor people in the game looked at me differently. My reputation took a significant hit and for no good reason. I’ve always been in great shape, never a drinker or smoker. I’ve always tried to be a good teammate and to work with coaches. I continue to work on my game and stay dedicated. I still believe that my best hockey is ahead of me.
“I strongly believe the publicity around the hazing incident in Windsor turned my career sideways and to this day I’ve never been able to reclaim my reputation. I was humiliated as a target of hazing and then physically assaulted and yet somehow people looked at me as a villain and troublemaker.
“After the incident in Windsor, and in my later years in junior hockey, I would not tolerate the hazing of any younger player. I tried to do my part to break the cycle of cruelty towards young, vulnerable kids. And that’s why I’m speaking up again now. I believe in standing up for what is right — and that we can’t keep the worst aspect of hockey culture a secret.
“This is just my story, my personal experience, and I’m not judging others for thinking differently than me. I have no ill will whatsoever towards anyone with the team, players or staff, because of what happened to me. I appreciate and owe a debt to those coaches and team officials who helped to mould me into a player and give me a shot at my hockey dream.
“The game has taken something away — hazing, concussions and other injuries — but the game has also given me much more then I could ever hope for. It goes with the territory. Nothing in life is perfect.
“Much love and respect for all, Akim Aliu.”
For only the chosen few is professional success guaranteed after graduating from the junior ranks. For all the rest, well, a lot of things have to go right. At the 2007 draft combine, the Washington Capitals asked Aliu to stick around after his interview to translate for a couple of Russian prospects. He was happy to help. George McPhee, the Caps GM at the time, said that Aliu made a good impression — “a polite kid … confident.” Aliu was pushed a bit in meetings with a few teams but the interview process really yielded nothing out of the ordinary.
There’s no telling whether Aliu’s stock dropped because of the fallout from the Windsor hazing, and if so, how far it fell. He was picked by Chicago in the second round of the 2007 draft. He wound up making it to the Show for a handful of games with Calgary back in 2012 and ’13. When he scored two goals and an assist in his first two games, it seemed to augur an auspicious future. Since then, though, he has bounced around. In total, he has played with the AHL affiliates of nine different organizations, some for whole seasons, some for a handful of games. Some stops don’t even show up on his CV, like the trip to Carolina’s training camp this fall on a tryout that lasted only a week or so.
Says Carolina assistant GM Rick Dudley, who had been in the front office in Chicago back in ’07 and pushed the Hawks to draft Aliu: “I consider myself a friend of Akim and we’ll be friends long after I’m out of the league. We brought him in during training camp [in the fall of 2018] because the talent is there. Really, it was numbers and we didn’t have an opening.” The numbers aren’t just open spots on a roster or organizational chart—in fact those are less important than those numbers on a birth certificate or hockeydb.com profile. AHL affiliates can only dress four veteran players who have played more than 320 professional games. Aliu is up over 360 pro games. His last time through the AHL, he was brought in as a stopgap while veteran minor-leaguers have been injured or promoted, filling in but not really with jobs to win.
Aliu played in the KHL and the Swedish league, as well, but always with an eye to returning to North America for another shot at the NHL. Three seasons ago, he switched from forward to the blue line, his position back when he was an atom and peewee star in Toronto, in the hopes of rebooting his career. At 29, he’s still hoping to get a deal to play in the AHL. He’s been working out with the Mississauga Steelheads, with the Ryerson Rams, wherever he can get a quality practice in. He says he’s in the best shape of his life.
All that potential in the Central Scouting report is seemingly still there to be tapped. He was an immense physical talent in his teens and early 20s and still is. Given the transition back to defence, he should be right in his prime. “I hadn’t seen Akim on the blue line until he sent me some videos from the KHL,” Calgary AGM Craig Conroy says. “He looked really dynamic as a D in the video I saw — he could always really skate and he was carrying the puck, jumping into the rush. The tools Akim has always had playing up front really jump out [as a defenceman]. That he can move back and forth [between forward and defence] could make him a real useful guy to have around … give teams some flexibility.”
Said Danny Brooks, a scout with Washington who coached Aliu in Peoria a few seasons back: “He’s a great talent, no doubt about it. He plays with a lot of jam, he’s physical and he works his ass off — he did for me. Jared Bednar [then the Peoria head coach, now in Colorado] loved him… You can get a rap against you for a lot of reasons, sometimes unfairly. And when you’ve been with a lot of teams, some people make assumptions, maybe. But if you show Akim trust, he’ll die for you.”
Added an executive with one of the organizations Aliu played for in recent years: “Some kids get some bad breaks, some bad timing. Some players slip through the cracks. That so many organizations wanted to look at him tells you that he brings something interesting to the table … that they thought there was a way to find a fit. Ultimately there wasn’t.”
Aliu’s reluctance to keep revisiting his past is understandable. He said everything he could about the hazing in Windsor all those years ago and, to his mind, he didn’t get a particularly sympathetic reading. In fact, some portrayed him as a rebel or troublemaker. Says Mantha: “Those who were at fault here were never held accountable. They didn’t man up. They needed a fall guy. The only one who was completely innocent in this was Akim and it was him who was hurt the most by it.”
It’s also understandable why Aliu believes the Windsor hazing cast a long shadow over his career. As Brooks implied, a player’s best chance is his first chance. When Aliu fell to the end of the second round, he was still going to get a look, but a single look, and not a long one — the investment in a prospect outside the top 30 doesn’t demand anything more. And when the Blackhawks decided that they didn’t see a fit, well, GMs and scouts have memories and Aliu became that guy who didn’t make it in Chicago. After your first chance, every subsequent one makes the climb that much steeper. Still, Akim Aliu is just as defiant in his self-belief as he was at 16, when he wouldn’t submit to the cruelty of his teammates.
One agent suggested that when Akim Aliu stood up to the veterans in Windsor, he did a great service for young players across the league — he made addressing hazing a priority for the league and team management. “A lot of players at 16 or 17 were probably spared abuse because Akim took a stand. And they’re not even aware of it [when] he deserves to be commended for it,” the agent says. Worth noting: The incidents described in the recent rookie-hazing revelations from Shawn Matthias and Dan Carcillo predate Aliu’s fight in Windsor. No former juniors have publicly come out with accounts of hazing that occurred after 2005. That’s not definitive proof none have transpired, but it does look as if Akim Aliu did the game and its players a real service.
The fallout from the incident in Windsor may not have ended hazing across junior hockey, but if teams became more vigilant and instituted zero-tolerance policies for any sort of abuse of teammates, then some players have to have been spared what Matthias, Carcillo and Aliu went through. “We took what we thought were significant sanctions and delivered the message that we considered [the hazing] unacceptable,” Branch says. “Because of [the Windsor incident] we expanded our hazing policy. We review it with all league players annually — that hazing isn’t tolerated. And they have to sign a league document that requires them to observe and abide by our policy.”
According to Branch, teams have to consult with the league and get the head office’s approval for even the most innocuous of longstanding initiations: requiring rookies to pick up pucks after practice or help the staff load equipment onto the bus after road games. “Last year only three or four organizations even looked at that,” Branch says.
What Akim Aliu did more than 13 years ago took guts — and changed the way the Canadian Hockey League and hockey in general discussed and disciplined hazing. Standing up for himself and his teammates was a mark of his character and not evidence of the lack of it. It’s never easy to talk about hazing but it’s never harder than when the wounds are fresh. Aliu spoke up at arguably the most difficult time to do so.
Aliu bristles at the labels “victim” or “survivor.” He doesn’t want to be defined by a very bad time a very long time ago. He wants to move past the assault in Windsor and focus on what’s next. And really, he can’t answer the fundamental question: How are young men capable of inflicting such embarrassment and pain on teammates? The only ones who might be able to are hazing’s perpetrators and enablers, and they’re less even less inclined to talk than he is.
What Aliu can do is stay in the gym and on the ice. He can keep his body strong and his game sharp. He can keep practicing. Akim Aliu can keep chasing his NHL dream and hoping the next phone call is from a team and not another reporter.
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