R ewind the tape all the way back and, among the frames, you can spot the moment Aaron Atwell began to see the lines drawn in the hockey world, the borders separating some from the rest.
He was just a boy getting his first taste of the game, falling in love with the wobbly wonder of his earliest spins on the ice at Toronto’s Chris Tonks Arena. Nothing compared to the feeling. But even then, Atwell couldn’t help but wonder why the other kids from his Keele and Eglinton community weren’t out there with him.
“We would play street hockey right around the corner, on Gabian Way,” Atwell says. “It’s a little roundabout dead-end. At any given point, if someone heard a stick, you’d see kids looking out the window and everyone would come out and be playing street hockey. You’d have kids from the mosque who had their own ball hockey thing going on in the parking lot of the school nearby.
“But we never saw any of them on the ice. I was one of the few who got to get on the ice, [along with] maybe a handful of kids, out of all these other kids playing street hockey in the community.”
As a life in the game began to take shape for a young Atwell, he couldn’t shake that feeling, the thought that so many others were being left behind, that so many of the teammates he shared a dressing room with didn’t see those borders.
That is, until, as a young teenager in the GTHL, he looked across the room and saw Akim Aliu, and an enduring kinship was born.
“Him and I have been good friends for a long time, we’ve both gone through our own things in hockey,” Atwell says. “We both came from communities where, you know, we didn’t have a lot of money, but somehow we found a way to play. But a lot of the other people in the communities that we were in, around us, they couldn’t play at all.”
The young teammates parted ways, setting off on their own journeys in pro hockey. But eventually, that same bond pulled them back together.
In 2020, when Aliu founded the Hockey Diversity Alliance with seven other current and former NHLers at his side, thoughts of those lines and borders he and Atwell had talked about were top of mind. One of the first orders of business for the newly formed group was figuring out how to open doors for kids like the ones they’d played alongside in all those cul-de-sacs and parking lots.
“We came together and we said, ‘What are we going to do for the next generation?’” Aliu remembers. “To amplify the contributions of the Black community to hockey, but also to create a platform for these kids, for the next generation to be able to have a smoother ride into competitive hockey and, hopefully, into professional hockey.
“We came up with this idea of going into the 12 priority designated communities [in Toronto], your underserved communities — the Regent Parks, the Jane-and-Finches, Malvern, Albion — and we said, ‘Let’s provide hockey free of cost.’”
The vision was simple, the motivation clear.
“We got lucky,” Aliu says. “We got support at critical times along the way of our journey to be able to make it to the level that we made it to. But the fact is that a lot of kids similar to us slip through the cracks, because they aren’t able to get that support.”
Now, with Atwell at his side, Aliu and the HDA’s vision has become a reality.
In late October, the group launched the Grassroots Original Hockey League (GOHL), an on-ice program that brings free hockey development into GTA communities that need it most. Through the opening month of the program, more than 500 kids have signed up, according to Aliu.
“We’re in four different communities right now,” says Atwell, who was brought in to oversee the development of the kids in the program. “The first is the Rexdale area, at Albion Arena, and then we have Chris Tonks at Keele and Eglinton, Angela James Arena at Don Mills and Eglinton, and the Malvern community at Malvern Community Centre.”
But the plans for the GOHL are bigger than four rinks. The program isn’t a one-and-done skills clinic in a few arenas around town — it’s intended to be a long-term path to genuine on-ice development, beginning with those four communities in 2022 and expanding into four more in each of the next two years. Each participant doesn’t just get a chance to go out for a skate with Aliu and Atwell, they sign on for three years of training.
It’s because of that commitment that great care was taken to pinpoint where the GOHL should touch down first.
“We worked with the city of Toronto to identify the 12 priority neighbourhoods,” Aliu says. “Our whole mindset was to bring this program to the kids that need it most. … The communities we’re in, there’s a lot of single-parent households, parents not making significant money. And this is just a program to help these kids, number one, get off the street, and number two, just learn the lessons that hockey provides for youth, to be a better human being. Because hockey is a beautiful game, and has so many great lessons.”
Figuring out how to bring meaningful change to those communities requires more than just knowing where they are, though. It requires the type of informed empathy that’s at the core of the HDA’s approach, a firsthand understanding of what the day-to-day looks like in these neighbourhoods, and how hockey can best fit into that picture.
It’s why the group took care to drop the GOHL into the heart of the communities they’re working with, rather than holding their sessions at a glitzier rink across town that would’ve made it tougher for the kids to reach them.
“Why would we make them travel an hour?” Atwell says. “It takes more time out of the parents’ day — it’s tough for these parents to get off work, like it was for my parents. How are they going to be able to reach the other end of the city and get their kid there on the ice on time? It’s almost impossible for some of them. They work paycheque to paycheque, they’re not making much, they’re trying to support their families. So, to have it central in the community, where the people who need it the most can get there, that’s our main goal. … Some of the other parents who are volunteering pick up other players in the area, some of the kids are in the same schools or classrooms. It’s very much community-based.”
Crucially, it also comes with a price tag of $0.
“Everything is covered for these kids,” Aliu says. “Equipment, ice-time, coaching, meals, transportation. We hope that this program is something that they’ll look back to years down the line and say, ‘This is what got me into the game.’”
The focus of the first month’s slate of sessions has simply been getting kids onto the ice, Atwell explains, and to a place where they can hold their own on skates. That starts with divvying up participants into three groups — those completely new to skating, those with some experience, and those who can skate fairly well. “You’re separating each learning category,” Atwell says. “And then we have three coaches on the ice for three different stages in development. … The first week or two, a lot of the players could barely stand on the ice, most needed assistance. Now, most of the players are able to stand unassisted and move around. They fall often, but they can get up and continue. So, everyone is learning quickly.
“If we can get these kids at a point where they can move on, if they want to play for other organizations or if we happen to get an organization where they can come into and actually compete and play organized league hockey, then that’s perfect, that’s exactly what we want. We just want to give them the opportunity to play hockey.”
It’s the kids taking it all in for the first time who have stood out most to Atwell, he says. The ones showing glimpses of what could be, if these communities hadn’t been left in the dark for so long. “There was a Black boy around the age of nine who I was talking to,” he remembers. “I could tell he can’t skate. And he did something that I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone who can’t skate do. He got up from being on the ice — he’d fallen — and when he got up on the one leg, he ended up jumping off the ice, like a couple of inches, and then landing, sticking it, and standing up. And I was like, ‘How is he that athletic on skates already? This is his first time learning.’ You know? The talent that’s been hidden in these communities, it’s crazy.”
It’s more than just natural athleticism bursting through, though. It’s the hunger they’ve seen from kids taking their first laps around the ice, winding up for their first slappers, connecting on their first haphazard passes. It’s that look in their eyes, the same one every HDA member had back in their own younger days.
One particular moment from a session at Angela James Arena stands out on that front, Atwell says. He remembers a group of young Muslim girls from the program finishing up their first session with him. After the skate had wrapped, and the others started clearing out, they stayed behind to watch the group taking the ice after them, a girls’ minor hockey league game.
Atwell remembers seeing them there, watching with a fierce intensity, looking like they were ready to get out there and take on the more experienced skaters.
“The pride and the fire and the passion that I saw they had from just being on the ice one day, just getting equipment, I was like, ‘Oh my goodness. There’s so much here that has been left untouched,’” Atwell says. “It’s astonishing. There have been moments like that where it’s really opened my eyes and it’s showed me that, yeah, people in these communities have been long forgotten.”
There’s a stack of stories like that one already, just a month into the program, of kids quickly falling in love with the game. But nothing compares to the reactions of the loved ones watching from the stands, Aliu says.
“I’ve had parents come up to me crying, saying, ‘Thank you so much for this program. This is something that really helps me out,’ because they don’t know what to do with the kids after work. And at the end of the day, even if they did, they couldn’t afford a lot of these after-school programs — especially a program like hockey that’s extremely expensive.”
For the GOHL, the program is just as much about those parents as it is their kids. The goal isn’t just to turn young skaters into hockey players — it’s to help these families become hockey families.
“It’s important for us to be in these communities, because representation matters,” says HDA member and former NHLer Joel Ward, now a coach for the Vegas Golden Knights’ AHL affiliate. “Growing up, Kevin Weekes lived in the same neighbourhood [as me], and was a vital part of our family playing hockey. Both my parents being immigrants from the island of Barbados, we didn’t know much about the sport. So as we grew up, going to different hockey arenas, we didn’t know which way to turn. We didn’t know which hockey camps to attend or which teams to sign up for.”
“[It’s] just talking to parents about how, ‘What you’re going through, my parents have been going through,’” Atwell says. “My parents have showed up to some of the sessions already. Akim’s parents as well. They’ve been able to talk to other families and share their story. But the difference is, this time around, it’s the whole arena of people who are going through the same thing.
“So, even ones who don’t know, as soon as they figure out how to put on a piece of equipment, or something else, they’re helping everyone else. Which is something I have not seen in hockey for a long time.”
It’s no revelation that hockey is among the least accessible sports, that for many communities it’s simply too expensive to realistically consider, that growing the game means building bridges over those obstacles — reducing the cost and reducing the burden on parents who don’t have the luxury or flexibility of driving kids to rinks all over town.
The fact that it’s the HDA who’ve begun building those bridges is no surprise, either. Because they’ve been on both sides and they haven’t forgotten where they came from.
“This hits close to home for us, because we were these kids growing up,” Aliu says. “Most of the members in the HDA did grow up in the inner city, in the GTA and from other places. We want to give back to our community. That’s extremely important to us.”
And doing that in a meaningful way means, first and foremost, changing what the game looks like at the grassroots level.
“At the end of the day, the youth is where it all starts,” Aliu continues. “Top-end AAA kids and OHL kids don’t fall off trees. They need a place, they need a home to begin their journey. … We want to continue to grow and get this program into as many cities and as many communities as we possibly can. I’m hoping by next year that we have close to 1,000 kids in this program, in just the city of Toronto. … We’ve already had reach-outs from National Hockey League teams and even a team in the NBA, south of the border, to work with us on expanding this program into cities all over North America. And I’m hoping maybe five, 10 years down the line, we’ll have this program all over the world.
“Looking down the road for myself and the HDA, we just want to leave a legacy of a group that did something that’s never been done before.”
“The HDA, they don’t make any money off of this. It’s strictly for these kids, so everything we do, all the money we get, goes to them,” Atwell adds. “Everything we do here is a focus of getting kids on the ice, and getting them on an even playing field with everyone else in the sport.
“Everything we do here is kids-first — what’s better for them, not what’s best for us.”
Wherever the GOHL goes from here, what seems clear is that the engine driving this machine won’t soon quit. Because the motivation comes not from a vague desire to grow the sport, but from somewhere deeper — that memory of what it was like back home, before the bright lights of the pros; that memory of all those kids who fell in love with the game like they did, but didn’t get the same opportunity to see it through.
It’s that same motivation that keeps the HDA members directly connected to their communities — and to hockey’s BIPOC community at large — even beyond this grassroots work.
“One of the biggest things that we’ve prided ourselves on is being a hands-on type of program, a player-led group. I don’t know, I can’t see there being any other way,” Aliu says. “This group is led by players who have experienced the things that we’re trying to pass down to the next generation. We’ve had our whole group on calls, on Zoom calls, with kids in minor hockey all over Canada, in the U.S. Guys take the time personally to jump on the call with kids that deal with issues. We really pride ourselves on continuing to be that type of organization that’s within reach, and accessible, no matter what guys are doing.
“We have guys that are in managerial positions throughout the NHL, we have current NHL players, we have former NHL players, and all of them are a phone call away. … I think that’s special, and I think that’s maybe one of the most impactful things of our group, is just how much the fellas care about being able to speak with these kids and have a conversation and give their thoughts and wisdom from experience.”
For Ward, the reasons for that commitment are clear. “[Hockey] was a vital part of us growing up, so just to give kids an opportunity to be included, to feel welcomed, and to give them another outlet, is important,” adds Ward. “I have two boys, and making hockey a safe place is extremely important because I don’t want my children, or any child, to have to go through what I had to endure growing up facing racism in the sport.
“If they choose to play minor hockey, they should feel safe, like everybody else. They shouldn’t have to face hatred because of the colour of their skin. They should feel welcomed, and have an equal opportunity, like everybody else in the sport that we all love.”
It hasn’t been an easy path. Not with all that was thrown at Aliu, Atwell, Ward and the others in the HDA over the course of their careers on the ice. Not with the dog-whistling questions about their legitimacy that still follow them, even as they’ve focused all attention on making hockey a more accessible space for the BIPOC community.
But for Aliu, the fact that obstacles are still thrown on his path is simply a sign of the need to keep fighting for progress, on and off the ice.
“Forming the Hockey Diversity Alliance was an extremely difficult thing to do, that’s a whole other story on its own. The conversation started with more than 30 players of colour from the National Hockey League level to the AHL level to the East Coast League level. And we announced with only eight players, because guys were worried about their careers. And that just shows that, even in 2020 when this happened, there’s still a fear of retribution around being proud of who you are and speaking up against real issues,” Aliu says. “I think the HDA, more than anything, has given so many other organizations a platform to be able to speak out and do the things that they’re doing. … I think we’re making an impact on all levels of hockey.
“We’re not looking for a pat on the back. All we’re doing is looking for a little bit of respect for putting our necks on the line, first and foremost, and at the end of the day, doing the real work to grow this game.”
Regardless of whether that respect comes, it’s that real work that Aliu and Atwell are keeping top of mind. Because they know how many are still dealing with the earliest obstacles they faced in the game, let alone the ones that came later.
And they know, too, the impact their presence can have on lighting that path — the impact of showing up, reaching out, and proving those obstacles can be overcome.
“We’re a boots-on-the-ground type of organization,” Aliu says. “We’re on the ice with these kids, we’re playing ball hockey with these kids. And I think that’s so important, because they’re able to look up and say, ‘Hey, these members of the HDA did it, [even though] there’s so few of them in the game, of colour. I have a chance to do this as well.’
“That inspiration is something that you can’t buy, you can’t teach. That’s something that needs to be seen and felt.”