In the midst of a global pandemic, Akim Aliu has been places he’d never dreamt of.
The former NHLer has gone from sharing his experiences as a Black hockey player on social media to gracing the covers of magazines, skating in a reality TV show and working with business leaders in his quest to help end racism in the game he loves.
“I sent a tweet and now I’m dealing with CEOs and CMOs a couple months later and just in circles that I never thought I’d be in. And I think it’s for the right reasons,” Aliu said. “To be able to get some recognition is nice but that’s really not what I’m in it for. I’m in it to make impactful change.”
Aliu raised serious questions about racism in hockey back in 2019 when he alleged in a tweet that then-Calgary Flames head coach Bill Peters directed racial slurs at him when they were both in the minors a decade earlier. Peters resigned soon after the allegations were made.
Aliu, 32, has been pushing for change in the sport ever since. He teamed up with eight other NHLers — including Evander Kane of the San Jose Sharks, Toronto Maple Leafs forward Wayne Simmonds, Minnesota Wild defenceman Matt Dumba and Nazem Kadri of the Colorado Avalanche — last June to form the Hockey Diversity Alliance.
The group’s goal is to “eradicate racism and intolerance in hockey” and get more Black, Indigenous and people of colour playing the game.
As the group hits the one-year anniversary mark, Aliu thinks it has made a difference.
“For a bunch of players to come together in a sport that’s predominantly white and make a stand and say that change is needed was something that we should all be proud of,” said Aliu, a former Flames forward. “I think it’ll be remembered for a long time.”
Aliu appeared on the cover of Maclean’s in February, named by the magazine as one of 50 Canadians making transformative change. He also appeared in Sports Illustrated in January, and skated to fourth place on CBC’s “Battle of the Blades.”
Last month, Edmonton defenceman Ethan Bear received a barrage of racist comments online after the Oilers were ousted from the playoffs.
Similar incidents happen “constantly” in hockey, Aliu said.
“That just goes to show that there’s obviously a huge problem in our game when it comes to how people look at people of colour in and around the game,” he said. “But also, internally in the game, players of colour don’t get treated the same way as Caucasian players. So we’re going to try and educate and hopefully see change little by little.”
Many of the players involved with the HDA have publicly shared their own stories about experiencing racism in hockey, Aliu said. He hopes their stories help make the sport safer for the next generation of players.
“We just feel like being nine players that have reached the top of the mountain by making it to the National Hockey League and all of us dealing with these incidents, there’s no one better to speak on these issues and to help promote the game and talk to kids that look like us,” he said.
“I think kids identify with what they see and obviously when you see someone who looks like you, you tend to trust them and then you tend to have the perception that you can make it just as far as that person.”
The HDA originally planned to work with the NHL in its push for change, but split from the league in October.
Aliu said the group wanted the NHL to implement tangible hiring targets for people of colour, and wanted to see resources directed toward education and grassroots programming. But Aliu said they were “spinning in circles and not really getting anywhere.”
“I think first and foremost, when you want to address an issue, you have to call it out as it is,” he said. “Yes, there’s a racial problem in our game and we need to put resources behind growing the game in many different avenues. And they didn’t want to do that.”
The NHL announced a number of anti-racism initiatives in early September including mandatory inclusion and diversity training for players, and an “inclusion learning experience” for employees.
The league and the Players’ Association also said it would work with the HDA to establish a grassroots hockey development program in the Toronto area for BIPOC communities.
The HDA is still working on community hockey programs. This week, Kraft Heinz committed $1 million over the next four years to the group.
The money will go toward providing under-represented communities with ball hockey equipment and encouraging kids who haven’t seen themselves represented in the game to get involved.
“People call it Canada’s game, but I’d say most people of colour don’t identify with the game of hockey,” Aliu said.
The group hopes to launch the program in November, and is also working on an educational program, he said.
They’ll also continue speaking out against racism in hockey and “calling it like it is.”
“We have big dreams and big aspirations and we want to do things that have never been done before, sometimes, I guess, in a controversial way,” Aliu said. “But I think these issues shouldn’t be controversial. I think everyone should know there are inequalities in this world, especially regarding race in and around the game of hockey.
“So we’re ready to go and show the world what we’ve got.”