On Akim Aliu, Racism, and Character in Hockey

I’ve been reading Gare Joyce’s “Future Greats and Heartbreaks”, a book about a journalist learning the art of scouting, and there have been a number of neat tidbits about the 2006 and 2007 NHL drafts and the junior hockey that was being played at that time. But there was one story that I didn’t find as much neat as I did sad. There’s no secret that there’s a race problem in hockey. It’s no longer hard racism so much as it is soft. White Canadian coaches prefer compliant, dull, white Canadian players, and so when a guy like P.K. Subban –  with a lively personality and something of an ego – comes along, it sticks out like a sore thumb, and words like “enigmatic”, “selfish”, “undisciplined”, and “cocky” get thrown around. 

As Joyce travels around the Canadian Hockey League venues, he encounters a draft-eligible prospect by the name of Akim Aliu. As a hockey fan, I remember Aliu as somebody who was drafted in the second round by the Chicago Blackhawks, who briefly played for the Calgary, and just recently played a season with the Hamilton Bulldogs. But it turns out there was a lot more there I had missed. 

In his draft season, Aliu found trouble when he got in an altercation with fellow Windsor Spitfire Steve Downie. Reportedly, when Aliu failed to participate in a team hazing exercise, Downie cross-checked him in the mouth in practice. Aliu went to the dressing room but soon returned and began trading fists with the future NHL pest.

“Nobody wanted to hear my side of it,” he says. “When they told me I had to go in [the hotbox on the bus] I wouldn’t do it. I wouldn’t do that to anybody else, they shouldn’t do it to me – that’s just how I see it. It’s not part of the game or the team. We’re here to play hockey…

At the practice Downie cross-checked me in the mouth. I went to the dressing room and saw that three of my teeth were chipped and broken. That’s when I lost it. I came back out on the ice and I went after him.”

Downie, despite an even more alarming history of violence, played on Canada’s world junior team that year. Aliu, who was similarly ranked according to Central Scouting (although a year later) never even got an invite to an U-18 camp. Hockey Canada officials at the time told Joyce that there was “no interest in Aliu whatsoever.”

Here’s more from Joyce:

“Alieu’s bearing isn’t what I expected. He’s soft-spoken. He doesn’t make eye contact easily. He’s a little socially awkward. When we go to a restaurant downtown, he doesn’t want to order anything. When he finally does, he sees a garden salad on the menu and asks the waitress if “that’s the one with tomatoes…”

Aliu seems like a complicated case on the ice and from what’s common knowledge about his personal history – the hazing incident and fight with Downie in Windsor, his suspensions, his performance at the Top Prospects Game. his backstory, though, is stuff you couldn’t write as fiction.

Aliu’s father Tai is Nigerian. I assumed as much when I saw that Akim was born in Okene, Nigeria. What I didn’t know was that Akim’s mother is Ukrainian and that he grew up in Kiev….’My family didn’t come to Canada until I was twelve,’ he says, ‘I didn’t speak any English. We spoke Russian at home.’

I ask Akim if he cosniders himself Canadian, Russian, Ukrainian, Nigerian, or some mix. He leans to the Ukrainian-Russian side. He says he has some good memories of Kiev. ‘I like the Russian way of doing things in school,’ he says. ‘There are lots of things they do better.’

He sounds disappointed about his family leaving Kiev – at least until he talks about his father. ‘The police would harass him,’ Akim says. ‘They’d pick him up on the street and take him in just because he was black. That’s why my parents wanted to leave. They didn’t want that for my older brother and me.'” (bolding my own)

Aliu also had problems adapting to North American society. He and his family lived in a single bedroom on welfare; Akim wanted to play hockey but his family couldn’t afford equipment so he had to borrow. 

“When we first came here from Kiev I had a fight every day. I didn’t understand what people were saying so I thought they were saying something about me.”

Aliu, however, from the time he started playing hockey at the age of 12, was a clear phenom. His Toronto midget team with John Tavares and Sam Gagner lost two games all year, and in many of the games Aliu was the most impactful player. And going into his draft year it was clear he understood the challenges he faced as a late-comer to the game.

“In junior, everyone is learning. I got a late start. I have to learn more [and] faster than everybody else.”

So what does this all mean? After all, Aliu basically flamed out despite a cup of tea with the Flames. Well scouts always talk about character when it comes to players, and coaches about guys that fit in the room and are coachable. My attitude had always been that if a guy is talented enough, coaches should simply learn to put up with potential character issues for the sake of having a good team. But this Aliu story has changed my perspective to an extent. Maybe the responsibility on coaches should be even greater, especially at the junior level. For a guy who doesn’t know hockey culture, who doesn’t even know North American culture, maybe the responsibility should have been placed on Aliu’s coaches and mentors to teach him how to be a good player, and a good person. Not to say they didn’t try, but for Hockey Canada to flat out turn down a potential first-round pick without so much as a sniff? That makes me question whether they truly have their players’ best interests at heart, and of course how deep their discrimination really lies. 

Of course, in 2014, the name Akim Aliu could easily be replaced as Josh Ho-Sang, a guy who was a prodigy playing with Connor McDavid in midget and has since been portrayed as lacking character and humility. Hockey Canada has ignored the talented youngster in every way possible, and rather than an indication of confidence, any statement about his own abilities has been taken as a further black mark. 

Maybe it’s not incumbent upon young black players to refine their characters to suit hockey’s norms. Maybe, like in so many other ways, it’s time hockey change its attitude, and its developmental system, to include the most talent possible.

15 thoughts on “On Akim Aliu, Racism, and Character in Hockey

  1. This is complex because by the time a child is 18 they should be able to function like a competent human in situations unless there are many gaps in their life. Aliu came over at 12 and although learning English is hard and can be complicated by not speaking English at home; most EAL kids in the school division I am in (in Winnipeg) are integrated into regular classrooms quickly in part because they are in a better place to learn peer interactions and North American norms. The low-income aspect adds another layer into the complexities because you are dealing with kids who lack proper nourishment and are already behind when they start the school day because of that. It’s fairly obvious that there is racism in hockey, but in Aliu’s case it is most likely amplified by his transition to Canada that left him feeling like an outsider.

    I’ve been in previous classes of EAL students who were older with little to no language and they were super fast to pick up in everything else beside the language; although that remained a barrier. I wonder if personality has something to do with the transition, but I’ve only worked with about 20 EAL kids in total.

    Ho-Sang and Subban are different because I think that they simply speak their minds sometimes which is rare for hockey. I forget how Melissa Martin described the differences with the two of them a couple weeks ago. I think the leash was shorter and is shorter for Aliu, Subban, and Ho-Sang due to skin colour, but why they stand out is dependent on the player’s personality. This is also most likely why Jarome Iginla and Wayne Simmonds are not controversial; they lack the different personalities that shine a brighter light on Subban et al.

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  2. Bullcrap from start to finish. Don’t see a journalistic career in the making on this evidence. Aliu was and is a screw-up. Chip on his shoulder the size of a brick. His opponent in WIndsor, Downie, is even worse but he can play some hockey and that, boys ‘n’ girls, is what the exercise is all about. Aliu didn’t get a look from Hockey Canada because he wasn’t even close to being ready. Expecting a team to give a guy like him a shot that they wouldn’t give to anyone else is racism – if he doesn’t deserve it, he shouldn’t get it. Subban is totally different. He performs in all aspects of the game. He’s exciting. He’s very talented. He’s money for the P.R. guys. And Iginla, Simmonds and even George Laraque were also high octane guys in their early days – they’re a little quieter these days because they’re established. Find some other crack to wedge yourself into – maybe it’s sexist that Hayley Wickenheiser didn’t get a shot with the Habs or some other NHL team. Yeah, that should attract some attention . . .

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    • You sound like the ‘ol boys who think hockey is fine just the way it is; THAT my friend is BULLCRAP!!! Do not think for a second that racism doesn’t exist in hockey. Just because Iginla or Simmonds weren’t outspoken does not mean they didn’t endure the same type of discrimination that Aliu and even Subban experiences today. Hockey culture as far as I’m concerned requires over-the-top modesty from players which may be fine for some players. However; branding players who don’t fit that mould as players with ‘character issues’ is wrong and sends the wrong message. It’s funny that the same adjectives (cocky, undisciplined, arrogant, questionable character) kept being used when Subban was going through his contract negotiations while players like Patrick Kane who has had real and quantifiable character issues had no problem getting their contracts negotiated easily. Hockey lives here? Well, so does racism.

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      • Similarly, Giroux and Kane will get, “What a character!” while players like Aliu and Ho-Sang get “What character issues!” Being outspoken is a greater crime than ACTUAL CRIME! Dany Heatley killed a man but has always gotten his shots. with no mention of his “character” other than his involvement in “an unfortunate accident.” How Aliu’s failure to comply with an uncomfortable and embarrassing hazing ritual makes him a worse teammate than a guy who is willing to cross-check a teammate in the mouth, knocking his teeth out, is beyond scientific measure. Oh, but lets not forget he also doesn’t know what all goes into a garden salad. Must be a rubbish player/menace to civilized society.

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      • patric kane was villified in chicago for his actions. there was a strong push to trade him after 2010-11 because of his off-ice antics. kane changed last year and became a model citizen. i saw adieu at hawks prospect camp..absolutely did nothing to stand out from the other prospects. while there is racism everywhere (including africa) adieu just doesnt have the necessary talent.

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      • Bs comment on a bs article. Akim and his entire family displayed character issues throughout his minor hockey career. Quite frankly there have been tons of kids who never made it to the show due to charcter and work ethic.making this about skin color is lazy journalism.

        If you’d like to address racism in sports, explore a white running back, defensive end or wide receivers experience. But, thats not the narrative that the media wants exposed.

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  3. “My attitude had always been that if a guy is talented enough, coaches should simply learn to put up with potential character issues for the sake of having a good team” – there is a limit to this comment. Most coaches would give up the highly skilled player that is toxic in dressing room and bench because “character” players are what enable teams to develop and win championships. The teams that have a load to talent and less character may do well when the game doesn’t count very much, but those teams rarely excel in the long run nor do they win championships. The truly great coach is the one who can take the highly talented but lacking character player and convince them that the team approach is in their best interest. Even the successful coaches (Ken Hitchcock for example) that at times utilize this approach often end up taking the blame (i.e get fired) because the players stop buying into the team approach. Scotty Bowman was such a great coach and manager because he focused so much on developing talent within the team approach. He loved the hard working but less talented players who would do anything for the team, and he sought that kind of approach to the game from the talented players as well.

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  4. C’mon guys, the real issue was already stated; they don’t fit the hockey culture. Hockey is all about blue-collar guys who take a hard hat and lunch pail to work every day. That’s the culture. So obviously some people take exception to the flamboyant personalities of some of the players. It has nothing to do with race. I remember Ovie being lambasted by the media for that whole “hot stick” routine. Kane wasn’t exactly left off the hook for his whole 20 cent incident. But, you know what Kane did? He put his head down and kept himself out of the tabloids, he grew up and didn’t whine about unfair treatment. He changed the public perception. Who personifies “enigmatic, selfish, undisciplined, and cocky” more than Sean Avery? The guy didn’t exactly put up terrible numbers in the NHL, but is blacklisted because of how he acts on and off the ice. That brings us to the difference between Aliu and Downie. You know what Downie put up in the AHL? A point per game. Aliu put up 67 points in 217 games – good for .30 points per game. Numbers give you second, third, and even fourth, fifth or sixth chances. It’s not like Downie isn’t known as a headcase. You know why teams put up with it? It’s not because he’s white, it’s because he produces. When you’re a borderline NHLer you don’t have the luxury of giving the coach reasons to dislike you. So sit down, shut up and toe the line.

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