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.