Sports News Without Fear, Favor or Compromise
Sports News Without Fear, Favor or Compromise
Akim Aliu was subjected to racist abuse from teammates and coaches in his journey to the NHL.
Akim Aliu was subjected to racist abuse from teammates and coaches in his journey to the NHL.
Image: Getty Images

It took nine days, but the NHL finally responded to Akim Aliu’s devastating story in the Players’ Tribune on May 19, detailing the racist attacks he had suffered at the hands of teammates and coaches in his climb from prospect to pro.

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Aliu, son of a Nigerian father and Ukrainian mother who emigrated to Toronto at age 7, refused to strip naked for a hazing ritual as a 16-year-old with his junior Windsor team. Aliu wrote in the story, titled, “Hockey Is Not For Everyone” — a rebuttal to the NHL’s “Hockey is for Everyone” inclusivity campaign — that highly touted prospect Steve Downie attacked him by smashing his stick into his mouth, dislodging seven teeth.

“I went through hell at the hands of a racist sociopath. His name’s Steve Downie,” he wrote in the Players’ Tribune. “I don’t really give a crap what he thinks about the way I just described him. I’d say it to his face today. He had nothing but hate in his heart back then. He looked at me and saw a black boy with a weird accent — and didn’t like me because of it.”

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NBC’s Today aired this statement from the NHL in an interview with Aliu on Thursday.

Akim Aliu’s story of his journey through amateur and minor league hockey is compelling, disturbing, inspiring and, above all, instructive. As a League, we have done a great deal of work over the last three decades to make hockey more inclusive. Since last November, when Akim first told his story publicly those efforts have been accelerated.

We know that important and significant work remains to be done at the NHL level and throughout hockey to ensure that our game lives up to the ideals that are truly essential to it. And we value Akim’s continuing and important contribution to that effort.

Really, it takes you nine days to come up with that? It should also be noted that NHL Twitter was deathly silent the day Aliu’s story came out. Only three NHL players came out in support of Aliu: Evander Kane (one of the league’s few black stars), and goalies Ryan Miller and Robin Lehner.

Aliu tweeted this response shortly after the NHL’s statement:

“The @nhl left out of this PR statement the part about my journey IN THE NHL and the racism I and countless other black players / minorities experience IN THE NHL. To live up to your ideals, you need to listen to what we are actually saying, and not try to erase history.”

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Aliu also wrote about racist treatment by AHL coach Bill Peters, a story he shared in November that led to Peters resigning as head coach of the Calgary Flames. Aliu, who was labeled a “troublemaker” after the Downie incident and saw his draft stock drop, played just 7 games in his only NHL season in 2012-13, scoring two goals.

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He talks about being passed over by worse prospects in his time in the AHL (under Peters). Aliu first went public with his allegations against Peters in November on Twitter before telling TSN’s Frank Seravelli:

“He walked in before a morning pre-game skate and said ‘Hey Akim, I’m sick of you playing that n——r s—t.’ He said ‘I’m sick of hearing this n——rs f—king other n——rs in the ass stuff.’”

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Aliu’s account was corroborated by multiple teammates.

Activist Brock McGillis echoed Aliu’s disappointment in a conversation with Deadspin.

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“If you’re truly celebrating your process,” McGillis said, “you have to take accountability for yourself or not make statements. By doing this you’re pointing the finger at others instead of looking in the mirror as well. When you’re the top league in the world, if you’re doing that what are the other leagues going to do?

McGillis, the only openly gay former professional hockey player, came up through the Canadian juniors system, playing in the OHL, the UHL as well as in the Netherlands as a goaltender. He has been certified in diversity and inclusion training from Cornell.

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“I’ll say hockey culture uses homophobic language, its homophobic. And they say, ‘not all hockey culture.’ Whether or you’re homophobic or not, you’re using the language unless you’re standing up to fix it.”

Of course, “not all hockey culture” mirrors the NotAllMen meme in response to feminists and the #MeToo movement.

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“You’re deflecting,” McGillis said. “When you deflect, you’re not creating a shift, you’re doing the opposite. If they truly want to change like they say they do, they have to have accountability.”

While it’s clear that McGillis is “frustrated” by the NHL’s statement, it’s also obvious from talking to him that he’s hopeful the deeply embedded conformist culture around hockey can change.

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“I think we can shift them so they’re more aware and we can shift their language. Language is the easiest thing to change.”

And McGillis emphasizes that the NHL has to lead the way and talks about a three-tier approach to fixing it.

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“You have to do it at the NHL levels because of messaging and visibility. There’s got to be people struggling at those levels, because, let’s face it, I’m the only openly gay hockey player. There’s obviously more.

“We have to create better environments at that level because they’re influencing the next generations.

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Then, it’s major juniors. “NHL players are like Brad Pitt or George Clooney, they’re like celebrities. Juniors players are like Instagram influencers or celebrities, they’re famous but they’re accessible to younger kids and they’re in the community.

“And then (you need) a bottom-up approach starting in youth hockey.”

While it’s clear that McGillis is “frustrated” by the NHL’s statement, it’s also obvious from talking to him that he’s hopeful the deeply embedded culture around hockey can change.

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“I think we can shift them so they’re more aware and we can shift their language. Language is the easiest thing to change.”

If you follow McGillis on Twitter, he makes a point of not attacking hateful or ignorant statements by players, which seem to happen all too often in hockey. It’s not the people who are bad, but the culture.

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“I don’t blame any of these players for their reactions or behaviors because they’re part of an environment that’s been ingrained in them since they’re children,” he said.

Let’s hope his faith in humanity is awarded eventually.

Managing editor. Former N.Y. Daily Newser. Former broke poker player.

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