Akim Aliu: ‘We have to make sure this sport is for everybody’

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“I have seen things that I think people won’t see for a lifetime, and I have lived in a lot of different places that have a lot of different issues.”

Akim Aliu is a professional ice hockey player on a mission to change the sport.

Being exposed to racism at an early age took its toll on Aliu, and high-profile incidents during his career left him with the view “ice hockey is not for everyone”.

“I feel like the game has given me a lot, but it has also blackballed me,” the 31-year-old former National Hockey League player tells BBC Sport.

“I didn’t get a lot of opportunities because of the colour of my skin, because of the way I looked.

“I feel like I’ve missed out on a lot of money, a lot of opportunities I feel I should have deserved, but I sleep well at night knowing what I stand up for is right – standing up for a lot of people who otherwise wouldn’t have a voice, standing up for the next generation.”

‘Racism took a toll at an early age’
Aliu was born in Nigeria to a Nigerian father and Ukrainian mother. He grew up in Ukraine before the family moved to Canada when he was seven.

“I grew up seeing my mom being the only white lady in the village in Africa where I was born and where my dad is from,” he says.

“My dad would get strip-searched and beaten up by hooligans in Russia for being black… at a young age, it takes its toll on you so you start to look at life a little differently.”

Aliu describes being bullied during his first years in Canada for not speaking the language, and recalls being racially abused as an 11-year-old at a youth tournament in Quebec.

But he refused to let it derail his dream of being a professional ice hockey player.

Aliu spent most of his career in the minor leagues, but did play for the Calgary Flames in the NHL between 2011 and 2013.

But, regrettably, the two incidents that propelled him into the headlines were not related to his performances on the rink.

During the 2005-06 season, while playing for the Windsor Spitfires in the Ontario Hockey League, he was involved in what was described as ice hockey’s most infamous incident of ‘hazing’ – when members of a group deliberately embarrass or harm new or prospective members. Aliu refused to take part in an apparent initiation, reportedly leading to a fight with a team-mate.

And in November 2019 he went public with an allegation that Bill Peters, then the Calgary Flames head coach, had used racist language towards him when he coached him at the Rockford IceHogs a decade earlier.

He said the incident had caused him to “rebel” against his coach, and Peters had recommended his demotion to a lesser league.

Peters resigned, apologising to the Flames – but not Aliu by name – for his “offensive language”.

“It’s been tough,” says Aliu. “That’s why I chose to take a stand, to be able to speak out for people who are battling the same issues of being alone and not having a voice.”

Agencies

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