Akim Aliu's Redemption

Akim Aliu's Redemption

By Chris Cole

November 29, 2019

Out of all the news surrounding the explosive racism allegations, now proven to be true in Bill Peter’s letter to Calgary Flames GM Brad Treliving, one thing has constantly stuck out to me:  when will Akim Aliu receive his redemption?

Not redemption as in revenge, but in receiving some sort of clarity or closure from years of bad deeds levied against him.  Aliu’s career is one you could file under “What could have been” if it wasn’t for the hockey culture climate that he had to traverse in and one we hope is now about to change starting with this season.

Aliu’s troubles at the higher levels of hockey started during his first year of major junior hockey with the Windsor Spitfires of the Ontario Hockey League at the beginning of the 2005-06 OHL season.  During practice he and teammate Steve Downie had a fight which came about due to the latter cross-checking Aliu in the face resulting in losing three teeth. This fight didn’t come out of frustration of a losing streak or a disagreement between Downie and Aliu, it was punishment towards Aliu not wanting to partake in the Spitfire’s rookie hazing ritual.  He refused to be made to stand naked with other Spitfire rookies in a bus bathroom.

The aftermath of that incident brought repercussions: Downie was suspended five games, Aliu one; coach Moe Mantha was handed a 40-game ban and suspended one year as the team’s GM; and the Spitfires were fined $35,000.  Downie was told to go to professional counseling (it obviously didn’t help him, just look up his hit on Dean McAmmond). Both would be traded as a result of this with Aliu going to the Sudbury Wolves and Downie to the Peterborough Petes.  

Even crazier, despite Downie’s actions, he was rewarded by Brent Sutter with a spot on the Canadian junior team only a short time after all of this happened.   

Aliu was an elite prospect while playing for Sudbury.  Early Central Scouting (CSS) rankings had him as high as fifth for the 2007 NHL Entry Draft but as the year went on his ranking by CSS dropped significantly.  When the final scouting report was issued Aliu was ranked 41st best North American skater. Instead of being a potential highly-touted first-round draft pick, Aliu was picked in the second round, 56th overall, by the Chicago Blackhawks.  He would also be traded in the OHL from Sudbury to the London Knights.

The reason for the drop in rankings?  He was determined to be “difficult to manage”.  Aliu wouldn’t crack the Blackhawks roster but his time with their AHL affiliate Rockford IceHogs is what has brought us to the current need for a culture change in the hockey world.  

Imagine being Aliu, a young Black man playing professional hockey in the American Hockey League, listening to music like everyone else is in the locker room, only to have your coach come in and berate the choice of music, not only by calling it s**t but by preceding that curse with the n-word.  If Aliu’s experience in top-tier junior hockey was sour, his time in second-tier during this point-and-time had to be bitter. There was no apology from Peters and Aliu ended up being demoted to the ECHL weeks later for talking back to Peters in response to be yelled at during a practice drill.

He waited ten years to come out with this and the same question kept popping up: why the wait?  Well, look what happened to him in juniors and you do the math. Aliu was forever labelled in the hockey world as a nuisance because he refused to be hazed and other players ended up benefitting from that.  Then he was being racially abused by Bill Peters in the AHL and he chose to be silent because he had seen what happened to him when he was 16. Aliu is at the tail-end of his (unfortunately) journeyman career.

He has nothing to lose and has waited long enough.  It may be ten years later, but the timing could not be more perfect.  He’s been a victim for too long and the response this time around from the hockey community has been in his favor.  Let’s hope this is the closure Aliu wants and will receive. Akim Aliu is no longer the “fall guy” in the world of ice hockey.

PHOTO: Frederick Breedon/Getty Images