Akim Aliu believes hockey is not for everyone.
“The NHL’s title for their annual diversity campaign, ‘Hockey is For Everyone’ makes me crack up,” Aliu wrote in a powerful essay for The Players’ Tribune that was posted on Tuesday morning. “Because, right now, hockey is not for everyone.”
Taking aim at the NHL’s “Hockey is for Everyone” campaign, which “uses the game of hockey — and the league’s global influence — to drive positive social change and foster more inclusive communities,” Aliu detailed the racism he experienced over the course of his career and insisted the time is now for the league to step up.
“I think the title of the NHL’s diversity campaign is a little funny. Because it’s like putting up a MISSION ACCOMPLISHED banner before even starting the mission. It’s not that the campaign is misguided — I think it has promise,” he wrote. It’s just that the road ahead is long, and it will be painful for some. And we are not at the end yet.”
Back in November, Aliu disclosed on social media during the 2009-10 season, then-Rockford IceHogs head coach Bill Peters used racial slurs directed at him over his choice of music.
“Surrounded by teammates. Surrounded by the boys. But completely alone,” Aliu said. Earlier in the essay, he also described the treatment he received from former Windsor Spitfire teammate Steve Downie, including him knocking out his teeth at a practice.
Aliu’s actions lead to Peters resigning a few days later as the head coach of the Calgary Flames. He was hired in April to serve as the bench boss for the KHL’s Yekaterinburg Avtomobilist.
“There are hundreds of coaches at all levels of hockey in Canada and the United States just like him,” he wrote. “They operate under the pretense of absolute power.
“They will pummel you mercilessly until you break, or until you give in, whichever comes first.”
After the Peters’ incident came to light, Aliu met with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and deputy commissioner Bill Daly regarding issues in the game.
“I made my opinions on things clear to them, as I hope I’ve done here,” Aliu said, adding that conversations are ongoing. “I left that initial meeting feeling positive. I think — and it may take some time — that there will be an acknowledgment of the problems the NHL is facing — and there will be tangible changes coming.”
As Aliu mentioned, the changes need to come at all levels — from the hiring and teaching of youth coaches through the professional ranks. He did concede that at the pro level, it may not be so easy.
“It’s difficult to ask a veteran or a rookie to speak out on divisive issues and most NHL coaches aren’t going to change their ways. There’s too much money on the line. But what we can do is promote diversity,” he explained. It should be noted that the NHL did set up a hotline for players and staff to anonymously report incidents.
While Aliu does state it will take time, one way he suggested to promote diversity would be creating something similar to the NFL’s Rooney Rule, which requires teams to interview minority candidates for head coaching and senior football operation jobs.
“We should be showing off the diversity our game is capable of having,” he wrote. “This has an immediate impact on youth involvement because I know there are kids like me out there who have a hard time seeing themselves in the NHL. Or there’s a little black boy or girl who wants to be an NHL coach, but he or she doesn’t see anyone in the league who looks like them.”
As more incidents come to light, such as former Hurricanes defenseman Michal Jordan revealing Peters’ physical abuse, and “the dark side of hockey” such as what was seen during a recent fan chat with New York Rangers prospect K’Andre Miller, Aliu notes it’s time for the NHL to be better and take the lead in creating a system that welcomes everyone regardless of background.
“What we CAN do is be honest. What we CAN do is be courageous. What we CAN do is stand up for one another. That’s what hockey is supposed to be all about, right?” he asked.
“Hockey is not for everyone. Not yet. But it damn sure should be.”
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