Hockey Is Not for Everyone

Derek Leung/Getty Images

You ever fought for your life?

Like, really fought for your life?

In 2005, in a tiny arena in Windsor, Ontario, I fought for my life.

It was the year I’d left my family home in Toronto to go play hockey in the OHL. I was just a raw 16-year-old kid with a big ol’ dream that he’d make it to the show one day. Nothing unusual about me, really. But from the moment I joined the Windsor Spitfires, I had a target on my back. There was this guy on the team — he was the top-prospect, future-NHL-star type that most junior teams in Canada have — and he looked at me, Akim Aliu, and chose to make my life a living hell.

First couple of practices he put Tiger Balm in my jock. Then he took my gear outside and threw it on the roof. And then he began to belittle me in front of my teammates, the coaches, whoever would listen to him. He’d make fun of my clothes, the way I spoke. He was two years older than me and a rising star, and he wielded his power over me like I was nothing — like I was subhuman.

If you’ve heard of me, you’ve heard of the hazing incident that took place that season. Thanks to this guy, that was the way I was introduced to the entire hockey world. I was the kid who wouldn’t go along with it. The kid who didn’t “get” the culture.

I dreamed of my parents reading in the paper back home about their son scoring a hat trick in his first game, or leading his team to the playoffs. Instead they had to hear about my refusal to strip naked and get in a bathroom in the back of the team bus with three other rookies. And, somehow, the whole issue was treated like some sort of discussion. I read headlines like, WAS WHAT HAPPENED TO AKIM ALIU WRONG?

Stripping 16-year-old boys and shoving them in bathrooms and cranking up the heat. Amusing.

One NHL player called it “amusing.”

Stripping 16-year-old boys and shoving them in bathrooms and cranking up the heat.

Amusing.

You know what I think is amusing?

The NHL’s title for their annual diversity campaign, “Hockey is For Everyone.”

Makes me crack up.

Because, right now, hockey is not for everyone.

I learned that when I was 16.

That same kid — the guy who went on to play over 400 NHL games — came up to me a few days after I refused to take part in his horrific ritual and tapped me on the shoulder during a practice. I turned, and he shoved his fiberglass stick through my mouth. I lost seven teeth in half a second. Blood gushing down my chest into my pants. And that was when I knew.

This game, it’s not for me.

It never has been.

And I knew another thing.

I had to fight for my life.

So I dropped my gloves and took part in another Canadian ritual. We fought, and I did my best to show the rest of the kids surrounding us on the ice that day that I wouldn’t give up on the game.

I fought for my right to have a life that I had earned. I’d worked so hard to get on that team. My parents and brother had sacrificed their time, their ambitions, to help me succeed in hockey and get me to the OHL.

Claus Andersen/Getty Images

And then in my few months in Windsor, I went through hell at the hands of a racist sociopath. His name’s Steve Downie. 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. I was attacked because of the color of my skin. I knew it then. And I know it even more now.

Out of everything I felt that day in Windsor — the rage, the crippling pain, the sadness — the worst part was the feeling I had right when the fight ended and I got a look at my teammates, my peers, standing in a circle, watching this go on. It felt … tribal. Or like I was an animal in the circus. I was with all these people who were supposed to be my brothers, right? That’s what hockey is all about. Brotherhood. Togetherness. Teamwork. And they just stood there. I was surrounded by the types of players I had dreamed of playing with, and I had never felt more alone.

I felt it in my gut.

I’ve known that feeling my entire life.

It’s in my family’s blood.

The purpose of this story is not to drag everyone in hockey, or the sport itself, into the mud. This is about the biggest problems facing the game I love — and how we can fix them.

I’m talking about the racism, misogyny, bullying and homophobia that permeates the culture of hockey. These issues have ramifications that most cannot — or will not — see. They are not fun to talk about. And it seems like most only want to discuss them when something drastic happens, like K’Andre Miller’s horrific experience in an online Q and A a few months ago. Someone hijacked the Zoom call and called him the n-word over and over again through the chat feature.

He’s 20 years old, goddammit.

Breaks my heart.

There was a lot of discussion, of course, around the league about how to move forward from such an incident. To be fair, I think the league has made positive steps regarding what happened. The NHL, though, is not hockey. It’s a hockey league, but hockey is its own thing. The NHL has its own prerogatives and its own sets of people to serve. From owners, to shareholders and all those behind the scenes, it feels like the essence of what the game should be has been forgotten by so many inside the NHL head office.

Though it has handled some things fine, I believe the league has a long way to go before it can be a proper leader in the fight for equality.

And you know the first thing that came to my mind when I heard about what had happened to K’Andre?

Man, that was a hockey fan who did that.

Who else is joining a Zoom call for a prospect? That was a hockey fan who said those things. And he or she was just the only one stupid enough to actually go and say that terrible word. For every vocal racist, there’s a thousand silent ones.

For every vocal racist, there’s a thousand silent ones.

I can imagine that as K’Andre saw those words in the chat, he felt that feeling that anyone who has been a victim of a racial attack knows all too well.

He probably felt alone.

For me, after I was attacked in 2005, I remember sitting in the locker room thinking about my father.

I remembered one day in particular, in 1996, in Kyiv, where I grew up. It was just before we moved to Canada. It was a regular day, I was about seven, and I was doing homework at the kitchen table, I think. My mom, dad, brother and I all lived in an old apartment that couldn’t have been more than 500 square feet. Tiny. Cramped. Cold. It was just the way they used to build them back in the Soviet Union.

My dad came in through the front door, and I could see he was crying. He had nowhere to hide. He had to cry in front of his seven-year-old son.

Courtesy of Akim Aliu

He told me that the police had stopped him on his way home the day before for no reason. They asked for his passport and a bribe to stop them from arresting him, despite his having done nothing wrong. He refused, so they strip-searched him, robbed him of all his cash and arrested him so he had to spend the night in jail. We barely had any money at the time, too. I couldn’t really grasp what had happened. I was just sad. My dad was in pain, I knew that. But there’s nothing you can do about it. I learned what an isolating thing it was to experience something like that.

I remember though, a few days later when he was feeling better, he sat my brother and me down.

“No matter what happens, your mother and I are going to build a better life for the both of you. No matter what.”

He had met my mom in Kyiv at university where he was on a scholarship that was for equal parts track and academics. He was a boy from Nigeria who fell in love with a girl from Ukraine during the ’80s. Going through an experience like that, and raising two black boys in neighborhoods where there weren’t any other minorities? That’s what made it so difficult, my dad would tell me. There was no community to support him, nobody else who had any idea what he was going through. That will give you some perspective on life. And it will show you the hate that exists in the world. Our parents protected us, as best they could, from all of it.

Eventually, they got us to that better life with the help of my grandfather on my mother’s side. And to get his help, that was a huge deal.

You see, he was a tough guy. He flew fighter jets for the Soviet Union back in the ’60s and ’70s. He didn’t approve of his daughter’s relationship with my dad at first. He refused to come to their wedding because my dad was black. But as years passed, and my grandfather eventually got to know my dad, and his grandchildren more and more, something in his heart changed.

And when my parents needed money to start a life in Canada in 1997, my grandfather sold the apartment that had been given to him after his military career ended. We used that money to start over in a far away country. Now, my grandfather is best friends with my dad and incredibly close with my brother and me.

I knew it had been the right decision to move, but adjusting to our new life was so hard. Everything was different. I cried a lot. I was a black boy who only spoke Russian. You should have seen the looks I used to get from kids and parents.

I had to go into the English as a Second Language program at our school in Parkdale. The way kids saw other kids who were going through ESL? Man, some children can be so nasty. There were certain kids who treated me like I was mentally disabled or something. And you get segregated into different parts of the school like you don’t belong. In reality, I could read and do math at a higher level than most of the kids who called me “FOB” (meaning “fresh off the boat”) from across the parking lot — I just did it in Russian.

The transition was difficult for my whole family.

Akim Aliu

Back then we lived near Dundas and Dufferin in Toronto. Dad delivered pizzas during the day and worked as a security guard at night. Mom cleaned rooms at the Westin Prince Hotel, on the corner of York Mills and Don Mills roads in North York. We struggled to make ends meet.

So when I started to get into hockey, we couldn’t actually afford for me to play on a team. I found a pair of skates at a yard sale just down the street from our apartment for nine dollars. They were all-leather beauties. They didn’t fit quite right, but man, they felt good. I went down to Trinity Bellwoods Park most days after school in the winter and skated on the rink there. I got so damn hooked.

The speed, the agility, the cold air on your face.

There’s really nothing like it.

And the thing in Canada is, skating is the language everyone can speak.

You do a crossover, or skate backwards well?

All of sudden you’re approachable, all of sudden you’re one of them. I felt that.

I fell in love with the game and forced my parents to find a way to let me play. I wore the cheapest equipment, used old wooden sticks instead of the new fiberglass ones. None of it mattered because I was playing — I was a part of something. I was Canadian.

You do a crossover, or skate backwards well? All of sudden you’re approachable, all of sudden you’re one of them.

But Canada is a big place with all sorts of people. And lots of people who don’t look like me or my dad. When I was 11, at a tournament in Quebec, I saw a part of Canada I didn’t know existed.

I can still hear this guy’s voice in my head. He had that French Canadian accent.

“How many times are we going to let this n***** score?”

His voice just punched through the air in the rink. I heard him as clear as day. 

And nothing happened, really. The game went on, none of my teammates or coaches said anything to me. I didn’t expect them to. I didn’t fully understand the weight of what had just happened. I just looked up and down the bench. I was the only black boy.

Alone. 

I felt alone.

When Bill Peters looked me in the eye in 2009 in our Rockford IceHogs locker room, and said that same word I’d heard in Quebec — over and over in front of me and my teammates just because he didn’t like my choice of music — it was that same familiar feeling.

Surrounded by teammates. Surrounded by the boys. But completely alone.

I felt like I was on the ice in Windsor looking for my teeth.

I felt like I was in Quebec, looking into the stands.

I felt like I was sitting in the kitchen in Kyiv, watching my father cry.

The way he used that word, he completely stripped me of my humanity.

To him, I was nothing.

He made that immensely clear.

AHL coaches have an incredible amount of power. NHL coaches are so busy that I’d be willing to bet that the majority of them barely have time to watch more than five AHL games in a season. So they rely heavily on the word of their minor league coaches about who is playing well and who deserves to be called up. But sometimes, those farm-team coaches wield their power like maniacs. Every team I’ve ever been on, I’ve seen players who have no business being called up go to the next level purely based on their relationship with the coach.

Peters knew that. And it made him invincible in a sense. Jake Dowell, our team captain, confronted him after what he did to me, but there was only so much he could do. I respect Jake for even taking my side and making a stand. But he knew that to have any future in the sport — to make money and support his family — he could only push Peters so far.

And that’s how it went. That’s how it goes for so many players who operate in fear of the hockey machine. Even at the pro level. How many players speak out about any issues? Barely any. Everyone tiptoes around every little thing because they’re petrified about being an outcast. For every player who acts a little different or has any personality whatsoever, whether it’s a Henrik Lundqvist or a David Pastrnak, there are hundreds who look different and whose ‘quirks’ are looked down on by their coaches because they aren’t white. They get told to cut the crap or get lost. So they get lost. And that’s what happened to me.

Over the next few weeks I, admittedly, acted cold toward Peters. That was enough for him to send me away. He wrote a letter to the GM and got me sent down to the ECHL. I was on pace to be one of the top young scorers on the team, but that didn’t matter anymore.

That was the full power of the oppressive hockey machine at work, in my opinion.

There are hundreds of coaches at all levels of hockey in Canada and the United States just like him. They operate under the pretense of absolute power.

They will pummel you mercilessly until you break, or until you give in, whichever comes first.

That, right there, is what I believe to be the crux of the problem. There is a power structure in place to turn bright, loving kids into something they were not born to be.

You think it’s a coincidence that hockey players are all “robotic” in the way they speak and carry themselves?

No. They are products of a machine. And part of what that machine does is create tribalism amongst young players. Some of those kids in Windsor had hate in their hearts, yes, but they were allowed to act on it because they had been told their entire hockey careers that anything different from you is bad. And different, nowadays, often means different in the way someone looks, or speaks, or dresses.

There is a power structure in place to turn bright, loving kids into something they were not born to be.

Hockey doesn’t have a marketing problem. There are tons of people who don’t look like the stereotypical hockey player who fall in love with the game instantly. Look at my story.

The problem is the power dynamics once you start playing.

If you’re a junior hockey coach, or a minor league coach, or a player, or a fan, and you’re a racist, you should have no place in the game. Period. Everyone should stand up and say, “Enough. Get him out.”

That should be the end of it.

Why is it so hard?

I speak about the racism in the game because that’s what I endured. But there are countless stories of white boys and girls being chewed up and spit out by hockey because of their sexuality or their gender identification — and those issues deserve just as much attention.

I see you guys and girls in my mentions on Twitter whenever I post something about my efforts to help change the game. I see that you’re fighting for the same thing. Your support truly means the world to me. Thank you so much.

Like many minority athletes, though, I also see the horrible messages people send me on social media. It’s relentless, and each one hits you a different way. Sometimes I feel sad for the person, sometimes I feel scared. It’s a constant reminder that what we’re fighting for is something that needs fighting for.

I use it as motivation.

That, in part, is why I wanted to write this story.

Many people have experienced similar things to what I went through. And, yes, hockey has many of the same deep, complicated issues that society itself has. But our sport is a great, great game. It has the power to change lives, to bring people together. I know those things are true. And the point of all this is not to lay blame at the feet of white hockey players, or those who are not comfortable enough to speak out. I understand their positions.

But I want to encourage true, open and honest discussion about what is happening in and around our game.

I was fortunate enough to sit down at the end of last year with Bill Daly and Gary Bettman to talk about some of these issues. Our discussion is still ongoing, and the result of our meeting is still to be decided. But we continue to work toward fixing issues around inclusivity.

I made my opinions on things clear to them, as I hope I’ve done here. And I’ll be honest, I left that initial meeting feeling positive. I think — and it may take some time — that there will be an acknowledgement of the problems the NHL is facing — and there will be tangible changes coming.

There are two things, I believe, that we can look to change in order to see a positive step forward in the game.

First, I believe change will have to start at the grassroots level. The kids I met in Windsor had already been molded into abusive people long before they ever saw me — made that way by youth coaches. The changes start right there, period. Hockey Canada and USA Hockey and local programs must do a better job vetting coaches, listening to players and parents when complaints are made, and teaching coaches how to treat players.

And I say all this with the acknowledgement that there are wonderful coaches who are leaders and role models in their communities. We need more of them.

Second, at the pro level, we have to admit to ourselves that we can’t change most of these players. 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.

I want to encourage true, open and honest discussion about what is happening in and around our game.

But what we can do is promote diversity. I believe that the NHL should adopt something like the Rooney Rule, which requires NFL teams to interview minorities for head coaching and senior football operation positions.

We should be showing off the diversity our game is capable of having. 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.

I hear the league talk all the time about growing the game by taking it overseas and whatnot. That is great, but I think growing it here at home is just as important. And that international growth is also tied to the fact that there aren’t enough personalities in our league. People love soccer and basketball for the characters and stories just as much as for the actual game.

The end goal here is to create a system, from top to bottom, that welcomes and nourishes everyone from every background. There needs to be proper acknowledgment of how diverse our game is becoming. The NHL shoved their LGBTQ and “Hockey is For Everyone” support programs into the same month as black history month. When I saw that, it made me feel that people like us, the outcasts, are a chore to them. Something to tick off a checklist and forget about for a year. And when you don’t feel like you’re encouraged to take part in the game in the sport’s biggest league, you feel that pain in your soul.

The NHL must be better. Pure and simple.

So many in hockey believe the game to be a home for all, but in reality there are plenty of us who know that that’s not the case.

It’s never been like that.

A lot of angry people have taught me that.

So, yeah, right now, 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. It’s just that the road ahead is long, and it will be painful for some. And we are not at the end yet.

There will be more reckonings for coaches, more incidents highlighting the dark side of hockey culture, more kids like K’Andre being told they aren’t welcome in the game. Hockey is not unique. It has the same problems that plague our whole world. There’s not much we can do about that right now.

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?

Hockey is not for everyone. Not yet.

But it damn sure should be.

— Akim “Dreamer” Aliu

FEATURED STORIES