Exactly one year ago, former Calgary Flames winger Akim Aliu had just finished a workout at the gym and glanced at his phone.
Days earlier, a report revealed that during the 2016-17 season, then-Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock asked rookie winger Mitch Marner to rank his teammates based on their work ethic. Babcock then shared Marner’s list with some of the team’s veterans, much to the surprise of Marner.
The revelations led to hockey players at various levels of the sport sharing stories of abuse at the hands of coaches and teammates.
With the Babcock-Marner incident on his mind, Aliu pressed ‘send’ on a series of tweets that would lead to an NHL coach resigning, a referendum on the sport’s culture, the formation of new NHL policies and committees aimed at tackling hockey’s challenges regarding racism and inclusivity, and the creation of the Hockey Diversity Alliance.
“Not very surprising the things we’re hearing about Babcock,” read the first tweet Nov. 25, 2019. “Apple doesn’t fall far from the Tree, same sort of deal with his protege in YYC. Dropped the N bomb several times towards me in the dressing room in my rookie year because he didn’t like my choice of music.”
Aliu’s tweets referred to an incident during the 2009-10 season with the Rockford IceHogs of the American Hockey League where he alleged that his head coach Bill Peters repeatedly directed racist slurs towards him.
“It wasn’t planned whatsoever,” Aliu said in an interview this week with TSN, referring to what transpired following the release of his tweets. “Obviously it’s been in the back of my mind for almost a decade since it happened. What set me off that day was the situation with Mike Babcock and Mitch Marner. I didn’t expect that it would turn out into kind of what it has, but I think it has been a positive step in the right direction for our sport.
“You see all the people of colour getting hired today. I’m hoping I was a small part of that.”
In the days after Aliu tweeted, the NHL announced it would launch an investigation into the incidents and Peters resigned as head coach of the Calgary Flames.
Aliu said he doesn’t know the findings of that league investigation and the NHL declined to comment when asked about the probe.
But Aliu says he is happy with the shift in the sport since last November. Hockey organizations at all levels have committed, on paper at least, to making the game more accessible and welcoming to different communities.
Since the killing of George Floyd – an unarmed Black man who died while in the custody of police in Minneapolis – in the spring, athletes have been more active on social media, voicing support for such causes as Black Lives Matter and participating in rallies advocating for racial justice.
In September, the National Hockey League, in conjunction with the NHL Players’ Association, announced the creation of several committees aimed at tackling those issues, including the instituting of mandatory inclusion and diversity training for players.
The league also created an executive inclusion council (EIC) co-chaired by commissioner Gary Bettman and Buffalo Sabres owner Kim Pegula, and a player inclusion committee co-chaired by New Jersey Devils defenceman P.K. Subban and retired player Anson Carter.
During the NHL’s Return To Play, Minnesota Wild defenceman Matt Dumba became the first NHLer to kneel during the national anthem. On Aug. 1, he gave a passionate pre-game speech about the need for the sport to play a more active role in combating racial injustice.
“Hockey is a great game, but it could be a whole lot greater,” Dumba said in the speech. “And it starts with all of us.”
Four weeks later, following the police shooting of Jacob Blake, an unarmed Black man in Wisconsin, the league postponed four playoff games on Aug. 27 and 28 so it could “play an appropriate role in a discussion centered on diversity, inclusion and social justice.”
Still, Aliu feels the NHL should be doing more to push for diversity and inclusion within the sport.
“I think the NHL is not quite there yet in realizing there’s a real issue, or they haven’t said it,” he said. “I think with their EIC announcement, to me and to our group, I think it’s still a lot of posturing and not enough actually getting the bootstraps on and doing the work.”
The NHL declined an opportunity to respond to Aliu’s comments.
The NHL and HDA have had a tense relationship since Aliu and San Jose Sharks winger Evander Kane co-founded the HDA in the summer, with the league and HDA unable to find common ground on such critical issues as funding for grassroots programs and instituting changes to make the game’s culture more inclusive to Black athletes and other people of colour.
Last month, the HDA announced it would operate independently from the NHL.
“It’s just a great example to show that they’re nowhere near wanting to work with us as a group of former and current players that are in their league of colour, which doesn’t have many players of colour,” Aliu said. “At the end of the day, we want to continue to grow the game from the grassroots level, but also from the top. I think it’s important for there to be representation at the top so kids can look up and say, ‘I want to be him.’ ”
Exactly a year since his life – and the trajectory of the sport – were thrust into the spotlight, Aliu hopes the dialogue he started continues.
“This is just the beginning,” he said. “This is the first time in the history of our game in over a hundred years that people actually want to have this conversation and it’s a conversation that can be had in the open. Usually, it was something that was behind closed doors.”
It's a conversation, Aliu feels, that the NHL needs to be a more active participant in.
“There are some people doing good things, but I think one of the biggest things is to get the NHL on board to understand and know that we have a lot of changes to make.”