Aliu says GTHL rejected organization that would have assured spots for BIPOC players
Warning: This story contains language that may be upsetting to some readers.
Former National Hockey League player Akim Aliu says the Greater Toronto Hockey League (GTHL) and directors of its AAA clubs for nearly two years stonewalled his bid for an expansion organization that would have assured roster spots for BIPOC players, had mandates for female representation and people of colour in managerial positions, and had the financial backing of major sponsors.
Aliu and his partners first outlined their plans for a proposed GTHL organization, which would have featured teams from house league to AAA and be called the Toronto Dream, in an April 2021 meeting with the GTHL and the Ontario Hockey Federation, the body responsible for approving new AAA hockey organizations in the province.
Following that meeting, Aliu said the GTHL’s top officials repeatedly delayed deciding on his group’s proposal for months before denying its request for an organization with AAA teams.
“It’s extremely painful,” Aliu said in a series of interviews in recent weeks with TSN. “I believe this is the type of work it will take to grow the game.”
Aliu said GTHL executive director Scott Oakman and president Don West eventually told him that the officials with the GTHL’s 12 AAA teams discussed taking action against the board if it approved Aliu’s application.
Aliu said Oakman and West told him that AAA organization officials opposed Aliu’s plans because they worried about losing prospective players to expansion teams and were concerned that if Aliu’s organization offered free or discounted player fees, other clubs would be pressured to follow suit, eating into their revenue.
The GTHL regularly receives proposals for expansion organizations, Oakman said, adding that negotiations with Aliu’s group lasted more than a year because the GTHL wanted to reach a compromise. Oakman insisted AAA organizations never made any threats regarding the Dream.
“A number of organizations expressed concerns about adding a new organization to the current ecosystem at a time when [player] registration was its lowest,” Oakman said in an interview.
“There certainly was discussion around getting member buy-in, but there was never certainty that the board would be fired in any way. Some of the existing 12 AAA organizations in the GTHL believed they should remain the only 12, and some expressed concern about the lack of experience the Dream’s leadership team might have in terms of running a hockey organization.”
The GTHL is the world’s largest minor hockey organization with more than 40,000 registered players and nearly $9 million in annual revenue, according to its financial statements. AAA is the highest level of competitive minor hockey and current NHL stars who played at that level in the GTHL include Connor McDavid, Mitch Marner and John Tavares.
Without an approval for AAA teams, Aliu said his group was not willing to move forward with the GTHL.
“Having a commitment for AAA teams is so important because it would prove to kids of colour they can aspire to get to the very top,” Aliu said. “I wanted to create a cradle-to-grave program where BIPOC kids in our house leagues can see our best kids on our AAA teams. We need for BIPOC kids to be able to see themselves as CEOs, as leaders, as team owners, as AAA hockey players. The GTHL wanted us to be satisfied with house league teams and the message that maybe, if it worked for the league, we would talk about AAA teams one day in the future.”
Garry Punchard, general manager of the Toronto Nationals Hockey Club, said that AAA organizations made it clear to Oakman that they didn’t support Aliu’s initiative.
“I’m not sure it [the threat to fire the board] was a real threat, more a ‘put it in your ear and we’ll see what happens,’” Punchard said. “We were making a point that we were not in favour of this. I guess if the GTHL board had approved, it would have been up to all of the clubs to see what they would do.”
Punchard said that approving the Dream would have “opened up a whole pandemic of teams with money wanting to apply.”
“We don’t have enough AAA players as it is,” he said. “We have players in AAA who should be playing A or AA right now. And we are going to add another organization? There’s already too many. At the same time, you have organizations like North Toronto that have a good AA program and have tried and tried to get into AAA. And all of a sudden this guy [Aliu] thinks he can get a AAA organization? We already have Black and Chinese players in our organizations. We don’t segregate anybody. As far as I know [the Toronto Dream organizers] haven’t done anything. They haven’t got a house league going. Pay your dues. They are just blaming everybody but themselves.”
Even though Aliu’s group agreed to limits on the number of players it would be allowed to recruit from existing GTHL organizations, Don Mills Flyers president Peter MacInnis said he was concerned the Dream would poach players.
“The only way [the Dream is] gonna get players is you're gonna go to the Toronto Marlboros, you're gonna go to Don Mills Flyers, and any kid who’s playing there who’s Black, you know what the deal is,” MacInnis said. “I've got four Black guys on my bench coaching two different teams. I'm going to have three teams fully coached next year by Black coaches and I've got numerous Black kids and Asian kids in our programs, and so does everybody else. I'm really not too sure where they're trying to go with this… If you're talking inclusion, if we want to have inclusion with Black kids and Indigenous kids and Oriental kids and white kids all playing together, what the hell are we doing with a team all full of Black players? That's ridiculous. That’s not inclusion.”
Aliu’s allegations that officials with the GTHL’s AAA organizations pressured the league to reject his proposal come nine months after the league published a report by an independent committee that concluded racism and harassment is systemic within the GTHL.
The GTHL formed that independent committee two years after TSN began reporting on multiple allegations of systemic racism and pledged reform after the committee’s report was made public, promising that it was committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts.
“As upset as I am, I’m not really surprised,” Aliu said. “I think that after the GTHL found out how opposed the AAA teams were to this idea, it was never going to happen. But the GTHL didn’t want to say that... In the back of my mind, I tried to find optimism. Doing this would be such a good look for them, and I couldn’t believe they would be so foolish.”
Aliu said the concept for the Dream began a couple of years ago, after a group of nine current and former NHL players founded the Hockey Diversity Alliance in June 2020 to confront racism and intolerance in hockey.
After rolling out and then expanding a ball hockey program in a number of Toronto-area communities – the program offered lunch programs, field trips and sports activities to disadvantaged youth – Aliu said he began crafting a team of prospective partners to approach the GTHL.
Aliu GTHL Proposal
Seattle Kraken part-owner Tod Leiweke agreed to help as an advisor, as did Ben Meiselas, one of former NFL player Colin Kaepernick’s attorneys, and Wes Hall, the founder of Bay Street firm Kingsdale Advisors, who in 2020 unveiled the BlackNorth Initiative, a project aimed at increasing Black representation in the boardrooms of corporate Canada.
“You can count on one hand how many really successful Black and minority players there are,” Hall said in an interview. “It’s a Canadian game, but when I go to see the Maple Leafs, I don’t see many players who look like me. I wanted to help change that. I reached out to Akim to see how I could help. It’s important to have people in league ownership positions who are minorities. How many people who own these GTHL organizations look like me? I bet not very many.”
“Akim has told me about how he had moved to Canada from Ukraine when he was eight and how his family struggled to pay for his hockey equipment, struggled to get him on the ice,” Meiselas said in an interview. “He told me creating an organization like the Dream would be the most important thing he’d ever done in his life.”
Aliu said Scotiabank and Kraft Heinz each promised significant annual investments in the Dream, which would be formally owned and operated by Aliu, the HDA, and Jim Nikopoulos, the former president of Toronto commercial finance company ECN Capital. The HDA, Aliu and Nikopoulos also agreed to each cover one-third of the Dream’s start-up costs, which were estimated at between $600,000 and $700,000.
Spokespeople for Kraft Heinz and Scotiabank both declined to discuss the Dream proposal.
On Apr. 12, 2021, Aliu contacted Oakman and briefed him on his group’s vision. Aliu said he asked Oakman whether organizations would have a veto over his application.
“He told me absolutely not and that this would 100 per cent be a decision by the GTHL board,” Aliu said.
Oakman confirmed that it was up to the GTHL’s 17-member board to decide on the Dream’s application. (Board members include lawyers, accountants, and a school principal. “Anybody can apply to join if they were connected to hockey in virtually any capacity,” Oakman said.)
Weeks later, on May 3, 2021, the Toronto Dream group met via Zoom with Oakman and the board of the Ontario Hockey Federation, the provincial hockey association that has oversight over the GTHL. The pitch was complemented by a 27-page presentation.
“Registration is down in hockey youth leagues at an alarming rate,” the presentation says. “We call it Canada’s game, but Canadian youth are leaving the sport to the point of extinction. Children are gravitating towards sports such as soccer and basketball that they feel better represent them. Especially kids of colour because they feel if you can’t see it, you can’t be it. We must turn the tide.”
Aliu explained to the OHF and GTHL officials that more than 1,200 new roster spots would be created by the Dream for children in minority and new immigrant communities and that the players at the house league, A and AA levels would play hockey for free.
The Dream, which would have become the GTHL’s first expansion organization since the Mississauga Rebels were added in 1995, would guarantee as many as five roster spots per team for visible minorities, one female coach on each team and in managerial positions, and also agreed to limit the number of players they would recruit from other GTHL organizations, Aliu said he told the meeting.
Thanks to contributions from sponsors and Aliu’s foundation, the Dream would operate as many as 32 teams and have a $1.15 million annual budget, Aliu told those attending the Zoom meeting.
-The GTHL says it is exploring new sponsor agreements with Bauer and Tim Hortons.
Each of the Dream’s AAA teams would have a budget of up to $150,000, comparable with the budgets of some active GTHL teams. (The North York Rangers’ Under-15 AAA team for players born in 2007 operated with a $162,845 budget during the 2021-22 season, according to a copy of their financial statements obtained by TSN. The Rangers’ budget included $40,000 for coaches and a professional trainer.)
Aliu also said he told them his Time to Dream Foundation would also contribute $100,000 per year to the GTHL to help subsidize player fees for disadvantaged families whose children played with other organizations.
The Dream, Aliu added, would also provide at no charge to the GTHL a new education program developed in conjunction with the HDA that would advise players and GTHL staff about the history of BIPOC players in the game and on issues such as unconscious bias on the ice.
“It was a very good, professional presentation,” OHF executive director Phil McKee said in an interview.
McKee said that he made it clear on the call that the OHF has the right to approve or reject proposals for new AAA organizations and that because of an oversupply of teams, that there has been a moratorium on new AAA clubs since 2002.
McKee said he hasn’t heard any updates about the Dream’s application since that call.
Aliu said Oakman and West told him that, as per the GTHL’s bylaws, the league would form a committee to review the proposal. That committee, whose members included board members Oakman and West, would decide whether or not to approve the Dream’s application.
That committee has briefed other members of the GTHL’s board over the past year about negotiations with Aliu’s group, said Karl Subban, who is the father of former NHLer P.K. Subban and who was appointed to the GTHL board in July 2022.
“I’d like to know what has happened here with the league and Akim’s group,” Subban said. “I don’t feel I have all the information… It certainly feels these days like hockey is in the emergency room and on the operating table and it has been cut wide open by racism, sexism, all this stuff. That’s where we are today.”
Oakman said he couldn’t recall whether Aliu and his partners had been told they could not offer free hockey. He conceded that some GTHL organizations had shared they were worried about the prospect of a new competitor offering hockey for lower annual fees.
“That certainly was feedback we received,” Oakman said. “And when you have organizations that are paying $500 plus an hour for ice, for them to have to compete with a zero-dollar registration piece was certainly a concern our members had.”
Oakman said that existing GTHL teams wanted to ensure that Dream players would only qualify for discounted or free registration if the players passed a “means test” to ensure their families needed the financial support.
(Oakman also insisted the GTHL is committed to improving diversity and inclusion and is partnering with groups including The You Can Play Project, which fights to eradicate homophobia in sports, Seaside Hockey, which offers free hockey for disadvantaged families in Scarborough, and Hockey Equality, a program that offers mentoring and other assistance to BIPOC players and is chaired by former NHL player Anthony Stewart.)
Aliu said he was peppered with questions throughout the summer of 2021, such as how the organization’s diversity mandates would be implemented, where the Dream’s funding would come from, and whether he had already secured ice time at Toronto-area rinks.
“We didn’t even have a franchise and I was being asked if I booked ice,” Aliu said.
He said he began to believe the GTHL was stalling.
Aliu said that during a July 26, 2021, phone call, Oakman shared with him that the officials with the GTHL’s 12 AAA teams were opposed to the prospective expansion organization.
In an email the following day to Aliu and Nikopoulos, Oakman, West and GTHL board member Ken Smith wrote that the GTHL would only approve the Dream to operate a house league program during the 2021-22 season.
The Dream operating rep teams “would be problematic,” the GTHL board members wrote in the July 27, 2021, email.
GTHL officials wrote in the email they were not prepared to grant new competitive organizations (i.e., rep teams) because they were worried about the added competition at a time when there might be a significant decline in player registrations because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and that some teams might even be forced to fold.
GTHL officials were excited by the proposal but worried that AAA team executives would not buy in, they wrote.
“As we discussed on our call yesterday, it is likely that GTHL member clubs who have become aware of the Dream’s application and are questioning or opposing it, do not know the scope and potential benefits of the Dream’s proposed program to the GTHL as a whole and to kids who might not otherwise participate in hockey,” the GTHL officials wrote in the email.
The GTHL officials wrote they would consider the Dream establishing competitive teams in future seasons. The Dream officials responded three weeks later.
In an email to Oakman and West on Aug. 16, 2021, Aliu, Nikopoulos, Leiweke and three other representatives of the Dream wrote that they had had 25 discussions with the GTHL’s representatives by that point and were disheartened by the league’s response.
“It is both shocking and disturbing that after some current team owners applied pressure on the board by resisting our admission into ‘the club’, as you mentioned on our July 26 call, the board has succumbed to this pressure,” the Dream officials wrote. “You say you are aware of the issues within the GTHL, including profit-driven ownership groups and cultural bigotry, but how do you expect to dispel those issues without making difficult decisions?”
Dream officials wrote that they were especially disillusioned that the GTHL would not grant them AAA teams.
“The question has come up many times as to why we want to start with … AAA in our first launch year,” Dream officials wrote. “The answer is simple: giving us a house league organization does not move the needle in the slightest; children of colour need to see themselves at the highest level of competition both on and off the ice, including seeing an existing infrastructure of BIPOC and female players, coaches, managers and owners that provides them with the drive to succeed in life. The AAA piece gives us the validity and hope for BIPOC youth to reach their fullest potential.”
Aliu, Nikopoulos, Leiweke and others wrote that by approving the Dream, the GTHL would open a new potential pipeline of talent. They pointed out that 52 per cent of Toronto’s population now belongs to a visible minority group.
Dream officials insisted that they should begin the organization’s first year in the GTHL with house league teams for every age group and three AAA teams, one in each of the Under-10, Under-11 and Under-12 age cohorts. Teams in A and AA would follow in future seasons.
The sides were at a stalemate for months.
On Oct. 14, 2021, Aliu and Nikopoulos were invited to a meeting at the GTHL’s office with North York Rangers executive Claude Desjardins. Rather than pursue an expansion organization, Aliu and Nikopoulos said that Oakman and West suggested the Dream team consider taking over an existing club.
During the meeting, Desjardins said that the price tag for the Rangers would be at least $1 million for the organization’s AAA teams, Aliu and Nikopoulos said.
A week later, however, on Oct. 26, Desjardins emailed Aliu and Nikopoulos to say there would be no sale.
“At this point we don’t believe that we are ready to divest ourselves of this system,” Desjardins wrote. “We also feel the timing is not good both on the perception front and for the survival of what we hold dear. Should you still be looking for something like this in the future, we’re not closing the door, but we don’t feel that now is the time.”
“What does that even mean, that the timing wasn’t right on the perception front?” Aliu said in an interview.
Desjardins declined to discuss the allegations.
“I'm aware they had a meeting,” Oakman said. “I'm absolutely unaware of any discussion around financial transactions because it would be against the rules and regulations and bylaws of the GTHL. If the GTHL board had information about that it would not approve it.”
(Aliu said that another GTHL organization director has offered his AAA organization for sale for $3.6 million.)
In late 2021, Aliu said Oakman told him that a second committee was being created to consider the Dream’s application. It included officials from a number of non-AAA GTHL organizations who were not GTHL board members.
“It was ridiculous, like Groundhog Day,” Aliu said. “By now we had had at least 25 meetings with the GTHL, and this second committee of team officials is asking us exactly the same questions that we had been asked months earlier by the GTHL board… I was perplexed about why we were having to answer their questions.”
The HDA’s grassroots program now has 275 players between the ages of 8 and 12 enrolled who are skating four times a week. The HDA covers the cost of their ice time, coaching, and equipment. According to projections Dream officials said they shared with Oakman and West, 1,200 players would be registered in the Dream organization by its fifth GTHL season.
“The committee wanted us simply to send our kids who were good enough to their organizations,” Aliu said. “They wanted us to send our kids to the same organizations that are part of a system that even the GTHL’s own committee has said is systemically racist. No way. Was not going to happen.”
The showdown between Dream officials and the GTHL came to a head during the spring of 2022.
In an Apr. 1, 2022, email to Aliu and Nikopoulos, Oakman reiterated that the GTHL’s board had determined it could not grant rep teams to the Toronto Dream in its first year because of a drop in player registrations following the COVID-19 pandemic.
“There is no information to suggest that next year there will be a massive return of skilled players to fill rosters of teams that are currently comprised of under-skilled players,” Oakman wrote in his email. “Teams that have struggled this season will not suddenly have a number of higher-skilled players return to the game, thereby making a team more competitive.”
Oakman wrote that the Dream should begin with a house league program in 2022-23 to “establish a solid foundation.”
“I couldn’t believe what I was reading,” Aliu said. “We already had shown that the Dream would be bringing in hundreds of players that would more than offset any losses.”
After Aliu said the members of the second GTHL committee made up of non-GTHL board members told him that they had never been briefed by the GTHL board about the specifics of the Dream proposal, Aliu emailed Oakman and West to say that they needed to get on a conference call and decide whether the program would move forward or die.
The conference call never happened.
In September of 2022, the GTHL board agreed unanimously that the only way that the Dream would join the league would be without AAA teams.
“We’re certainly disappointed that there was a lack of desire to move forward without a guarantee of AAA,” Oakman said.
“Trust was lost,” Aliu said. “The GTHL’s biggest hope was they would frustrate us to the point where we would walk away from this and stay silent. But that’s not me.”