Aliu says Davis has missed 'massive opportunity' with NHL on diversity
Akim Aliu had high hopes for Kim Davis — especially after their early dialogue.
The NHL's executive vice-president of social impact, growth initiatives and legislative affairs seemed open, Aliu thought at the time, to ideas put forward by the Hockey Diversity Alliance, an organization started by a group of current and former players of colour looking to share their experiences in hopes of bettering the sport.
Aliu, one of those founding members, said the tone quickly changed. And he believes Davis has fumbled her chance to make an impact.
"Extremely disappointing," Aliu said in a recent interview. "Kim Davis without (NHL commissioner) Gary Bettman on the call versus Kim Davis with Gary Bettman on the call are two different people.
"She has missed a massive opportunity to come in as a woman of colour and, for once, be in a position of power in hockey."
Davis, who started with the NHL in 2017 and has been at the fore of its diversity and inclusion initiatives, declined to address Aliu's criticism when contacted by The Canadian Press.
"I've been in the business of change work in major corporations for over 40 years," she said. "I don't need to be affirmed by Akim. What affirms me is progress.
"The point at hand is young people and growing the game. I thought that's what (the HDA) was about, not talking about what I am or am not doing."
The links between the HDA and NHL frayed after 2020's initial push. The league launched — or relaunched in the HDA's eyes — its Player Inclusion Coalition in June with the NHLPA to "advance equality and inclusion" in the sport.
"Zero relationship," Aliu, the HDA's chairman, said of the NHL. "They actively tried to silence us."
Aliu was born in Nigeria before his family eventually relocated to Toronto.
A journeyman pro hockey player who appeared in seven NHL games, Aliu revealed in November 2019 then-Calgary coach Bill Peters bullied and directed racist slurs at him in the minors a decade earlier. Peters resigned and the league instituted a personal conduct policy in hopes of tackling racism in a traditionally white-dominated sport.
So where did things go wrong for the HDA and NHL?
"Just as they're doing with other individuals ... they essentially bring you in and buy you, in a way, to silence you," Aliu said. "We were a group that would not be silenced."
The HDA — which Aliu said is supporting more than 700 kids in hockey from underserved communities across the Greater Toronto Area, and has plans to expand programs to other cities — is hosting its first-ever WinterFest this weekend.
The event aimed highlighting the importance of diversity and inclusion in hockey is set for Toronto's Trinity Bellwoods Park as the NHL is holding its all-star festivities in the city.
"We've been looked at for a long time as a group that's confrontational," Aliu said. "We're the only group that calls out the hockey establishment, but it's important to highlight all of the work."
Aliu was also critical of the NHL Player Inclusion Coalition.
"Nothing happens," he said. "Essentially they're giving each one of the players a sum of money to put into a cause that's important to them. It's not necessarily a cause to grow the game."
Davis and the NHL pushed back on that sentiment, pointing out that along with funding, there have been eight player-led initiatives since last summer, including learn-to-play clinics, ball hockey programs and mentorship sessions.
"Diversity is not a monolith," Davis said. "Diversity has many tentacles. I honestly don't know what the disconnect is."
The NHL is also holding several community events during all-star week, including its "hockey rink for all," a youth jamboree and an all-star Pride Cup.
"Is everything perfect? Of course not," Davis said. "But I think we're putting the tools and the policies and the accountability elements in place. This is a long game."
Aliu said one area where he's seen change is the media being more aware of what he called "performative" gestures.
"Within the communities and the few people doing this work, it's a nice sight," he said.
Aliu added that while there has been progress, in his view the game has taken a step back.
"Let's just cancel all the Pride jerseys because seven guys didn't want to wear them," he said of the NHL's decision to ban LGBTQ+ warmup threads. "They can go around and have all their slogans.
"People actually doing the work know it's an act."
Canada's largest city, which last hosted the NHL's big bash back in 2000, has welcomed other sports' big events in the interim.
The NBA all-star game was held at Air Canada Centre — now Scotiabank Arena — in 2016. Major League Soccer held its showcase at BMO Field in 2008 when England's West Ham United met the MLS all-stars.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 31, 2024.
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Joshua Clipperton's weekly NHL notebook is published every Wednesday.