“Hockey execs like to pretend that they care about diversity and inclusion”: A Q&A with Akim Aliu on remaking the NHL for everyone

“Hockey execs like to pretend that they care about diversity and inclusion”: A Q&A with Akim Aliu on remaking the NHL for everyone

The pro player and founder of the Hockey Diversity Alliance discusses how to fix the sport’s toxic culture

Your new graphic novel is called Dreamer: Growing Up Black in the World of Hockey. Is it fair to call it an autobiography?
It’s based on my own experiences, which were different from those of most kids in hockey. I was born in Nigeria and grew up in Ukraine. We moved to Parkdale when I was nine years old, and hockey was everywhere in Toronto—on TV, billboards—and all the kids were playing it. My parents didn’t have much money, so all of my equipment was hand-me-downs. I was always the only person of colour on the team. When I was 11 years old, I played a tournament in Quebec and got called a racial slur. Unfortunately, racism was something I would continue to experience throughout my pro career.

Every sport has its issues, but is there something particularly toxic about hockey culture?
It’s the leaders who don’t want change. If you look at the NBA, for example, commissioner Adam Silver is always looking for ways to find new audiences. Hockey, by contrast, is very resistant to progress. It’s an old boys’ club, and the mentality is stuck in the ’70s and ’80s: you’re supposed to look a certain way and talk a certain way.

That Don Cherry mentality.
I don’t know how he was on TV for so long. The prejudice that he spewed was awful. It’s a perfect example of what I’m talking about: the NHL is still 95 per cent white. People in leadership pretend that they care about diversity and inclusion, but when they have to make difficult decisions, not so much. I have worked with the GTHL, the biggest minor hockey league in the world, on creating mandates around BIPOC kids and female players, but when you upset the status quo, people in power slam on the brakes.

Related: How Black Ice director Hubert Davis exposes Canadian hockey’s anti-Black racism

Is there not a business case for diversity in hockey?
Of course there is. Look at the diversity among Raptors fans. That team is one of the most profitable basketball teams on the planet, and the NBA is one of the most profitable leagues. And there’s a reason soccer is the number one sport in the world.

You founded the Hockey Diversity Alliance in 2020. What kind of progress have you made?
It’s been amazing. We’ve been able to go out and give back to the communities that a lot of us grew up in. We also give kids who can’t afford it a chance to play the game.

Tell me more about the work you’ve done.
In 2022, I got together with several NHL players of colour and made a video where we shared our experiences of prejudice. One notorious example was Wayne Simmonds having a banana thrown at him during a game. And we called on allies to support us by buying hockey tape featuring the slogan #TapeOutHate. It ended up being one of Budweiser Canada’s most successful awareness campaigns ever.

I noticed that your book is blurbed by former NFL quarterback Colin ­Kaepernick. Is he a friend?
A dear friend, almost like a big brother. He gave me invaluable advice when I founded the HDA. He’s the kind of civil rights leader that I aspire to be. We went to a Raptors game when he was in Toronto late last year, and there was an amazing reception. People cheered when we appeared on the Jumbotron.

Would the reception have been the same at a Leafs game?
To be totally honest, no. The demographic is really different.

What do you tell parents who are worried about putting their kids in hockey?
I hear a lot of concerns from people who either have had a bad experience or are worried that their kid someday will. I tell them that hockey is an incredibly tough sport—I had 14 surgeries before I turned 30. But it also taught me life lessons that I couldn’t have gotten anywhere else: how to win, how to lose, how to be a teammate. Even with the negative aspects, it’s still the best game in the world—the speed, the intensity, the passion, the physicality. There’s nothing like it.

You haven’t officially retired. Any chance of you returning to the ice?
I’ve had four knee surgeries in a year and a half. I’m almost 34, but I’m still hopeful that I can play professionally again. The ability is there. I would love to be judged by what I do on the ice, like everyone else. Speaking out has hurt my career, but at least I can sleep well at night.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.