‘Hockey Night in Canada’ aired Ron MacLean’s one-on-one interview with Akim Aliu on Saturday in which the former pro discussed the Bill Peters saga, which ended in the coach’s resignation on Nov. 29, as well as personal hazing experiences and the NHL’s new push to better address abusive behavior.
It all started with Aliu’s tweet after allegations about former Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock surfaced following his firing in Toronto.
“Not very surprising the things we’re hearing about Babcock. Apple doesn’t fall far from the Tree, same sort of deal with his protege [Bill Peters],” Aliu wrote. “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.”
MacLean asked Aliu, who spent time with the Chicago Blackhawks and Calgary Flames systems during his career, what life has been like mentally, spiritually and emotionally since he hit send on that tweet.
“To be honest, it wasn’t something that was planned so after it happened, my life literally kind of turned upside down,” he said. “It’s been super emotional. I’ve done a lot of soul-searching; it was kind of something that has been on my mind for a long time but I never really knew exactly when and how I would tell my story.
“It’s one thing just to tweet about or bring it to light but it’s a completely different thing to see it through and if I can bring change to even one or two kids coming up to not have to go through what I went through because it was really a tough route, to be honest — really, really tough route. So if I can help the road be a little easier, a little smoother, then it’ll all be worth it.”
The longtime AHL and ECHL player pointed out that black players’ actions are looked at differently in hockey, from what they wear, how they act, how they speak and also — what became the issue with Bill Peters — their music preferences. He said coaches would instruct him to cut his hair to “look more professional.”
“Another thing, obviously, that’s super sensitive to talk about, I feel like hockey is a little bit of an ‘old Boys club’,” Aliu told MacLean.
Essentially, if one organization has an issue with a player, other teams will be unwilling to take them on.
“You don’t really have a voice to climb out of that,” he added.
Although Aliu said he believes everybody deserves a second chance, he also noted that he feels Peters ruined his career. Aliu only ever played seven NHL games; all were with the Flames between the 2011-13 seasons. Peters, who was Calgary’s coach at the time of his resignation in the fall, was not the Flames’ coach at the time.
“It’s a tough question for me because my career has gone out the window and he’s been making millions of dollars in the NHL,” he said.
The 30-year-old was also asked about a hazing incident during his time in the OHL in 2005 in which rookies were forced to strip naked and were locked in a bathroom on the team bus. Aliu refused to participate.
“I kind of was made out to be the villain,” Aliu said of the response to the incident. “I ended up getting traded. ‘Till this day, I’m not really sure what I did wrong besides stand up for myself and bring light to the fact that that was going on. I got shunned from the under-17 Team Canada, I didn’t play under-18 Team Canada, I never had a chance with the World Juniors, I never played in any Canada/Russia series, anything like that.”
Aliu said when his agency sought answers to why he was not being afforded any opportunities, they were told that he was a “bad kid” — but the teams could never provide examples.
The NHL has created new procedures requiring teams to report any acts of physical or verbal abuse to league officials, but according to Aliu, there remains an underlying sense that players are unwilling to come forward with similar allegations.
“A lot of them are afraid of retaliation and the problem with that is, for the most part, it’s maybe only one guy on a team here and there. He feels secluded, he feels alone, he feels that everybody is going to be looking at him in a different light,” the former Calgary Flame said. “I know guys are afraid. I know they’re on one-year contracts. I know they’re afraid of their brands and stuff like that. They’re worried about the way management and ownership are going to look at their message and being one of the few, that’s a tough spot to be in.
“But to grow and bring more minorities to the game, we have to be the first ones to kind of stand up and start having this conversation.”
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