VAUGHAN, Ont. — There was no breaking point or seminal moment that prompted Akim Aliu to post two tweets less than a minute apart that would rock the NHL in a matter of hours.
Aliu was scrolling through the timeline on his phone when he saw a report of how just-fired Toronto Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock had mistreated Mitch Marner, his prized rookie forward.
“It was a spur of the moment kind of thing,” Aliu explained during an interview this past week at a gym near Toronto. A few highway exits from his home, this is where the 30-year-old works out to stay in shape in case some team gives him one more shot at playing.
“I sent it out and didn’t even think anything of it, and just went into the steam room for 20 minutes,” he said. “I did a couple of hot-cold rounds in the shower and when I came out it was crazy.”
The tweets went viral, and missed calls and text messages were piling up when Aliu returned.
“I was like, `Woah, like this is for real,’” he said.
The posts sent Nov. 25 were thunder claps heard around hockey, alleging coach Bill Peters had directed racist slurs at him when the two were in the minors a decade ago and then tried to make sure he’d be demoted.
Racism is of course not unheard of in hockey, but Aliu was taking aim at a veteran coach. And it was an extraordinary public accusation in perhaps the most private of professional sports in North America, where the idea that dirty laundry is always best kept behind closed doors is sacrosanct.
Almost overnight, Aliu’s allegations proved true and prompted Peters’ resignation as coach of the Calgary Flames. Over the past month, other claims have cropped up and the NHL has swiftly moved to strengthen its personal conduct policies regarding racism and bullying; it put every team official — from president to equipment manager — on notice that any similar incident must immediately be reported to league headquarters.
Suddenly, Aliu was no longer just a long-forgotten defenceman who’s played for 21 teams in seven leagues and six countries over the past 10 years. He was an agent of change coming hard on the heels of two incidents that hover, still, over the first half of the NHL season.
Long-time Canadian broadcaster Don Cherry was let go last month after calling immigrants “you people” during his Hockey Night in Canada segment. Then came Babcock’s firing and word he had embarrassed Marner by revealing a list he asked the player to write that ranked Leafs players by work ethic.
With hockey already buzzing, Aliu kicked things up a notch by accusing Peters, a Babcock protoge, of openly using the `N word’ in questioning Aliu’s choice of music in a locker room all those years ago. It was later revealed Peters had kicked and punched his own players during his four years as coach in Carolina.
Aliu’s allegations also led to Chicago Blackhawks assistant coach Marc Crawford being suspended for physically and verbally abusing his players at past stops as a head coach. Crawford will return Jan. 2 after an investigation found he sought counselling in 2010 and continues to undergo therapy.
Aliu’s timing turned out to be perfect in sparking a much-needed discussion about issues long suppressed amid lingering nostalgia for the sport’s rough and tumble, and sometimes hateful, past.
“My parents have always told me that things happen at the time they’re supposed to happen, not when you hope they would happen,” Aliu said. “I kind of dealt with both of those things. So I kind of combined them. And I feel like I have a voice because of that.”
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman has used the uproar to call for change in a sport long made up of mostly white players and one always eager to diversify and grow. .
“The world is changing for the better,” Bettman said following a recent board of governors meeting in California. “This is an opportunity and a moment for positive change, and this evolution should be expedited for the benefit of everyone associated with the game we love.”
But is it truly a reckoning in a sport that has fewer than three dozen black players and banned a handful of fans for racist taunts less than two years ago?
“It seems different,” said Anson Carter, a former player and broadcaster. “It really does because it has the NHL’s attention.”
“Is it going to change overnight? No,” added Carter, who is black. “Are we going to totally, completely eliminate it 100%? No. It exists in society. We would be ignorant to think that there wouldn’t be some instances that might pop up.”
The discussion has prompted varying degrees of reflection among coaches.
“I don’t think I’m going to sit here and worry about every little word I say and things like that,” St. Louis Blue coach Craig Berube said. “I treat my players with respect. That’s how I view it, just like they treat me.”
Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy said he’s on board.
“We’re tough at times, but we’re fair. We want to hold them accountable, but not in the manner of what guys have gotten let go for,” Cassidy said. “I think coaches have to be a little more respectful with the stories coming out. Hopefully, that’s what happens.”
It took until now for Aliu to find the courage to speak out about racism. Born in Nigeria, raised in Ukraine and a Canadian resident since he was 7, he had learned to stay quiet amid the slurs, slights and demotions for fear of being branded a dissenter — as he believes he was in 2005.
That was during Aliu’s rookie season with the Ontario Hockey League’s Windsor Spitfires and he spoke out after a hazing incident in which he and three other rookies were stripped naked and jammed in a team bus bathroom following a preseason game.
Aliu’s complaints led to the team being fined $35,000, coach and GM Moe Mantha being suspended and a teammate he had brawled with, Steve Downie, eventually being traded, along with Aliu.
Aliu felt he was the one who was punished the most for speaking out. His Team Canada invites dried up and a player with first-round hopes fell to the second round of the 2007 draft, where he was picked by Chicago.
“I defended myself for it and I was the villain,” Aliu said. “And the guy that was the head of it, Steve Downie, goes on to play in the world juniors, Team Canada, plays in the NHL.”
If it sounds like sour grapes, Aliu noted, he compiled 167 points in 205 career OHL games as a defenceman. And he continued to produce at the minor-league level only to constantly be demoted.
Aliu acknowledged he rebelled against Peters, but he believes the N-word incident led to one of those demotions and further tarnished his reputation.
Aliu thought he had finally caught a break when the Blackhawks traded him to Atlanta during the 2010-11 season. He said then-GM Rick Dudley had promised to give him an NHL shot, but those plans changed when the team was sold and relocated to Winnipeg and Kevin Cheveldayoff was named Jets general manager.
Aliu noted Cheveldayoff was a former Blackhawks assistant GM and oversaw the Rockford team when the Peters’ confrontation occurred. Aliu said he hoped to clear the air with Cheveldayoff as the Jets opened their first training camp.
“We go in his office and talk, and I go: `Chevy, whatever happened in Chicago happened. What can I do to prove to you that I can help your organization,’” Aliu said. “And he said, `Nothing. We don’t have any plans for you whatsoever.’”
Aliu was eventually demoted to ECHL Colorado, where a minor league equipment manager wore blackface at a Halloween party in 2011. Aliu demanded a trade, though he has since accepted the manager’s apology and requested he not be fired.
Aliu said he never told Cheveldayoff the blackface incident was the reason he wanted a trade. In a statement, the Jets said: “We were disturbed to learn about the reprehensible situations Mr. Aliu described with the Rockford IceHogs and Colorado Eagles.”
The Jets added: “We had no previous knowledge of these incidents prior to their public disclosure and, as such, they had no effect on any player personnel decisions involving Mr. Aliu.”
Aliu hasn’t given up on playing, even though he’s been out of hockey since scoring four goals and adding seven assists in 14 games for ECHL Orlando last season.
“I don’t think I’ve ever felt any better,” Aliu said. “Every day I go to bed thinking, ‘Hey, I might get an opportunity here, you never know.’ Are those chances likely? I mean, I don’t know.”
His NHL career was limited to scoring two goals and an assist in seven games with the Flames, the last in the 2012-13 season. Aliu isn’t sure what happened to his dream of playing with the best players in the world.
“I’d maybe call it a nightmare in a lot of cases. There were a lot of sleepless nights. A lot of soul-searching,” he said.
“If I knew this was going to happen, I probably would have hung them up a long time ago,” Aliu said. “But at the end of the day, I think you’re put in situations that you’re uncomfortable with. I think God only gives fights to the people that can handle the fight.
“If I can be a help to the next generation, I think it would all be worth it, to be honest.”