Akim Aliu has called former NHL star Steve Downie a “racist sociopath” and recounted the harrowing training ground assault when he was attacked in the face with a stick, adding that the sport is plagued by prejudice and bullying.
The Ukrainian-Canadian, who was born in Nigeria and moved to Toronto via Kiev as a child, has lamented a backdrop of “racism, misogyny, bullying and homophobia” that “permeates the culture” of hockey.
Aliu arrived in Ontario to pursue his professional career as a 16-year-old, where he said he was subjected to degrading strip rituals and suffered humiliation at the hands of teammate Steve Downie, who added lotion to his pants, stole his clothes and treated him as “subhuman”, according to the wing.
“I dreamed of my parents reading in the paper back home about their son scoring a hat trick in his first game, or leading his team to the playoffs,” he told The Players Tribune.
“Instead, they had to hear about my refusal to strip naked and get in a bathroom in the back of the team bus with three other rookies.
“That same kid — the guy who went on to play over 400 NHL games — came up to me a few days after I refused to take part in his horrific ritual and tapped me on the shoulder during a practice.
“I turned and he shoved his fiberglass stick through my mouth. I lost seven teeth in half a second. Blood gushing down my chest into my pants.
“That was when I knew – this game, it’s not for me. It never has been. I had to fight for my life.”
Aliu received treatment before returning to the ice to fight Downie, who was suspended for five games. The incident also earned a one-game ban for Aliu, a 40-game ban for general manager Moe Mantha and the trading of both players from Windsor.
Deriding the NHL’s diversity campaign, “Hockey is for Everyone,” Aliu said former Philadelphia Fliers forward Downie had “nothing but hate in his heart” during their time together as youngsters in Ontario.
“I went through hell at the hands of a racist sociopath,” he revealed.
“He looked at me and saw a black boy with a weird accent – and didn’t like me because of it.
“I was attacked because of the color of my skin. I knew it then and I know it even more now. It felt… tribal. Or like I was an animal in the circus. I was surrounded by the types of players I had dreamed of playing with and I had never felt more alone.”
As an American Hockey League player with the Rockford IceHogs, Akim Aliu accused then-coach Bill Peters of racial abuse in 2009, leading to the disgraced coach being released by the Calgary Flames.
He believes that prejudice remains inherent in the sport, pointing to a hijacked video call, condemned by the NHL, in which New York Rangers prospect K’Andre Miller suffered racial taunts during a meeting with 500 fans last month.
“I’m talking about the racism, misogyny, bullying and homophobia that permeates the culture of hockey,” he explained.
“These issues have ramifications that most cannot – or will not – see.
“They are not fun to talk about and it seems like most only want to discuss them when something drastic happens, like K’Andre Miller’s horrific experience in an online Q&A a few months ago.
“Someone hijacked the Zoom call and called him the n-word over and over again through the chat feature. He’s 20 years old, goddammit.
“That was a hockey fan who said those things, and he or she was just the only one stupid enough to actually go and say that terrible word. For every vocal racist, there are a thousand silent ones.
“There will be more reckonings for coaches, more incidents highlighting the dark side of hockey culture, more kids like K’Andre being told they aren’t welcome in the game.
“Hockey is not unique. It has the same problems that plague our whole world.”
A fluent Ukrainian and Russian speaker, Aliu, who now plays for HC Litvinov in the Czech Extraliga, could not speak English when he arrived in Canada.
All seven of his NHL appearances came with the Flames during the 2011-12 and 2012-13 seasons.