Racist messages arrive so frequently that Akim Aliu girds himself before he opens his e-mail.
“It is non-stop,” Aliu, the chairman of the Hockey Diversity Alliance (HDA), says. “One of things I think about is that if these people are openly saying this stuff to me, how many out there think it but don’t say the words? It is very sad.”
A former NHL player of Nigerian and Ukrainian descent who grew up in Canada, Aliu helped establish the Hockey Diversity Alliance in the summer of 2020 in the weeks following the murder of George Floyd, a Black man, by a white Minneapolis police officer.
The purpose of the organization, which is predominantly made up of current and former BIPOC hockey players, is to eradicate systemic racism and intolerance within the sport.
In support of that, the alliance is releasing a video on Saturday in which members directly reveal some of the slurs with which they are all too familiar. It is graphic and jarring and meant to be that way.
“We want to keep everything super raw,” Aliu, who is 32 and last played hockey in the 2019-20 season for a club in the Czech Republic, says. “We didn’t want to sugarcoat what we face behind closed doors. We feel it is important for us to share.”
The two-minute clip is the centrepiece of a campaign that is being launched by the HDA in conjunction with Budweiser Canada under the hashtag #TapeOutHate. As part of the collaboration, rolls of hockey tape featuring words of support will be sold with $1 from each sale donated to assist the HDA in its mission.
It was Budweiser Canada that approached the group about a partnership last year and floated the idea of the #TapeOutHate campaign.
“It really started during the Black Lives Matter movement and the formation of the HDA,” Mike D’Agostini, the senior director for Budweiser Canada, says. “It sparked a conversation internally about what we were going to do and how to show our support.
“When we sat down with the HDA and they shared their stories and encounters as players and humans it took on a whole different level. Those messages make you sick to your stomach.”
D’Agostini said he knows the campaign may ruffle feathers.
“Campaigns like this are going to be uncomfortable, but we have to be comfortable with being uncomfortable,” he says. “The intent of the rawness and realness is to put everyone in a vulnerable place.”
The grandson of immigrants who came to Canada from Lebanon, Nazem Kadri is a member of the alliance. He grew up in London, Ont., and has played in the NHL for 11 years including nine with the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Kadri says he remembers having racial slurs directed at him when he was as young as 10 years old.
“It happened early on in competitive hockey,” Kadri, who now plays for the Colorado Avalanche, says. “There are idiots out there and pretty graphic incidents happened.
“I have had to deal with it all my life. I have a constant battle in my own head. I am 31 years old and I still remember those things that happened when I was 10. It was really hurtful.”
Kadri is among the players who shares an ugly message he received on the two-minute video.
“Sometimes you have to see it to understand how disgusting it can be,” Kadri says. “What we are trying to do is put people in different shoes and allow them to see things from a different perspective.
“We don’t want people to feel sorry for us. We want to raise awareness. That’s why we are out there.”
While aware of the initiative, neither the NHL nor the NHL Players’ Association has chosen to officially come on board as a partner.
Kadri is discouraged by that.
“It is disappointing for someone who worked so hard to give this game and sport everything I have,” he says. “The game has given me everything but I have contributed to it as well.
“We aren’t doing this for ourselves. We are doing it because we don’t want other people to go through what we went through. We are all guys that have seen and heard it with our own eyes and ears.
“It’s a shame.”
When contacted this week, the NHLPA pointed out that it granted permission for group player licencing rights to be used as part of the campaign and did nothing to stand in its way. For its part, the NHL has backed some grassroots programs and has started implementing education campaigns but acknowledges it needs to do better.
“The NHL applauds our partner Budweiser and the Hockey Diversity Alliance for their efforts to promote diversity and inclusivity in the sport of hockey,” a league spokesman said Friday. “This ongoing movement requires vision and commitment from every stakeholder.
“We welcome all who are using their voices and platforms to pursue these important goals and remain determined to continue to use ours and to do the work necessary to create real change.”
Aliu was born in Nigeria but spent his formative years in Kyiv, Ukraine. His Nigerian father attended university in Kyiv where he met and married Aliu’s mother. The family moved to Canada and settled in Toronto when Akim was seven years old.
At the time, he spoke no English and had never played hockey. He got his first pair of skates in a garage sale and began to play in a youth league where he displayed natural talent. He was eventually drafted in the first round by the Windsor Spitfires of the Ontario Hockey League and made his NHL debut with the Calgary Flames in 2012 and scored his first two NHL goals two days later.
In November, 2019, Aliu went public with allegations that Bill Peters, the Flames’ coach at the time, had directed racial slurs at him when Aliu played in the American Hockey League. As a result, Peters resigned as Calgary’s head coach four days later.
On June 8, 2020, Aliu co-founded the Hockey Diversity Alliance alongside Evander Kane of the San Jose Sharks. Members currently playing in the NHL include Kadri, Ethan Bear of the Carolina Hurricanes, Anthony Duclair of the Florida Panthers, Matt Dumba of the Minnesota Wild and Wayne Simmonds of the Maple Leafs. Its executive committee also includes former players Trevor Daley, Chris Stewart and Joel Ward.
Aliu says his experiences growing up in hockey were difficult.
“The things that were said took me back to what my father had to put up with in the Soviet Union,” he says. “That’s why we came here. Every step of the way I had be three times better to get the same chance as a white player.”
He says the alliance hopes to create opportunities for kids from different backgrounds and by doing so will grow the game.
“[The NHL] is an old boys’ club,” he says. “They grasp onto what they think it should be and hang on by their fingernails to keep it an elite sport. They don’t want to stand on the right side of history. They want to stand with people who buy their tickets.
“I don’t think anyone realized how hard it was going to be when we started this. It is a long road, but I hope it is going to be worth it.”