Skip to main content

Akim Aliu suited up on Wednesday night for the San Jose Barracuda of the American Hockey League. It was something of a miracle after what he has been through – he had not played in four years and for two of them was unable to even skate.

“I was more anxious than I have ever been to play a game,” Aliu said Thursday from San Jose. “A lot of self-doubt creeps into your head.”

The return went well. The Barracuda posted a 6-5 shootout victory over the San Diego Gulls and Aliu hopes to be in uniform on Saturday when his new team visits the Ontario, Calif., Reign.

“There is nothing like it,” Aliu said about the excitement he felt when he made his debut with the club on Wednesday. “It felt great.”

Feeling great was a victory in itself. He is 34 and has undergone surgery more than a dozen times for a litany of injuries, the most recent a knee operation six months ago.

He played in 636 games in 10 leagues, including seven appearances with the Calgary Flames. He is better known, however, as the co-founder of the Hockey Diversity Alliance, an organization established in 2020 to address intolerance and racism in hockey.

Born to a Nigerian father and a Ukrainian mother, Aliu immigrated to Canada from Ukraine when he was seven years old. The family settled in Toronto, where he learned to skate and play hockey with equipment purchased at garage sales.

In 2007 he was selected in the second round of the NHL entry draft by the Chicago Blackhawks. Five years later he reached the NHL and scored two goals and had an assist in two games with Calgary. He played five more games with the Flames the following year.

In 2019, he revealed that Bill Peters, then the Flames coach, had bullied and directed racist slurs at him when the two were in the minors a decade earlier. Peters resigned days later, and Aliu’s revelations led to the NHL instituting a personal conduct policy in a bid to eradicate racism in what’s traditionally been a white-dominated sport.

The last time he played in a game was for HC Verva Litvinov in the most elite hockey league in Czechia.

Aliu, a 6-foot-4 forward, had all but given up on a return to the North American pros but reached out to San Jose general manager Mike Grier early this year. They met briefly when the Sharks were in town to play the Toronto Maple Leafs.

“I expressed a desire to give it another kick at the can,” Aliu said. “My love and passion has always been on the ice. I wanted to see if there was anything left in the tank.”

He made a convincing enough argument that Grier signed him recently to a professional tryout offer with the Barracuda. Aliu needed the time in between their meeting and now to do rehab on his knee.

The team has a half-dozen games left in the regular season to see if he can make a favourable impression.

Grier is the only Black general manager in the NHL.

“I’m extremely grateful to him and I will remain so no matter what the outcome is,” Aliu said. “Many times I thought I would never get another chance. It has been four years now.”

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe