Skip to main content

Akim Aliu spent much of his childhood in Kyiv. The neighbourhood where he lived with his parents and older brother and went to school has been decimated by bombs.

Akim Aliu expressed concern for the welfare of his family still in Ukraine. His grandfather has fled the country but others remain.Jeff McIntosh/The Associated Press

“When you see places you remember it breaks your heart,” says the former NHL player and co-founder of the Hockey Diversity Alliance (HDA). “The hardest part is feeling so helpless. There is really not much you can do.”

Aliu’s father is Nigerian and his mother is Ukrainian. They immigrated to Canada and settled in the Toronto area when Akim was seven.

He considers himself a Ukrainian-Canadian, eats mostly Ukrainian food and speaks Russian at home. It was his first language.

Some of his family is in Nigeria, where he was born, but most of it is spread across Ukraine. His grandfather got out before Russia began its invasion. But others remain and are living there without electricity, food and water.

“It is nothing less than a nightmare,” Aliu says.

Aliu, 32, has had his share of setbacks, although nothing on the scale of the unfolding Ukrainian disaster.

He’s had three knee operations in the past year, among the 13 surgeries he’s had because of hockey-related injuries. However, he still hopes to play again.

“I have felt an improvement,” Aliu says. “For the first eight months I could barely walk down the stairs.”

He has played for three teams in the OHL, seven in the East Coast Hockey League, nine in the AHL, one in the KHL and one each in Sweden, Slovakia and the Czech Republic. In parts of two seasons, he also played for the Calgary Flames.

In November of 2019, Aliu disclosed that he had been the target of racial epithets by then-Calgary coach Bill Peters while in the minor leagues.

A half-year later he and Evander Kane established the HDA to address intolerance and racism in the sport. “It is non-stop,” says Aliu, the HDA chairman.

He still wakes up to hateful messages.

In Many ways, Aliu is hockey’s answer to Colin Kaepernick, the former NFL quarterback and activist against racial injustice and police brutality.

“We kind of do parallel things in different sports,” Aliu says. “Mine is straight up against racism and bias against players of colour.” Over the past several years the two have become close. Aliu says Kaepernick, who is biracial, worked behind the scenes and was instrumental in helping him create the HDA.

“At the time, a lot of guys were worried about speaking up and putting their names out there for fear of reprisal,” Aliu says.

They were introduced through a mutual business partner and speak often by phone – conversations that last as long as 90 minutes.

“He gives me advice,” Aliu says. “We pretty much talk about everything.”

Recently they became involved in an entrepreneurial venture with superstar tennis player Naomi Osaka, who has introduced a suncare product specially formulated for people of colour. Osaka’s parents come from Haiti and Japan.

“Colin is close friends with her and this opportunity came up,” Aliu says. “We had talked about business ventures we could do to give back to the BIPOC community and this is a great fit.”

Osaka has a long list of corporate sponsors, but Aliu says this enterprise is of a more personal nature for her.

“Skin cancer hits the BIPOC community in a way that hasn’t been addressed,” he says. “Some people with darker skin don’t feel the need to wear sunscreen, and affordability is a roadblock for others. This is affordable.”

Aliu is busy on all fronts: working on a return to hockey, overseeing the diversity alliance, setting out in a new direction under Kaepernick’s wing.

But his heart and mind remain in Ukraine.

According to the United Nations, 6.5 million Ukrainians have been displaced and more than 3.5 million have fled to neighbouring countries.

More than 1,000 civilians have been killed, and NATO’s secretary-general, Jens Stoltenberg, said Thursday he fears that Russia is prepared to make a chemical, biological or even a nuclear attack.

“This hits me on a lot of different levels,” Aliu says. He last visited Kyiv in 2007, the year he was chosen in the second round of the NHL draft by the Chicago Blackhawks. “It is really disheartening and unbelievably hard on all of us.”