Sources: Akim Aliu Situation Has Race and Possible Legal Ramifications for NHL

In his meeting with the NHL next week, Akim Aliu plans to focus the discussion on racial and cultural problems facing the sport, sources tell SI. Bill Peters' resignation doesn't mark the end of the controversy.
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Feb 20, 2019; Calgary, Alberta, CAN; Calgary Flames head coach Bill Peters on his bench during the warmup period against the New York Islanders at Scotiabank Saddledome. Mandatory Credit: Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports

The resignation of Bill Peters as head coach of the Calgary Flames on Friday won’t mark the end of the controversy involving Peters directing the N-word at defenseman Akim Aliu. That incident occurred in 2009, when Peters was head coach of the Rockford IceHogs, an American Hockey League affiliate team of the Chicago Blackhawks. Aliu, meanwhile, was a highly regarded 20-year-old prospect on the IceHogs and two years removed from the Blackhawks selecting him in the second round of the 2007 NHL draft.

Sources close to Aliu tell Sports Illustrated that the 30-year-old native of Nigeria does not regard the controversy as limited to remarks by one coach from a decade ago. Just the opposite, Aliu maintains that the NHL has long failed to sufficiently address broader issues of race and culture—particularly with respect to retaliation against black players who speak up and an absence of whistleblower protections to report racial discrimination.

A public reckoning of the 2009 incident might thus be the tip of the iceberg for discussion of systematic problems faced by black players in professional hockey.

To that point, Aliu plans to meet with NHL officials next week. During the meeting, sources tell SI, he will stress that the “resignation” of one coach for one incident is hardly a solution to cultural problems facing the sport. Along those lines, Aliu will maintain that issues of race and identity must be addressed through action, not hollow, feel-good rhetoric often used in aspirational-sounding press releases and public relations-minded forums.

Aliu could raise other objections as well.

First, the Flames allowed Peters to resign rather than fire him. During his press conference on Friday, Flames general manager Brad Treliving went so far as to say that Peters had “offered” to resign—as if the 53-year-old coach was in charge of the situation. There are symbolic and potential legal differences between a resignation and firing that Aliu could raise in his meeting with the NHL.

A resignation ostensibly helps Peters “save face” at a time when many are outraged at his past conduct, which allegedly included punching and kicking players while Peters coached the Carolina Hurricanes. The Flames might have permitted Peters to resign because a resignation sometimes relieves the employer of an obligation to pay the departing employee the full amount owed. (Treliving wouldn’t address contractual issues during his press conference.) If the Flames adopted the resignation approach in order to save money, Aliu would likely question the Flames’ priorities.

The resignation might also have been part of a negotiated settlement between attorneys for Peters and the Flames to avert future litigation. As I explained in a legal story on Wednesday, the fact that Peters expressed the racist remark long before he was employed by the Flames could have complicated the Flames’ ability to fire him with cause. Also, Treliving acknowledged that Peters had not engaged in wrongful conduct while employed by the Flames—a point that again signals that Peters didn’t betray his Flames contract. Still, Aliu might argue the Flames should not have worried about potential litigation. From that lens, they should have fired Peters in order to send the appropriate message to the hockey community.

Second, Peters has not apologized to Aliu. On Wednesday, Peters wrote a letter to Treliving in which he apologized to his former boss and the Flames for using “offensive language” in 2009. The apology featured a notable omission: any mention of Aliu. Aliu might question why Peters feels sufficiently comfortable to avoid acknowledging, let alone apologizing to, him. Aliu might also explore how that comfort level reflects back on the NHL’s culture.

Third, Aliu could object to certain comments, and the absence of other comments, in the press conference. For instance, Treliving declined to use the word “racism” or “racist” when describing Peters’s use of a racial slur. Treliving instead used the word “repulsive,” which, though seemingly correct, noticeably omits reference to the reason why the N-word is so hurtful: it is racist and degrading

Aliu might also wonder why the 50-year-old Treliving—who described the Peters situation as “the most difficult thing” he’s experienced in his long career—neglected to discuss how Aliu experienced the Peters situation and how Peters’s conduct arguably derailed Aliu’s career.

To that point, SI has learned from sources close to Aliu that about 10 days after the N-word incident in 2009, Peters screamed at Aliu during an IceHogs practice. It was at that point when Aliu told Peters to stop talking to him in such degrading and racist ways. It was also at that time when Aliu directly confronted Peters on why he objected to him using the N-word. Not long thereafter, Aliu was told that he was being demoted to the Toledo Walleye of the East Coast Hockey League, which is a step down from the AHL. Aliu, sources tell SI, regards the demotion as a clear illustration of workplace retaliation in pro hockey.

Though Aliu rebounded over the next several seasons to play a handful of games in the NHL, the one-time highly regarded prospect hasn’t played in the NHL since April 2013. He has instead toiled in the minors, sprinkled with stints in European and Russian leagues. Sources close to Aliu tell SI that because of the Peters incident, the defenseman has developed a reputation as problematic and uncoachable.

Aliu might further question how Treliving concluded the press conference. When asked about how tough the Peters situation has been on Treliving since he hand-picked Peters, Treliving reflected, “sometimes you criticize the performance not the performer.” Aliu might charge the problem is, in fact, the performer and the system of rules and values that govern the performer, not individual moments of poor judgment.

There are potential legal ramifications for the NHL should the league’s meeting with Aliu not go well.

As a starting point, the 2009 incident itself is unlikely to trigger problems for the NHL. It obviously occurred in a different league (the AHL) and happened so long ago that relevant statutes of limitation have likely extinguished any possible claims.

However, if Aliu intends to claim that there is an ongoing pattern and practice of discrimination in pro hockey hurting him and other black players, the possibility of a class action civil rights lawsuit against pro hockey leagues becomes possible.

Aliu, for instance, could question whether, if at all, the NHL, AHL and ECHL have adopted and implemented workplace policies for whistleblowers to privately raise allegations of harassment without fear of retaliation. As noted above, Aliu believes he was a victim of retaliation for speaking up.

Likewise, the presence or absence of anti-harassment workplace policies, and how any apply to players, could be raised in a potential legal action. Treliving mentioned that he felt he was “flying without a compass” during the last few days. That comment suggests NHL general managers might be unsure about how to address sensitive issues of race when those issues intersect with workplace and contractual policies.

Michael McCann is SI’s Legal Analyst. He is also an attorney and the Director of the Sports and Entertainment Law Institute at the University of New Hampshire Franklin Pierce School of Law.