Even as his world has turned upside down over the tweets that he sent, even as his schedule has swelled with interview requests and speaking engagements and boardroom meetings about the reckoning that he roused, Akim Aliu has never missed a workout. Six to seven days a week, no matter what else is on the docket, the former NHL player has always managed to find a nearby fitness center in the Toronto area and sweat through a 90-minute regimen of stretching, lifting, jumping, running … anything to stay fit until a hockey team finally called.
This patience and toil paid off Monday when Aliu, 30, signed with HC Litvinov in the Czech Extraliga, one of Europe’s top pro leagues. He will fly to meet the team Wednesday Jan. 22, and plans to debut at defenseman for a pair of home games this weekend, his first action in nine months. “I don't think people realize how tough it is training every day and eating right and skating by yourself, just waiting for an opportunity,” Aliu tells SI.com. “At the end of the day, you want that intensity and passion you feel on the ice. Obviously, I missed that.”
Aliu is no stranger to the hockey nomad life. He has only managed to find work through mid-year contracts in every hockey season since 2014-15, appearing for 11 teams across six leagues and five countries during that time, crisscrossing the globe to keep the dream alive. But while his deal with Litvinov doesn’t last long—the regular season ends in early March and the team (11-21-5) is near the bottom of the standings—deciding to go was more difficult than any decision he had faced. “I probably had four or five sleepless nights,” Aliu says, “just not wanting to lose any momentum that we've created in helping people and bringing awareness to our cause.”
So much has changed already. Three months ago, Aliu went public with allegations that then-Flames coach Bill Peters had directed racial slurs toward him in the minors in 2009-10: “Dropped the N bomb several times towards me in the dressing room in my rookie year because he didn’t like my choice of music.” The revelation, which was quickly corroborated by former teammates, led to Peters’s resignation and thrust Aliu into the spotlight as a voice for change. Before long, he was meeting with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman to discuss improving the sport’s inclusivity; speaking to minority youth hockey teams in the Toronto area; and receiving scores of messages from fellow players or parents who had similar stories to share.
Aliu has no plans to slow his advocacy while abroad. “I’m not stepping back one bit,” he says. “I don’t see anything changing because I’m six hours away.” His conversations with the NHL are continuing on a weekly basis, he says, and soon he will launch a charity to assist underprivileged kids in affording hockey equipment, registration fees, and rink time. It’ll be called the Dreamer Foundation, borrowed after the Nigerian-Ukrainian-Canadian’s longtime nickname.
Owing to this spirit, Aliu wasn’t ready to stop playing either. “I feel like it's a good example to kids to never give up on your dreams no matter what,” he says. Litvinov, which first reached out last week, wasn’t the first team to call; Aliu reports turning away interest from teams in Russia, Germany and Finland in late 2019, preferring to let things calm down after the Peters story broke. But the fit felt right after a talk with team president Jiri Slegr, a former NHL defenseman who logged more than 600 games. “He said, ‘Of course we’ve heard what's been going on, we're not worried about that, we're an inclusive group, just come use your hockey skills,’” Aliu recalls.
For his part, Aliu is treating the gig like an audition, knowing full well that millions of eyeballs will be tracking his progress. His last NHL appearance came with Calgary in April 2013—career stats: seven games, two goals, one assist, 26 penalty minutes—and his last competitive game came last April in the ECHL playoffs with the Orlando Solar Bears. Still, he is “100% confident” he can return to the world’s highest level.
“I know I have NHL skills, and if given an opportunity I think I can prove somebody right,” says Aliu, a second-round draft pick to Chicago in 2007. “If I can’t get into North America, that means I have to go to Europe to continue to show what I can do. That’s the mindset.”
In the meantime, Aliu is squeezing as much as possible into his schedule. On Monday, two days after his sitdown interview on Hockey Night in Canada aired nationwide, Aliu left home at 7 a.m. and didn’t return until long after dark. In between, he spoke to some young players in Burford, Ont., including a pair of 2011-born boys whom Aliu has committed to sponsoring with his foundation; ran a skating clinic at a First Nations reserve in Brantford, Ont.; dropped the opening puck at a minor hockey game in nearby Paris; and inked his Litvinov contract.
Of course, he also swung by a YMCA near the highway and hit the gym on a one-day guest pass. No need for a full membership. Not with the next chapter in his story starting soon.