Akim Aliu lands book deal on how he confronted racism in hockey

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Glancing at the illustration of the boy with the far-off stare standing next to a bus on the cover of the graphic novel memoir that will tell his story, Akim Aliu immediately remembers the pain of growing up poor and Black in Toronto.

From the hours spent alone riding public transit to and from arenas across the city to the strips of duct tape holding together the garage sale-purchased hockey equipment bag slung over his shoulder, the depiction of a teenaged Aliu hits home. Aliu was born in Nigeria to mixed-race parents and then lived in Ukraine before the family moved to Canada.

“It’s a simple cover, but tells a long, deep story of a lot of sorrow, a lot of sad days, a lot of tears, a lot of uncertainty and feeling different and, to be honest, feeling left out, feeling like you’re not part of the society as it stands,” said Aliu, now 32. “It’s powerful, and it really hits me. And I hope people take the time to digest it, and learn a little bit more about my story.”

Titled “Akim Aliu Dreamer: Growing Up Black in the World of Hockey,” the graphic novel is due out in February, and is being co-released by Scholastic and former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s publishing company. The release, announced Thursday, comes on the heels of Kaepernick’s own best-selling picture book, “I Color Myself Different,” which details a similar tale of an athlete transcending their sport by speaking out on inequality.

Aimed for an audience of 8- to 12-year-olds, Aliu shares his journey of dealing with the difficulties of assimilating in Ukraine and Canada. It details the hazing and systemic racism he experienced pursuing his dream of playing pro hockey before eventually finding his voice in forcing the sport of hockey to confront its bias toward people of color.

Aliu was a journeyman minor leaguer who appeared in seven NHL career games with the Calgary Flames over two seasons before he made two life-altering social media posts in November 2019.

In allegations proven to be true, Aliu revealed then-Flames coach Bill Peters 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.

Aliu has since co-founded a players-backed Hockey Diversity Alliance to raise awareness and make hockey more accessible to minorities and underprivileged youth.

Aliu said he never envisioned being the subject of a graphic novel, and doesn’t consider himself being some sort of superhero. He hopes that sharing his past helps ease the feelings of hopelessness others might be experiencing.

“For the longest time, I think hockey took so much out of me because I was trying to fit into this mold,” said Aliu, who last played pro hockey in the Czech Republic in the final weeks of the 2019-20 season. “I kind of came to peace where I was just happy in my own skin.”

The book is being co-written by Greg Anderson Elysee, a Haitian-American writer and film-maker, and illustrated by Karen De la Vega, who is making her publishing debut.

Aliu’s message of speaking out against injustice is also now tied to his roots, given the war in Ukraine, and watching in horror footage of his former neighborhood devastated by shelling. With a Nigerian father and Ukrainian mother, Aliu spent much of his first nine years living in Kyiv before the family moved to Canada.

He is now working on bringing the remainder of his mother’s family and others to Canada in a process that began with relocating his grandfather from Kyiv a month before Russia’s invasion. He said he has been in contact with Canada’s United Nations ambassador, Bob Rae, on speeding up the visa process for refugees, and is also donating $50,000 to Ukrainian-based charitable foundations.

Just as he was bullied during a hazing incident during his rookie season in the Ontario Hockey League, Aliu sees Russian President Vladimir Putin doing the same to Ukraine: “You just can’t grasp how a human being cannot care about humans so much based on power and greed and ego.”

Long gone are the days Aliu was so ashamed of riding public transit he’d keep it a secret from his teammates, or the person who was too fearful to speak out on racism in fear of jeopardizing his career. He believes he is stronger for the adversity he has faced.

Aliu’s nickname, “Dreamer,” has taken on a deeper meaning over time. People initially began calling him that because Aliu was Nigerian, just like former NBA star Hakeem “The Dream” Olajuwon.

Today, the nickname better describes the person he’s become.

“I feel like this is a conversation, especially in the game of hockey, that’s never really been had at this level,” Aliu said. “And I’d like to say that I had a part in that coming out with my story and not really backing down from the establishment on wanting to make change. And I’ll continue to dream.”

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    Capitals sign Dylan Strome to five-year, $25 million extension

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    FT. LAUDERDALE, Fla. – The Washington Capitals signed forward Dylan Strome to a five-year extension worth $25 million.

    The team announced the contract during NHL All-Star Weekend, which is taking place in South Florida – the place Strome was drafted third in 2015.

    Strome will count $5 million against the salary cap through the 2027-28 season. He was set to be a restricted free agent this summer.

    “Dylan is an intelligent and skilled center and has been a great addition to our organization,” general manager Brian MacLellan said. “We are pleased to sign him to a long-term contract. We feel his skill set is a great fit for our team as he enters the prime years of his career at an important position.”

    Strome is getting a raise from the $3.5 million deal he signed with the Capitals after the Chicago Blackhawks opted not to tender him a qualifying offer and made him a free agent. Strome has 11 goals and 25 assists in 36 games this season and ranks third on Washington’s roster with 14 power-play points.

    The Mississauga, Ontario, native who played his junior hockey alongside Connor McDavid with the Erie Otters has 206 points in 325 regular-season NHL games with the Arizona Coyotes, Blackhawks and Capitals.

    Golden Knights captain Mark Stone undergoes back surgery

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    LAS VEGAS — Vegas Golden Knights captain Mark Stone is out indefinitely after undergoing back surgery in Denver, the club announced.

    The Knights termed the procedure as successful and that Stone “is expected to make a full recovery.”

    This is the second time in less than a year that Stone has had back surgery. He also had a procedure May 19, 2022, and Stone said in December this was the best he had felt in some time.

    But he was injured Jan. 12 against the Florida Panthers, and his absence has had a noticeable effect on the Knights. They have gone 1-5-2 without Stone, dropping out of first place in the Pacific Division into third.

    Stone is second on the team in goals with 17 and in points with 38.

    Devils associate coach Andrew Brunette charged with DUI

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    DEERFIELD BEACH, Fla. — New Jersey Devils associate coach and former Florida Panthers head coach Andrew Brunette was arrested in South Florida while driving home from a bar in his golf cart, authorities said.

    Brunette, 49, was pulled over just blocks from the ocean in the Deerfield Beach area, north of Fort Lauderdale, according to a Broward Sheriff’s Office arrest report. He was charged with one count of driving under the influence and two counts of disobeying a stop or yield sign. Brunette was released on $500 bond.

    The Devils said in a statement that the team was aware of Brunette’s arrest and gathering additional information.

    According to the arrest report, a deputy was in the process of giving Brunette’s illegally parked golf cart a ticket around midnight when Brunette walked out of a nearby bar and told the deputy he was about to leave. The deputy said Brunette seemed unsteady on his feet and slurred his speech, and when he was joined by his wife, the deputy said he overheard the wife tell Brunette not to drive while the deputy was there.

    The deputy remained in the area and reported watching the couple drive away about 17 minutes later, according to the report. The deputy said he watched the golf cart run two stop signs before pulling Brunette over on a residential street about a mile away from his home. According to the report, Brunette had difficulty following instructions during a field sobriety test before eventually quitting and asking for an attorney. He also declined to take a breathe test to measure his blood-alcohol level, officials said.

    Online jail and court records didn’t list an attorney for Brunette.

    Brunette is in his first season as associate coach of the Devils. He was interim coach of the Florida Panthers last season after taking over when Joel Quenneville resigned for his connection to a 2010 Chicago Blackhawks sexual abuse scandal.

    The Panthers fired Brunette after they lost in the second round of the playoffs last spring despite him leading them to the Presidents’ Trophy as the league’s top team during the regular season.

    The Sudbury, Ontario, native played 1,159 NHL games for Washington, Nashville, Atlanta, Minnesota, Colorado and Chicago from 1995-2012. He was a Wild assistant in 2015-16 and worked on Florida’s staff from 2019-2022.

    Stars aligned with new coach DeBoer, Nill-constructed roster

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    DALLAS — General manager Jim Nill sensed things were coming together for the Dallas Stars even before the season started with new coach Pete DeBoer and a roster mixed with proven veterans, up-and-coming young players, and even a teenaged center.

    At the NHL’s All-Star break, after 51 games together, these Stars are leading the Western Conference.

    “Every year you start, you put a team together, and there’s always going to be question marks,” said Nill, in his 10th season as the Stars GM. “You have ideas how you think you’re going to come together, but there’s always the unknown. . This year has been one of those years where right from the start, you could just see everything was kind of jelling.”

    The Stars (28-13-10, 66 points) have their trio of 2017 draft picks that just keep getting better: All-Star winger Jason Robertson, goaltender Jake Oettinger and defenseman Miro Heiskanen. The seemingly ageless Joe Pavelski, at 38 and already re-signed for next season, is on the high-scoring top line with Robertson and point-a-game winger Roope Hintz. Wyatt Johnston, their first-round pick in 2021 and half Pavelski’s age, has 13 goals.

    There is also the resurgence of six-time All-Star forward Tyler Seguin two years after hip surgery and 33-year-old captain Jamie Benn, who already has more goals (19) than he did playing all 82 games last season.

    The Stars have a plus-40 goal differential, which is second-best in the NHL. They are averaging 3.37 goals per game, more than a half-goal better than last season when they were the only team to make the playoffs after being outscored in the regular season. They are also allowing fewer goals, and have improved on power plays and penalty kills.

    “Where we sit at this break, I think guys are happy with that,” Seguin said, before being asked the keys to the Stars leading the West and on pace for a 100-point season with their new coach.

    “Our style, our team speed, our puck speed, being predictable. All the clichés, knowing where the puck’s going. Really how we play the five-man unit,” he said. “Our pace this year, it’s been a lot quicker. There’s been some solid depth scoring this year while we’ve got one of the best lines in hockey.”

    The Stars went into the break on their only three-game losing streak of the season, all 3-2 overtime losses at home.

    “Those aren’t real losses,” said DeBoer, who twice has gone to the Stanley Cup Final in his first season with a new team. “I’m happy where we’re at. I like how we’re playing.”

    Plus, Dallas won’t have to worry in the playoffs about 3-on-3 hockey, which has been the only real stain on their season so far. Only one team has more than its 10 losses after regulation.

    “We’ve played a lot of good hockey. We’ve made a lot of good strides in our game,” DeBoer said. “We still have another level we have to get to when we get back, but there are a lot of good things that have happened. They’ve worked to have us where we are right now in the standings. Good spot to be in.”

    The Stars have 31 games left in the regular season. The first four after the break at home, like the last four before their week-long hiatus.

    Robertson’s 33 goals rank sixth in the NHL, and the 23-year-old has the same number of assists while averaging 1.29 points a game even after he missed most of training camp before signing a four-year, $31 million contract. Pavelski has 48 points (14 goals, 34 assists) while playing every game, and Hintz 46 points (20 goals, 26 assists) in only 43 games.

    Oettinger, who is 21-7 in regulation, has a .923 save percentage and 2.26 goals against average since signing his three-year, $12 million contract. That deal came after 223 saves in a seven-game playoff series against Calgary last May, capped by 64 in the series finale that went to overtime.

    Nill said Robertson’s production has improved even with the league adjusting to the high-scoring forward, and that Oettinger is proving to be one of the league’s best goalies. But they are just part of what has been a tremendous team effort.

    “They kind of had that mojo right from the start, and it was kind of this team’s got the right mix,” Nill said. “It’s come together well, and it’s shown in the standings. It’s been good to watch.”