Akim Aliu

Akim Aliu, who spoke out about racism, signs with Czech team

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Akim Aliu, the player who helped prompt a new discussion about racism and coaching behavior in hockey, is heading back to the ice.

Aliu signed Tuesday in the Czech Extraliga for the remainder of the season. He joins HC Litvinov with 14 games left in the season, giving him a chance to display his game to any NHL teams interested in signing him.

The 30-year-old said he thought about this move for a long time before deciding to play overseas.

”It was a tough decision,” Aliu said in a text message to The Associated Press. ”We are doing good work here on shining light on the issues in the game. My hesitation was on not losing this momentum.”

The Czech league season runs until March, and HC Litvinov is in the playoff hunt.

A second-round pick of the Chicago Blackhawks in 2007, Aliu played in seven NHL games with the Calgary Flames. The right winger/defenseman has since bounced around to various leagues and spent last season with the ECHL’s Orlando Solar Bears.

The Nigeria-born Aliu, who was raised in Ukraine and Canada, said last fall that veteran coach Bill Peters directed racial slurs toward him while with the American Hockey League’s Rockford IceHogs. Aliu said Peters ”dropped the N bomb several times” because he didn’t like the player’s choice of music.

Peters resigned as Calgary coach after comments from Aliu and another player who said Peters kicked him and punched another player while with the Carolina Hurricanes. Aliu has since met with NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and other league officials about racism in hockey.

”My message on top of the racial (slurs) and abuse of coaches to players is not giving up,” Aliu said. ”And I want to be an example that no matter what happens, you continue to strive for your dreams.”

‘This is for real:’ Journeyman Aliu sparks hockey reckoning

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VAUGHAN, Ontario — There was no breaking point or seminal moment that prompted Akim Aliu to post two tweets less than a minute apart that would rock the NHL in a matter of hours.

Aliu was scrolling through the timeline on his phone when he saw a report of how just-fired Toronto Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock had mistreated Mitch Marner, his prized rookie forward.

”It was a spur of the moment kind of thing,” Aliu explained during an interview this past week at a gym near Toronto. A few highway exits from his home, this is where the 30-year-old works out to stay in shape in case some team gives him one more shot at playing.

”I sent it out and didn’t even think anything of it, and just went into the steam room for 20 minutes,” he said. ”I did a couple of hot-cold rounds in the shower and when I came out it was crazy.”

The tweets went viral, and missed calls and text messages were piling up when Aliu returned.

”I was like, ‘Woah, like this is for real,”’ he said.

The posts sent Nov. 25 were thunder claps heard around hockey, alleging coach Bill Peters had directed racist slurs at him when the two were in the minors a decade ago and then tried to make sure he’d be demoted.

Racism is of course not unheard of in hockey, but Aliu was taking aim at a veteran coach. And it was an extraordinary public accusation in perhaps the most private of professional sports in North America, where the idea that dirty laundry is always best kept behind closed doors is sacrosanct.

Almost overnight, Aliu’s allegations proved true and prompted Peters’ resignation as coach of the Calgary Flames. Over the past month, other claims have cropped up and the NHL has swiftly moved to strengthen its personal conduct policies regarding racism and bullying; it put every team official – from president to equipment manager – on notice that any similar incident must immediately be reported to league headquarters.

Suddenly, Aliu was no longer just a long-forgotten defenseman who’s played for 21 teams in seven leagues and six countries over the past 10 years. He was an agent of change coming hard on the heels of two incidents that hover, still, over the first half of the NHL season.

Long-time Canadian broadcaster Don Cherry was let go last month after calling immigrants ”you people” during his Hockey Night in Canada segment. Then came Babcock’s firing and word he had embarrassed Marner by revealing a list he asked the player to write that ranked Leafs players by work ethic.

With hockey already buzzing, Aliu kicked things up a notch by accusing Peters, a Babcock protoge, of openly using the ‘N word’ in questioning Aliu’s choice of music in a locker room all those years ago. It was later revealed Peters had kicked and punched his own players during his four years as coach in Carolina.

Aliu’s allegations also led to Chicago Blackhawks assistant coach Marc Crawford being suspended for physically and verbally abusing his players at past stops as a head coach. Crawford will return Jan. 2 after an investigation found he sought counseling in 2010 and continues to undergo therapy.

Aliu’s timing turned out to be perfect in sparking a much-needed discussion about issues long suppressed amid lingering nostalgia for the sport’s rough and tumble, and sometimes hateful, past.

”My parents have always told me that things happen at the time they’re supposed to happen, not when you hope they would happen,” Aliu said. ”I kind of dealt with both of those things. So I kind of combined them. And I feel like I have a voice because of that.”

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman has used the uproar to call for change in a sport long made up of mostly white players and one always eager to diversify and grow. .

”The world is changing for the better,” Bettman said following a recent board of governors meeting in California. ”This is an opportunity and a moment for positive change, and this evolution should be expedited for the benefit of everyone associated with the game we love.”

But is it truly a reckoning in a sport that has fewer than three dozen black players and banned a handful of fans for racist taunts less than two years ago?

”It seems different,” said Anson Carter, a former player and broadcaster. ”It really does because it has the NHL’s attention.”

”Is it going to change overnight? No,” added Carter, who is black. ”Are we going to totally, completely eliminate it 100%? No. It exists in society. We would be ignorant to think that there wouldn’t be some instances that might pop up.”

The discussion has prompted varying degrees of reflection among coaches.

”I don’t think I’m going to sit here and worry about every little word I say and things like that,” St. Louis Blue coach Craig Berube said. ”I treat my players with respect. That’s how I view it, just like they treat me.”

Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy said he’s on board.

”We’re tough at times, but we’re fair. We want to hold them accountable, but not in the manner of what guys have gotten let go for,” Cassidy said. ”I think coaches have to be a little more respectful with the stories coming out. Hopefully, that’s what happens.”

It took until now for Aliu to find the courage to speak out about racism. Born in Nigeria, raised in Ukraine and a Canadian resident since he was 7, he had learned to stay quiet amid the slurs, slights and demotions for fear of being branded a dissenter – as he believes he was in 2005.

That was during Aliu’s rookie season with the Ontario Hockey League’s Windsor Spitfires and he spoke out after a hazing incident in which he and three other rookies were stripped naked and jammed in a team bus bathroom following a preseason game.

Aliu’s complaints led to the team being fined $35,000, coach and GM Moe Mantha being suspended and a teammate he had brawled with, Steve Downie, eventually being traded, along with Aliu.

Aliu felt he was the one who was punished the most for speaking out. His Team Canada invites dried up and a player with first-round hopes fell to the second round of the 2007 draft, where he was picked by Chicago.

”I defended myself for it and I was the villain,” Aliu said. ”And the guy that was the head of it, Steve Downie, goes on to play in the world juniors, Team Canada, plays in the NHL.”

If it sounds like sour grapes, Aliu noted, he compiled 167 points in 205 career OHL games as a defenseman. And he continued to produce at the minor-league level only to constantly be demoted.

Aliu acknowledged he rebelled against Peters, but he believes the N-word incident led to one of those demotions and further tarnished his reputation.

Aliu thought he had finally caught a break when the Blackhawks traded him to Atlanta during the 2010-11 season. He said then-GM Rick Dudley had promised to give him an NHL shot, but those plans changed when the team was sold and relocated to Winnipeg and Kevin Cheveldayoff was named Jets general manager.

Aliu noted Cheveldayoff was a former Blackhawks assistant GM and oversaw the Rockford team when the Peters’ confrontation occurred. Aliu said he hoped to clear the air with Cheveldayoff as the Jets opened their first training camp.

”We go in his office and talk, and I go: ‘Chevy, whatever happened in Chicago happened. What can I do to prove to you that I can help your organization,”’ Aliu said. ”And he said, ‘Nothing. We don’t have any plans for you whatsoever.”’

Aliu was eventually demoted to ECHL Colorado, where a minor league equipment manager wore blackface at a Halloween party in 2011. Aliu demanded a trade, though he has since accepted the manager’s apology and requested he not be fired.

Aliu said he never told Cheveldayoff the blackface incident was the reason he wanted a trade. In a statement, the Jets said: ”We were disturbed to learn about the reprehensible situations Mr. Aliu described with the Rockford IceHogs and Colorado Eagles.”

The Jets added: ”We had no previous knowledge of these incidents prior to their public disclosure and, as such, they had no effect on any player personnel decisions involving Mr. Aliu.”

Aliu hasn’t given up on playing, even though he’s been out of hockey since scoring four goals and adding seven assists in 14 games for ECHL Orlando last season.

”I don’t think I’ve ever felt any better,” Aliu said. ”Every day I go to bed thinking, ‘Hey, I might get an opportunity here, you never know.’ Are those chances likely? I mean, I don’t know.”

His NHL career was limited to scoring two goals and an assist in seven games with the Flames, the last in the 2012-13 season. Aliu isn’t sure what happened to his dream of playing with the best players in the world.

”I’d maybe call it a nightmare in a lot of cases. There were a lot of sleepless nights. A lot of soul-searching,” he said.

”If I knew this was going to happen, I probably would have hung them up a long time ago,” Aliu said. ”But at the end of the day, I think you’re put in situations that you’re uncomfortable with. I think God only gives fights to the people that can handle the fight.

”If I can be a help to the next generation, I think it would all be worth it, to be honest.”

Marc Crawford will return to Blackhawks’ bench after suspension

Marc Crawford Suspension
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Assistant coach Marc Crawford has been away from the Chicago Blackhawks since Dec. 2 as the team investigated incidents of player abuse during his previous NHL coaching stops.

The team announced on Monday evening that Crawford will remain suspended through Jan. 2 following the investigation, and will then return to the team’s bench.

Crawford and the team both released statements. Those statements address the incidents, the investigation, the suspension, and the steps Crawford has taken.

The Blackhawks said they do not condone his previous behavior, and during their review confirmed that Crawford proactively sought counseling in an effort to improve.

He began the counseling in 2010 and has continued to go through on a regular basis.

Crawford’s statement

Crawford issued a few more in-depth statement. Here is an excerpt.

Recently, allegations have resurfaced about my conduct earlier in my coaching career. Players like Sean Avery, Harold Druken, Patrick O’Sullivan and Brent Sopel have had the strength to publicly come forward and I am deeply sorry for hurting them. I offer my sincere apologies for my past behavior.

I got into coaching to help people, and to think that my actions in any way caused harm to even one player fills me with tremendous regret and disappointment in myself. I used unacceptable language and conduct toward players in hopes of motivating them, and, sometimes went too far. As I deeply regret this behavior, I have worked hard over the last decade to improve both myself and my coaching style.

I have made sincere efforts to address my inappropriate conduct with the individuals involved as well as the team at large. I have regularly engaged in counseling over the last decade where I have faced how traumatic my behavior was towards others. I learned new ways of expressing and managing my emotions. I take full responsibility for my actions.

You can read the full statements via the Blackhawks’ website.

The incidents

Just before Crawford stepped away from the Blackhawks, former NHL player Sean Avery told the New York Post that Crawford had kicked him back in 2006 when they were with the Los Angeles Kings. Several other players that played under Crawford also came forward with stories, including Harold Druken, Patrick O’Sullivan, and Brent Sopel.

Druken called Crawford “hands down the worst human being I’ve ever met” for his verbal and physical abuse that included derogatory comments about Druken’s background.

O’Sullivan had also shared similar stories about Crawford’s coaching tactics.

Other incidents around the league

• The stories regarding Crawford started to resurface following Bill Peters’ exit from the Calgary Flames.

Peters resigned from the Flames after it was revealed he used a racial slur against former player Akim Aliu when he was head coach of the AHL’s Rockford IceHogs. That was followed by defenseman Michal Jordan detailing how Peters had punched and kicked players on the Hurricanes’ bench, a claim that was backed up by then-assistant coach Rod Brind’Amour.

•  Shortly after Mike Babcock was fired by the Toronto Maple Leafs, a story surfaced detailing how he made then-rookie Mitch Marner rank his teammates from hardest working to least hardest working, and then informed the players at the bottom of the list of Marner’s ranking.

• Former Red Wings forward Johan Franzen also shared his own personal experiences with Babcock, calling him the worst person he had ever met.

More: Crawford on leave from Blackhawks

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

PHT Morning Skate: Bruins’ stars workload; Shero’s hot seat

Welcome to the PHT Morning Skate, a collection of links from around the hockey world. Have a link you want to submit? Email us at phtblog@nbcsports.com.

• “Akim Aliu’s story of enduring racism inside hockey includes an incident in which a minor-league team staffer dressed up as him in blackface.” [Wall Street Journal]

• “It feels like this examination and accounting of hockey’s ugly underbelly is in its infancy, as if a light has shined on the game’s conscience for the first time in decades, with the holder of the flashlight realizing just how much cleansing there is to do.” [TSN]

• The Bruins stars are carrying a heavy offensive load. [RotoWorld]

• What players need to avoid the regression monster and which ones are ready to bounce back? [ESPN]

• The name, colors and logo of Seattle’s NHL expansion team could be revealed in February or March. [NHL.com]

• How hot is Ray Shero’s seat now becoming in New Jersey? [All About the Jersey]

• Well-travelled Eric Comrie looking to make mark with Red Wings. [Sun Media]

• Speaking of hot seats, how much longer does Jeff Blashill have in Detroit? [Freep]

• Ranking the all-time jersey designs of the Vancouver Canucks. [Hockey by Design]

• Could the Canadians be potential trade partners with the Blackhawks? [NBC Sports Chicago]

• A look at the best player at every age in the NHL. [Yardbarker]

• Finally, here’s Brett Ritchie with the quote of the season:

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Bettman explains how NHL will handle abuse, other actions that ‘cross the line’

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The NHL’s Board of Governors meetings are taking place this week, so this served as an opportunity for the league to address issues of abuse, including Bill Peters’ racists remarks made toward Akim Aliu, which factored in the Calgary Flames parting ways with Peters.

” … The world is changing for the better,” Gary Bettman’s statement read. ” … Our message is unequivocal: We will not tolerate abusive behavior of any kind.”

You can read the entire (lengthy) statement at the bottom of this post, but here are some of the key points.

  • Bettman claims that the Peters situation took the NHL by “complete surprise.”

“There will be zero tolerance for any failure to notify us and in the event of such failure, the club and individuals involved can expect severe discipline,” Bettman said in the statement.

  • Bettman laid out the early details on “a mandatory annual program on counseling, consciousness-raising, education and training on diversity and inclusion” that would involve all head coaches and minor league coaches under contracts with NHL teams, along with other front office members (GMs, assistant GMs, and assistant coaches). Bettman said that the program will be created by “outside professionals” and that the NHLPA and the coaches’ association would likely have input.
  • Bettman explained that the league hopes to create a platform (“perhaps a hotline”) for “a teammate, trainer, or even the player himself” to report incidents, “either anonymously or for attribution.”

When asked, Bettman clarified that there would be anonymity for “whistleblowers.”

Bettman also told reporters that investigations regarding Marc Crawford continue to be ongoing.

Considering that the “outside professionals” involved in a hotline weren’t named, and other details were outlined broadly, it sounds like quite a bit of these initiatives could be considered a work in progress.

Here’s the full statement from Bettman:

As one of the preeminent professional sports leagues in the world and the preeminent hockey league in the world, we recognize and embrace our role in setting an example.

We are now obviously aware of conduct that was and is unacceptable. Whether it happened 10 years ago or last week, the answer must be the same – it is unacceptable.

While we may not have known, the fact is that we as a League – on behalf of ourselves, our teams, and our players, coaches, organizations and fans – must respond in a clear, meaningful and appropriate manner. Professionalism and respect have always been important to the League, but it is now a particularly important time to discuss it because everyone is entitled to a respectful workplace.

The world is changing for the better. This is an opportunity, and a moment, for positive change and this evolution should be expedited – for the benefit of everyone associated with the game we love. And even while change is taking effect, we still must acknowledge things that were wrong in the past. That acknowledgment allows those who were wronged to be heard, and it gives all of us an opportunity to prevent these things from happening again.

Inclusion and diversity are not simply buzzwords, they are foundational principles for the NHL. It’s why we initiated the Declaration of Principles and why we invest so much time and effort, along with so many resources into our Learn to Play and Hockey is For Everyone programs. Our message is unequivocal: We will not tolerate abusive behavior of any kind.

So, let me now address how we move forward.

I’d like to convey to you exactly what was said to the Board of Governors during our meeting.

1. We don’t like surprises – the Bill Peters situation was a complete surprise.

Going forward, our clubs are on notice that if they become aware of an incident of conduct involving NHL personnel on or off the ice that is clearly inappropriate, unlawful or demonstrably abusive, or that may violate the League’s policies, involving NHL Club personnel, on or off the ice, we at the League office – Bill Daly or me – must be immediately advised. There will be zero tolerance for any failure to notify us and in the event of such failure, the club and individuals involved can expect severe discipline.

As it relates to incidents involving Bill Peters in Carolina – there seems to be some confusion between statements by Peter Karmanos and Ron Francis, which I still need to sort out. However, I am fairly clear that none of this has anything to do with Carolina under Tom Dundon, who was among the first to call me when Peters’ conduct came to light and he first learned about the Peters physical abuse allegations in Carolina.

2. While I do not believe most NHL coaches conduct themselves in an inappropriate manner – in fact, I believe most NHL coaches are professional and respectful in the way they coach and the profession is not deserving of blanket condemnation because of the conduct of some individuals – however in order to expedite a change in culture and make clear the expectations we have for the conduct of coaches and other personnel, we will formulate a mandatory annual program on counseling, consciousness-raising, education and training on diversity and inclusion.

This program will be required for all Head Coaches, Minor League Coaches under contract with NHL teams, Assistant Coaches, General Managers and Assistant General Managers. We will focus the programming on training and other exercises and initiatives to ensure respectful locker rooms, training facilities, games, and all other hockey-related activities; and teach to ensure bystander intervention techniques, anti-harassment, anti-hazing, non-retaliation and anti-bullying best practices.

The exact structure of the program will be created by outside professionals in the field and we will consult with the Players’ Association and the Coaches’ Association in the program’s creation. We will also discuss with the Players’ Association the extent to which this program or another customized program should be presented to the players. Also, under the direction of NHL Executive Vice President Kim Davis, we will form a multidisciplinary council to suggest initiatives, monitor progress and coordinate efforts with all levels of hockey. The council will also make resources available to help any organization that might reach out for assistance.

3. Inappropriate conduct engaged in by club personnel will be disciplined, either by the team, the League or both. While discipline as always must be on a case-by-case basis – it is my intention that it must be severe and appropriate and designed to remedy the situation and ensure that the conduct does not occur again.

4. In that light, the passage of time is not the most effective way to address these situations. Accordingly, we will create a platform – perhaps a hotline – where instances of inappropriate conduct connected to the NHL can be reported either anonymously or for attribution for us to follow up. It can be any team personnel such as a teammate, trainer, or even the player himself. In this regard, we understand the critical importance of ensuring that no one is retaliated against for raising a concern or participating in an investigation – again either anonymously or for attribution – and I guarantee we will take all reports seriously and follow up. My expectation is that this hotline can function like our SABH hotline, which has been credible and effective.

A couple of closing points:

Not everyone will approve of every coach’s methods. However, there are lines that cannot be crossed – clearly physical abuse and racial and homophobic language cross the line. And while we acknowledge that there may be other actions that could cross the line or fall in a gray area, we hope the program we create, and its attendant consciousness-raising will help better define what is and what is not acceptable conduct and will make for a better playing and coaching environment. Over time, we have been able to change the culture of our game as it relates to substance abuse and player safety. And while we have taken many important steps forward on diversity and inclusiveness, as well as respect and professionalism in hockey, we intend to do more and faster.

Calgary’s response initially to Akim Aliu’s allegations and then the Carolina issue, was timely, professional and appropriate. While none of Bill Peters’ inappropriate conduct occurred on the Flames’ watch, they undertook the important effort to try to understand what happened 10 years ago and thereafter. Once Calgary could satisfy itself as to what transpired, they achieved an appropriate result and I commend the Calgary organization and in particular, Brad Treliving, for their efforts and cooperation. I think it is pretty fair to say that from now on when a Club is hiring a coach, the due diligence a team conducts will go to levels never seen before. And, that is a good thing.

Finally, Bill Daly and I had a constructive meeting last week with Akim Aliu and his lawyers. We heard what they had to say, have initiated our own review and will ultimately determine how we believe most appropriate to proceed.