Looking at the illustration of the boy looking into the distance standing by a bus on the cover of the graphic novel memoir that will tell his story, Akim Aliu immediately recalls the pain of being poor and black in Toronto to grow up
From the hours he’s spent alone riding public transit to and from arenas across the city to the strips of duct tape holding together the garage sale hockey gear bag he’s slung over his shoulder, the portrayal hits the mark of a youthful Aliu too. Aliu was born in Nigeria to multiracial parents and then lived in Ukraine before the family moved to Canada.
“It’s a simple cover, but it tells a long, deep story of a lot of heartache, a lot of sad days, a lot of tears, a lot of uncertainty and feeling different and, to be honest, feeling left out of yourself how you feel. They’re not part of society as it is,” said Aliu, now 32. “It’s powerful, and it really hits me. And I hope people will take the time to digest it and learn a little bit more about my story.”
The graphic novel, titled Akim Aliu Dreamer: Growing Up Black in the World of Hockey, is slated for release in February and is being co-published by Scholastic and former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s publisher. The release, announced Thursday, follows Kaepernick’s own best-selling picture book, I Color Myself Different, which details a similar story of an athlete transcending his sport by speaking out against inequality.
Aimed at an audience of 8 to 12 year olds, Aliu shares his journey with the difficulties of assimilation in Ukraine and Canada. It details the bullying and systemic racism he experienced while pursuing his dream of playing pro hockey, before finally finding his voice to force the sport of hockey to face his bias against people of color.
Aliu was a minor league journeyman, appearing in seven career NHL games in two seasons with the Calgary Flames before making two life-changing social media posts in November 2019.
In allegations that turned out to be true, Aliu revealed that then-Flames coach Bill Peters had bullied and used racial slurs on him when the two were minors a decade earlier. Peters resigned days later, and Aliu’s revelations led to the NHL instituting a personal conduct policy in an attempt to root out racism in a traditionally white-dominated sport.
Aliu has since co-founded a player-backed Hockey Diversity Alliance to raise awareness and make hockey more accessible to minorities and disadvantaged youth.
Aliu said he never imagined being the subject of a graphic novel and doesn’t consider himself some kind of superhero. He hopes sharing his past will help ease feelings of hopelessness others may be experiencing.
“I think ice hockey has been draining me so much for a long time because I’ve been trying to fit into that mold,” said Aliu, who last played professional ice hockey in the Czech Republic in the final weeks of the 2019-20 season. “I sort of calmed down where I was just happy in my own skin.”
The book is co-written by Greg Anderson Elysee, a Haitian-American writer and filmmaker, and illustrated by Karen De la Vega, who is making her publishing debut.
Aliu’s message of speaking out against injustice is now also tied to his roots, in the face of the war in Ukraine and seeing horror footage of his former neighborhood being ravaged by shells. With a Nigerian father and a Ukrainian mother, Aliu spent much of his first nine years in Kyiv before the family moved to Canada.
He is now working to bring the rest of his mother’s family and others to Canada in a process that began with his grandfather’s resettlement from Kyiv a month before the Russian invasion. He said he is in contact with Canadian Ambassador to the United Nations Bob Rae to expedite the visa process for refugees and is also donating $50,000 to charitable foundations in Ukraine.
Just as he was bullied in a hazing incident during his rookie season in the Ontario Hockey League, Aliu sees Russian President Vladimir Putin doing the same thing to Ukraine: “You just can’t understand how a person doesn’t care so much power and greed and ego.”
Gone are the days when Aliu was so ashamed to ride public transport that he kept it a secret from his teammates, or from whoever was too afraid to speak out about racism for fear of jeopardizing his career . He believes he is stronger for the adversity he has faced.
Aliu’s nickname “Dreamer” has acquired a deeper meaning over time. People initially called him that because Aliu was Nigerian, just like former NBA star Hakeem “The Dream” Olajuwon.
Today, the nickname better describes the person he has become.
“I feel like this is a conversation that’s never really been had at this level, especially in hockey,” Aliu said. “And I want to say that I helped get my story out there and not really wanting to retire from the establishment to want to change anything. And I will keep dreaming.”
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