Looking at an illustration of a boy with a distant gaze standing next to a bus on the cover of a graphic memoir novel that will tell his story, Akim Aliu immediately recalls the pain of growing up poor and black in Toronto.
From hours spent alone riding public transportation to and from arenas across the city, to strips of duct tape holding together a hockey bag purchased in the garage and slung over his shoulder, a picture of teenager Aliu arrives home. Aliu was born in Nigeria to a mixed race family 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 sadness, a lot of sad days, a lot of tears, a lot of insecurity and feelings for others and, frankly, feelings like you” I’m not part of society as it is. ” said Aliu, now 32. “It’s powerful, and it really amazes me. And I hope people take the time to digest it and learn a little more about my story.”
A graphic novel called “Akim Aliu Dreamer: Growing Black in the World of Hockey” is due out in February and is being co-published with Scholastic and former NFL defender Colin Copernicus. The release, announced on Thursday, comes after Copernicus ’own best-selling book,“ I Paint Myself Differently, ”which details a similar story about an athlete who excels in his sport by speaking out about inequality.
Designed for an audience of 8 to 12 years, Aliu shares his way of tackling the difficulties of assimilation in Ukraine and Canada. It details the hazing and systemic racism he felt while pursuing his dream of playing professional hockey before eventually finding his voice in forcing hockey to resist his bias against colored people.
Aliu was a minor league assistant who played in seven NHL games in his career with the Calgary Flames for two seasons before making two changes to social media in November 2019.
In a statement that proved true, Aliu revealed that then-Flames coach Bill Peters mocked and expressed racist insults at him when they were minors a decade earlier. Peters resigned a few days later, and Aliu’s revelations led the NHL to introduce a policy of personal behavior in an attempt to eradicate racism in what has traditionally been a white-dominated sport.
Since then, Aliu has co-founded the Hockey Diversity Alliance, which is supported by players to raise awareness and make hockey more accessible to minorities and low-income youth.
Aliu said he never intended to be the subject of a graphic novel and did not consider himself some kind of superhero. He hopes that sharing his past will help alleviate the sense of hopelessness that others may feel.
“For the longest time, I think hockey has taken away so much from me because I was trying to fit into that form,” said Aliu, who last played professional hockey in the Czech Republic in the final weeks of the 2019-2020 season. “I kind of came to a world where I was just happy in my own skin.”
The book is written by Greg Anderson Ellis, a Haitian writer and film director, and illustrated by Karen De la Vega, who is making her publishing debut.
Aliu’s message of speaking out against injustice is now also rooted in his roots, given the war in Ukraine, and with horror watching footage of his former area devastated by shelling. With his Nigerian father and Ukrainian mother, Aliu spent most of his first nine years in Kyiv before the family moved to Canada.
He is now working on moving the rest of his mother’s family and others to Canada in a process that began with his grandfather’s move from Kyiv a month before Russia’s invasion. He said he had contacted Canadian Ambassador to the United Nations Bob Ray about speeding up the process of obtaining refugee visas, and was donating $ 50,000 to a Ukrainian charity.
Just as he was mocked during the hacking incident during his inaugural season in the Ontario Hockey League, Aliu sees Russian President Vladimir Putin doing the same with Ukraine: “You just can’t understand how a person can’t care so much about people based on power, greed and ego ”.
Gone are the days when Aliu was so embarrassed to ride public transportation that he kept it a secret from his teammates or from a man who was too afraid to speak out about racism for fear of jeopardizing his career. He believes he is stronger in the face of the adversity he has faced.
Aliu’s nickname “Dreamer” eventually acquired a deeper meaning. At first, people started calling him that because Aliu was a Nigerian, like former NBA star Hakim “Dream” Olajuwon.
Today, the nickname best describes the man he became.
“I feel like it’s a conversation, especially in a hockey game like never before at this level,” Aliu said. “And I would like to say that I was involved in publishing my story, not retreating from the establishment, wanting to make changes. And I will continue to dream. “