Akim Aliu: GTHL rejected proposal for new club with assured spots for BIPOC players
"Having a commitment for AAA teams is so important because it would prove to kids of colour they can aspire to get to the very top."
Former NHL player Akim Aliu says the Greater Toronto Hockey League and its directors blocked his bid to establish a grassroots organization that would have programming from house league to the AAA level, according to a report by TSN’s Rick Westhead.
Aliu’s proposed club, the Toronto Dream, would have mandates for people of colour and women in managerial positions, with assured roster spots for BIPOC players. Scotiabank, Heinz Canada had proposed significant investment into the club, while Aliu, the Hockey Diversity Alliance (HDA) and investment partner Jim Nikopoulous would run the operations.
I am not the first to take on this century old institution & the hockey establishment at large but I refuse to give up. The next generation & the integrity of our game depend on our perseverance. https://t.co/uEopfM9n7d
— Akim Aliu (@Dreamer_Aliu78) February 27, 2023
“Having a commitment for AAA teams is so important because it would prove to kids of colour they can aspire to get to the very top,” Aliu told Westhead. “I wanted to create a cradle-to-grave program where BIPOC kids in our house leagues can see our best kids on our AAA teams. We need for BIPOC kids to be able to see themselves as CEOs, as leaders, as team owners, as AAA hockey players. The GTHL wanted us to be satisfied with house league teams and the message that maybe, if it worked for the league, we would talk about AAA teams one day in the future.”
Aliu said he reached out to Scott Oakman, the GTHL’s executive director in April 2021 to discuss his vision, where Oakman said the decision would be made exclusively by the GTHL’s board. Aliu pitched Oakman and the Ontario Hockey Federation board in May 2021 over Zoom with a 27-page presentation. Aliu told those assembled that the Dream would have an operating budget of over $1 million, comparable to similar GTHL programs such as the North York Rangers.
During an October 2021 meeting, the Rangers were offered to Aliu and Nikopoulous for sale from Rangers executive Claude Desjardins with a price tag of $1 million. Desjardins would later write to Aliu that there would be no sale.
Don Mills Flyers president Peter MacInnis rejected Aliu’s contention with a bizarre statement of his own, via Westhead.
“The only way [the Dream is] gonna get players is you're gonna go to the Toronto Marlboros, you're gonna go to Don Mills Flyers, and any kid who’s playing there who’s Black, you know what the deal is,” MacInnis said. “I've got four Black guys on my bench coaching two different teams. I'm going to have three teams fully coached next year by Black coaches and I've got numerous Black kids and Asian kids in our programs, and so does everybody else. I'm really not too sure where they're trying to go with this… If you're talking inclusion, if we want to have inclusion with Black kids and Indigenous kids and Oriental kids and white kids all playing together, what the hell are we doing with a team all full of Black players? That's ridiculous. That’s not inclusion.”
Yahoo Sports Canada reached out to MacInnis for clarity on his initial statement.
"We don't have any issue with the Dream program at all, zero. We support the program entirely. We wanted to start at the house league level and we wanted to work with the house leagues that exist in the city now and start to bring kids in through those programs," MacInnis said. "And he and his program would support that, so 100 percent we're behind that, no question about it."
After months of impasse, the GTHL board told Aliu in September 2022 that the only way forward for the Toronto Dream to move forward would be without AAA teams, a notion that Aliu found untenable.
“Trust was lost,” Aliu said. “The GTHL’s biggest hope was they would frustrate us to the point where we would walk away from this and stay silent. But that’s not me.”
Aliu is a graduate of the GTHL, playing for the Toronto Marlboros alongside John Tavares, Sam Gagner and Brendan Smith. He then went onto an OHL career, where he was racially and physically abused by teammate Steve Downie after refusing to be hazed. Aliu is the founder of the Hockey Diversity Alliance and has been one of the most prominent anti-racism advocates in hockey after sharing how he was racially abused by former Chicago Blackhawks head coach Bill Peters.
Aliu currently runs the Hockey Diversity Alliance’s Grassroots Original Hockey League, which provides equipment and ice time free of charge to BIPOC kids.
The GTHL stated that their main point of contention was running a program during a time of declining enrollment due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“As we discussed on our call yesterday, it is likely that GTHL member clubs who have become aware of the Dream’s application and are questioning or opposing it, do not know the scope and potential benefits of the Dream’s proposed program to the GTHL as a whole and to kids who might not otherwise participate in hockey,” GTHL officials wrote in an email obtained by Westhead.
“As upset as I am, I’m not really surprised,” Aliu said. “I think that after the GTHL found out how opposed the AAA teams were to this idea, it was never going to happen. But the GTHL didn’t want to say that... In the back of my mind, I tried to find optimism. Doing this would be such a good look for them, and I couldn’t believe they would be so foolish.”