Akim Aliu

Why 34-year-old Akim Aliu is attempting NHL comeback with Sharks

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Why is Akim Aliu making a comeback?

The Sharks organization surprised the hockey world last Wednesday with the news that they were signing Aliu to a tryout with the AHL’s San Jose Barracuda.

The 34-year-old Aliu, who has had seven surgeries on his left knee since 2021, last played professionally in 2020.

And, it’s not as if Nigerian-born, Ukrainian-raised Aliu’s hockey career before that was storybook.

“The game has obviously taken a lot away from me through some of my experiences that are well documented,” Aliu said on Friday, after Barracuda practice.

There’s no timeline yet as to when Aliu will play.

In 2005, the 16-year-old refused to participate in a Windsor Spitfires hazing ritual. Teammate Steve Downie responded by cross-checking Aliu in practice, knocking out seven of his teeth.

From 2008 to 2010, the 2007 Chicago Blackhawks’ second-round draft pick was subjected to racial epithets from his Rockford IceHogs head coach Bill Peters.

In 2011, Colorado Eagles equipment manager Tony Deynzer greeted Aliu at a team Halloween party in blackface.

“I think all the incidents I've been through since I was 16,” Aliu said, “I was the only person of color in every single room I was in. I just didn't feel like I had any voice to speak up just because of how much control the establishment has over you, over your career.

“You just got to keep your mouth shut and keep your head down and do what you're told. So that was a really difficult place to live and walk into an arena everyday, walking on eggshells.”

But what the game has taken away, Aliu wants to give back.

“But my mindset changed a lot when I hit about 27, 28, where the thinking changed from me, me, me, and making it to the National Hockey League and helping my family – to what's going to happen to the next generation of BIPOC kids that look like me?" Aliu said. "Am I able to pave a smoother path for them than mine was?”

This is the same establishment National Hockey League that is currently not on the same page with Aliu’s Hockey Diversity Alliance. Aliu founded the organization, along with ex-Shark Evander Kane, in 2020, to combat racism in hockey. Other former Sharks, Joel Ward and Anthony Duclair, are active members of the group.

Aliu had previously appeared in seven NHL games, netting two goals and an assist, in parts of two seasons with the Calgary Flames from 2011 to 2013. He described his current relationship with the NHL as “love-hate.”

But it’s also the best hockey league in the world – the standard. So why come back?

“It's to set an example that really anything is possible," Aliu said. "You can be down and out. You can have people that put you in situations that are extremely difficult, but you just got to persevere and anything is possible and at any age. I'm hoping to create a societal change and a societal example.”

He's also trying to set an example for son Kash, born last June.

“I got an eight-month-old now too, obviously want him to see that Dad didn't give up, even at the age of 34,” Aliu said.

It was Aliu who reached out to general manager Mike Grier, and they met in Toronto in January when the Sharks were in town.

“He was really open to the idea and I'm forever thankful to him and the organization. I know this is an extremely difficult decision to make, obviously. I don't look at what I do as sensitive, but clearly, some people in the hockey establishment do,” Aliu said, alluding to the NHL-HDA’s strained relationship. “So him kind of taking a swing [on] me is truly appreciated, something I'll [never] forget.”

According to Aliu, two other NHL teams were interested, but he specifically wanted to play for the first black GM in NHL history.

“This is why representation is so important. I wanted to be around Mike,” Aliu said. “I think he understands some of the things that I had gone through. I really think that this is the place for me.”

Now Aliu is here in San Jose, but the battle isn’t over for him yet.

There’s, of course, the physical battle.

In 2020, Aliu suffered a knee-on-knee hit in his last pro stop in Czechia.

“Had a torn patellar tendon, it's right at the front of the knee,” Aliu said of his left knee injury. “A lot of people say they'd rather tear your ACL than your patella just because everything's at the front of the knee in a hockey stance. We're kind of at a 45-degree angle, always bent, and that activates the tendons.”

In Feb. 2021, after a summer of PRP injections, he began his odyssey of knee surgeries.

“Every time I kind of started feeling better, I had a bit of a setback, I lost all the muscle in my leg a bunch of times," Aliu said. "So obviously, there's been a lot of compensation issues with being so much stronger on one side than the other, and it's caused some hip and groin issues too. It just snowballed from there, got worse and worse, to the point that I couldn't walk up and down stairs. Couldn't sleep at night, it got really bad.”

London, England to Vail, Colorado to Toronto, Aliu has seen specialists all over the world.

“It's been a long road, but I'm here, so it's all good.”

So while his left knee is finally healthy enough, there’s still the psychological scars from four years of surgery after surgery.

“Every time I'm on the ice, I've never felt this before, I wait for something to go wrong. I wait for my groin to go. I wait for my hip to be an issue,” Aliu shared. “I've been injured in the past, but that's never been your mentality. I really am working to get over that hurdle. Because it limits you when you're always thinking about what can go bad.”

Aliu, however, knows the clock is running out on this season, and at 34, on his playing career.

“My mental battle is just as big as my physical battle,” Aliu said. “But at the end of the day, we also don't have that much time left.”

In the end, Aliu still loves the game that has robbed him of so much – but that he also owes so much to.

“It's my first love," Aliu said. "I didn't grow up with much and hockey has given me so much. It's just a deep love for the game that I've never lost. And obviously, a lot of times over the [last] four years, you think it's over.”

How easy would it have been for Aliu to hang them up and focus on the HDA and his Time to Dream Foundation?

“I've obviously been really proud of the work that myself and the HDA and all the other guys have been doing off the ice,” Aliu said. “But my true passion has always been to be on the ice.”

At the heart of it, Aliu is a 34-year-old just chasing his dream.

“I don't really have a lot of expectations and we'll see what happens,” Aliu said. “I can’t wait to get going.”

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