More than 100 youth hockey teams took part in a tournament in Toronto this weekend, but one team made a very special debut.
Former Canadian NHL hockey player Akim Aliu helped set up a first of its kind BIPOC team (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) that played in the tournament at the Westwood Arena in Etobicoke.
“I didn’t expect such a thing to ever happen,” said Aliutold CBC Toronto last weekend. “I am quite speechless to be able to provide this for the children.”
The team was founded by Aliu’s Time to Dream Foundation, an organization created to help underprivileged youth “succeed in life through sport” by making sport more inclusive, diverse and accessible.
For the former professional athlete, the case hits close to home.
Aliu said he didn’t always have the financial means to play hockey and tournaments when he was growing up.
He has also sung on the racist abuse that he suffered during his hockey career. The 31-year-old journeyman played a total of seven NHL games with the Calgary Flames before bouncing around several other competitions.
In November 2019, Aliu posted a series of tweets describing the racist experiences he had during his time in professional hockey, including specific examples with now-former Flames coach Bill Peters.
By speaking out, he has leveraged his platform to ensure that the finances and opportunities are available to other children who may also face the same hurdles, especially those in the BIPOC community.
“It’s a team made up entirely of minorities, so I’m overwhelmed with emotions and super excited to give these kids the chance,” Aliu said.
He said the kids on the team come from a variety of communities, including black, tan, Asian, and native.
“We feel that as more kids from different demographics play hockey, the pool of talent will grow.”
Coaches were excited to participate
And while the team was a great opportunity for the kids, it was also a special moment for the other coaches.
Aaron Atwell, the team’s assistant coach, said he is thrilled to be involved.
“It’s amazing, I didn’t think I was going to be a part of something like that,” said Atwell. “Growing up I would see PKSubban or Akim, but never so many visible minorities, especially in one team. I didn’t think that was ever possible. The kids are great. They are brave to do this.”
‘It’s not about what you look like. It’s how you play. ‘
The players themselves have expressed their excitement and gratitude.
“What I like about hockey is its competitiveness,” said Enrico Champagne, one of the team’s players.
“I love hockey because I love to score goals and I can’t wait to go to the NHL and make my dream come true,” said Ryan Sirisombath, another player on the team.
“It’s not how you look, it’s how you play.”
Alius said he hopes the experiences the children who are part of the team have will extend to their lives outside of the sport.
“I hope I can give them the tools, and our team here, collectively, can give them the tools to be successful, not just in hockey, but in life in general.”
For more stories of Black Canadians’ experiences, from anti-black racism to black community success stories, check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.
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