BY JOHN WAWROW
VAUGHAN, ONTARIO (AP) — There was no breaking point or seminal moment that prompted Akim Aliu to post two tweets less than a minute apart that would rock the NHL in a matter of hours.
Aliu was scrolling through the timeline on his phone when he saw a report of how just-fired Toronto Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock had mistreated Mitch Marner, his prized rookie forward.
”It was a spur of the moment kind of thing,” Aliu explained during an interview this past week at a gym near Toronto. A few highway exits from his home, this is where the 30-year-old works out to stay in shape in case some team gives him one more shot at playing.
”I sent it out and didn’t even think anything of it, and just went into the steam room for 20 minutes,” he said. ”I did a couple of hot-cold rounds in the shower and when I came out it was crazy.”
The tweets went viral, and missed calls and text messages were piling up when Aliu returned.
”I was like, ‘Woah, like this is for real,”’ he said.
The posts sent Nov. 25 were thunder claps heard around hockey, alleging coach Bill Peters had directed racist slurs at him when the two were in the minors a decade ago and then tried to make sure he’d be demoted.
Racism is of course not unheard of in hockey, but Aliu was taking aim at a veteran coach. And it was an extraordinary public accusation in perhaps the most private of professional sports in North America, where the idea that dirty laundry is always best kept behind closed doors is sacrosanct.
Almost overnight, Aliu’s allegations proved true and prompted Peters’ resignation as coach of the Calgary Flames. Over the past month, other claims have cropped up and the NHL has swiftly moved to strengthen its personal conduct policies regarding racism and bullying; it put every team official – from president to equipment manager – on notice that any similar incident must immediately be reported to league headquarters.
Suddenly, Aliu was no longer just a long-forgotten defenseman who’s played for 21 teams in seven leagues and six countries over the past 10 years. He was an agent of change coming hard on the heels of two incidents that hover, still, over the first half of the NHL season.
Long-time Canadian broadcaster Don Cherry was let go last month after calling immigrants ”you people” during his Hockey Night in Canada segment. Then came Babcock’s firing and word he had embarrassed Marner by revealing a list he asked the player to write that ranked Leafs players by work ethic.
With hockey already buzzing, Aliu kicked things up a notch by accusing Peters, a Babcock protoge, of openly using the ‘N word’ in questioning Aliu’s choice of music in a locker room all those years ago. It was later revealed Peters had kicked and punched his own players during his four years as coach in Carolina.
Aliu’s allegations also led to Chicago Blackhawks assistant coach Marc Crawford being suspended for physically and verbally abusing his players at past stops as a head coach. Crawford will return Jan. 2 after an investigation found he sought counseling in 2010 and continues to undergo therapy.
Aliu’s timing turned out to be perfect in sparking a much-needed discussion about issues long suppressed amid lingering nostalgia for the sport’s rough and tumble, and sometimes hateful, past.
”My parents have always told me that things happen at the time they’re supposed to happen, not when you hope they would happen,” Aliu said. ”I kind of dealt with both of those things. So I kind of combined them. And I feel like I have a voice because of that.”
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman has used the uproar to call for change in a sport long made up of mostly white players and one always eager to diversify and grow. .
”The world is changing for the better,” Bettman said following a recent board of governors meeting in California. ”This is an opportunity and a moment for positive change, and this evolution should be expedited for the benefit of everyone associated with the game we love.”
But is it truly a reckoning in a sport that has fewer than three dozen black players and banned a handful of fans for racist taunts less than two years ago?
”It seems different,” said Anson Carter, a former player and broadcaster. ”It really does because it has the NHL’s attention.”
”Is it going to change overnight? No,” added Carter, who is black. ”Are we going to totally, completely eliminate it 100%? No. It exists in society. We would be ignorant to think that there wouldn’t be some instances that might pop up.”