Akim Aliu and his fellow members of the Hockey Diversity Alliance say they feel betrayed and confused by the NHL’s decision to launch — or as far as the HDA is concerned, re-launch — an inclusion committee to diversify the sport and make hockey more welcoming.
Whatever happened, Aliu wondered, to the league announcing a partnership with the HDA to address the same issues three years ago? And why, the HDA asked in a scathing statement Wednesday, is the NHL essentially duplicating what it has been doing by funneling millions into programs at the grassroots level and introducing hockey to at-risk youths in underserved communities of color?
“As the NHL has done so many times, they’re late to the party, and they still want to show that they want to be involved in the dance,” Aliu, a veteran who played in a handful of NHL games, told The Associated Press. “This is their way of showing that this is their bigger and better thing. But I think everyone that’s on the inside of hockey knows what’s really going on and really knows that this is just another façade.”
Aliu’s comments mirror the statement he, seven current and former NHL players and the HDA’s support staff and sponsors signed off on after holding lengthy discussions since the league unveiled its inclusion committee last week. The HDA’s membership includes Matt Dumba, Anthony Duclair and Wayne Simmonds.
“It’s a disappointment, but not a surprise that the NHL announced the formation of a ‘players inclusion coalition,'” the HDA’s statement reads. “… Laudable on its face, laughable in full context of the work we have been doing for three years without the league’s support. The NHL’s players coalition’s mission statement does not echo the HDA’s goals so much as cynically attempt to appropriate them.”
Hockey Diversity Alliance releases statement in response to the NHL/NHLPA Announcement of the Player Inclusion Coalition. pic.twitter.com/pzhUXdMkXr
— Hockey Diversity Alliance (@TheOfficialHDA) July 5, 2023
The NHL and NHL Players Association announced the formation of a 20-player committee of current and former players and earmarked $1 million to support grassroots organizations, player-perspective storytelling and other special projects. Chaired by former NHL players Anson Carter and P.K. Subban, the NHL notes the coalition being formed in 2020, without mentioning the HDA, which was specifically referenced in a similar announcement made in September of that year.
The league and the players’ union did not immediately respond to a message seeking comment on the HDA’s statement.
In accusing the NHL of having little to show for what its council has done since 2020, the HDA pointed to the inroads it has made by partnering with corporate sponsors to establish ball hockey and ice hockey programs in the Toronto area last year.
“Fundamentally, I think we have a very, very strong structure and a foundation in place,” HDA founder and Calgary Flames center Nazem Kadri told the AP. “We did that without the league. I don’t think they necessarily would’ve expected us to get to this trajectory by ourselves, but when you have a group of guys that are really passionate and really care about the cause, not necessarily just the media attention it’s going to get, you can get to the next level and we can really impact the minority communities.”
Aliu anticipated those programs — in which equipment, coaching, transportation and meals are provided free of charge — will soon expand across Canada and eventually into the U.S.
“Next year, we’re going to be supporting over a thousand kids playing between ice hockey and ball hockey. We’re a multimillion operation, and we don’t benefit one cent from any of the work we do,” Aliu said.
Aliu, the HDA’s chairman, was born in Nigeria and spent part of his childhood in Ukraine before eventually relocating to Toronto with his family. He is a former journeyman minor league player who appeared in seven NHL games and in November 2019 revealed that then-Flames coach Bill Peters bullied and directed racist slurs at him when the two were in the minors a decade earlier. Peters resigned days later, and Aliu’s revelations led to the NHL instituting a personal conduct policy in a bid to eradicate racism in what has traditionally been a white-dominated sport.
Aliu said he believes the rift between the HDA and NHL stems from alliance members being unafraid to speak out and challenge the league to action. Kadri expressed disappointment in the NHL and HDA not being able to work together but added he and his fellow current and former players remain committed to advancing their cause.
“We thought that would’ve been a great partnership and we would’ve helped each other and taken this to the next level with something that we really cared about,” Kadri said. “It would’ve been nice to kind of have their support. At the end of the day, we didn’t need it.”
The statement took aim at the NHL choosing autonomy over partnering with the HDA: “Metaphorically, owners first instinct is to own rather than be part of a team.”
Aliu said the HDA’s criticism is directed at the league and not toward inclusion coalition members.
“I truly hope they do good work this time around, but I am tired of hearing empty announcements and photo ops to check a box instead of actually doing the hard work,” Aliu said. “My only message is don’t allow yourselves to be used by the league because that’s really what’s going to stall our movement.”