February 08, 2016
Professional hockey players tend to be well travelled. Akim Aliu took that to a whole other level.
Akim was born in Nigeria. His father, Taiwo, was from Nigeria, but left shortly after his son's birth to study geology in Ukraine (which at the time was part of the Soviet Union). There he met his wife, Larissa. Akim learned to skate in Ukraine, and always considered himself to be more Ukrainian or Russian than Nigerian.
The family, including older brother Edward, moved to the Toronto in the late 1990s and Akim, who spoke virtually no English at the time, finally started playing organized hockey in 1999. By the time Aliu entered the Ontario Hockey League as a 16 year old in 2005, he was considered to be one of the top young prospects in all of Canada. What made that all the more amazing is he had only taken up the game six years earlier.
"I didn't grow up in this game," he said. "For me, everything was trial and error. But as I got older, I started to understand the discipline of the game."
The Windsor Spitfires took Aliu with their first round pick (6th overall) in 2005, and, seemingly, welcomed him to the team.
It was only months later that Aliu spoke out but disturbing hazing practices Spitfires players were enacting on rookies like Aliu, while coaches and other adults turned a blind eye. The story made national headlines in Canada and throughout the hockey world.
Aliu would be traded to Sudbury to remove him from the situation, though he worried the fallout of the situation would be held against him. He worked hard on improving on the ice.
Akim idolized Eric Lindros and, being a big man himself, patterned his own game after him. His size and skating ability allowed him to continue to be an intriguing NHL prospect, as evidenced by Chicago's drafting him 56th overall in 2007.
Aliu would go on to a vagabond career throughout the minor leagues and eventually Europe. The instability may have harmed his development into a NHL player, as he played for an amazing nine teams and nine coaches in his first four years of pro hockey in North America.
"I didn't know how to deal with coaches," he said. "I wasn't good at taking criticism. I thought I was doing everything right and everyone else was wrong."
That included seven games with the Calgary Flames, split between two seasons. In his second career game he scored twice against Anaheim - his only goals of his NHL career.
But his good NHL showing was derailed by the need for wrist and ankle surgery in the following months. He would never get another shot at the NHL.
Refusing to give up on the dream, Akim Aliu continued his vagabond ways through the minors and Europe.