Blackhawks grab Nigerian forward at NHL draft

Updated: June 23, 2007, 6:03 PM ET
Associated Press

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Getaway day at the NHL draft ended up being the highlight of Akim "The Dream" Aliu's young life.

Born in Nigeria, raised in Ukraine, moved to Canada when he was 11, and then shuttled to Sudbury, Ontario, to play juniors a year ago, Aliu was picked by the Chicago Blackhawks in the second round on the second day of the NHL draft on Saturday.

Long after history was made in Friday night's first round when Patrick Kane (Chicago) and James vanRiemsdyk (Philadelphia) became the first Americans to be picked 1-2, Aliu finally heard his name mentioned before a thinning crowd at Nationwide Arena.

Akim Aliu
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesAkim Aliu was the 56th selection overall in Saturday's Day 2 of the NHL draft.

"My dad didn't see a hockey rink until he was 40 years old," said Aliu, who wants to become the second Nigerian to play in the NHL. "My mom grew up in Russia, but hockey wasn't really part of her life, her culture. They're happy about what I'm doing right now. I'm happy for what I'm doing too."

Rounds two through seven of the 211-player draft rolled by, with most of the picks drawing little more than polite applause from family members. Teams didn't take the later rounds lightly, however.

"There's a perception and a reality," San Jose Sharks executive vice president and general manager Doug Wilson said. "You'll look back several years from now and say there are some really good hockey players [from this draft] who are playing in this league."

One of them might be Aliu. It took 18 years and thousands of miles for him to end up wearing a Blackhawks jersey and smiling before a phalanx of cameras.

"We came over here with a suitcase from Russia. It was a tough couple of years for us, not knowing anyone in the country, and having no friends," said Aliu, who was the 56th selection overall. "It was only us -- my mom, dad, me and my brother -- we didn't have any other family here."

He wanted to play soccer, but felt the pull of Canada's national sport. A year ago, the 6-foot-2, 200-pound forward had 16 goals and seven assists with the Sudbury Wolves of the Ontario Hockey League.

Aliu, who trains in the summers with Columbus Blue Jackets All-Star Rick Nash, said that back in his homeland nobody knows how far he has already come.

"They don't even know what hockey is over there," he said with a laugh.

San Jose was one of the busiest of the 30 NHL teams, trading up and down to grab players.

"We're pleased, I'll be honest with you," Wilson said. "There were certain players that we were aggressively going to move to get. You don't want to look at the scouts when we walk off the draft floor and say, 'Well, what if ... ?' If you really want somebody, you have to get them."

Several players climbed and fell from the pre-draft scouting reports. The No. 1 North American goaltender, Jeremy Smith, wasn't taken until the second round with the 54th overall pick by the Nashville Predators. The Predators traded netminder Tomas Vokoun on Friday, and Smith might prove to be an insurance policy after he gets some seasoning.

The first goalie taken was Joel Gistedt, who went in the second round to Phoenix. He played last year in Sweden and now hopes to follow in the skate blades of Swedish goaltenders Henrik Lundquist (New York Rangers), Mikael Tellquist (Toronto) and Johan Hedberg (Atlanta).

Several draftees have the NHL in their blood. On Friday, the sons of former players Dave Gagner (son Sam selected by Edmonton, 12th overall), Brent Sutter (Brandon, Carolina, 11th) and Bob MacMillan (Logan, Anaheim, 15th) were taken in the first round.

On Saturday, Brad Malone was picked by Colorado in the fourth round, 27 years after his father, Jim, was a first-round pick of the Rangers. Colby Cohen, a cousin of U.S. Olympic skier and University of Colorado football player Jeremy Bloom, went to Colorado in the second round. Maxime Tanguay, the younger brother of the Calgary Flames' Alex Tanguay, was taken by Chicago in the third round.

"There are a lot of things to prove to play in the NHL," the younger Tanguay said. "Alex knows exactly what it takes. I talk a lot with him and he gives me some advice. He gives me some tips. We train during the summer together. Alex is helping me in a lot of ways. Today's a wonderful day and you have to enjoy it, but tomorrow you have to go back to work -- and that's what I will do."

Blake Kessel went to the New York Islanders in the sixth round; his brother Phil was the fifth pick overall last season by the Boston Bruins. Dwight King was taken by Calgary in the fourth round; his brother D.J. played for the St. Louis Blues last season. And John Lee was picked by Florida in the fifth round; his brother Brian went in the first round two years ago to Ottawa.

Others didn't have such a legacy. Will Weber was a standout high school defenseman in Gaylord, Mich., last year who was taken in the second round by the host Blue Jackets. The NHL couldn't display his name on the giant draft board because no one thought he would be selected.

"It was a complete surprise," Weber said, shaking his head. "It's amazing."


Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press