The Mag: What are they saying about me?
When Nigerian-Russian Akim Aliu moved to Toronto with hid family six years ago, he'd never seen a hockey game. Now the Blackhawks draftee is on the verge of skating to the NHL.
Akim Aliu is trying to figure out what those guys are saying about him. He doesn't know their names, and he can't make out exactly what it is they're muttering about, but he can tell it's not good.
Aliu, in a navy, pin-striped suit, is killing time in the basement of Toronto's Park Plaza hotel, waiting for his next interview with an NHL team at the combine. He's watching other prospects go through their physical testing, the tests he went through this morning. He sees scouts milling around, glancing at him, then turning and talking in low voices.
Most draft prospects won't admit to noticing scouts; it's part of the prospects code. Aliu doesn't know the code. Doesn't care, really. He says he looked for scouts at games all season long. Says he read everything that was written about the draft. He has NHL Central Scouting's rankings committed to memory -- he can tell you that he's No. 41, down three slots from his midseason ranking. Give him a name in the top 50, and he can tell you where that player ranked back in January and where he is going into the draft.
"What are they saying about me?" he asks.
It's a good question. In the most unpredictable NHL draft in years, in a pool of talent that has scouts wildly disagreeing about the top prospects, Aliu is the wildest of wild cards. While Central Scouting has him 41st overall, the Red Line Report, compiled by former Preds scout Kyle Woodlief, has him 91st.
Not that there's any confusion about the kind of player Aliu will be. "I want to be a power forward like Todd Bertuzzi or Rick Nash," Aliu says, and that's a fair estimation of what this 18-year-old brings to the arena at 6'3" and a solid 209 pounds.
No, the problem isn't what he is; it's who he is. The scouts who've played the game never played with anyone like him. The same goes for the scouts who've coached. It's not about race or class or that his Nigerian-Russian lineage is so exotic. It's his emotional makeup. GMs, coaches and players want guys who fit in, and Aliu seems like the ultimate outsider. Not a loner, not a kid better in his own company; a loner might be brought in eventually. Aliu seems more like a kid others won't let in, a man-child from another culture, maybe even another planet. Throw in that he's played hockey for only six years -- and that he plays totally on impulse -- and you'll start to understand what makes him the biggest risk in the draft. Teams that believe they can reach and teach Aliu see him as a first-rounder. But a few scouts who've seen him act out on the ice -- taking stupid penalties, fighting at the worst possible times, railing at refs -- think he'll never change and wouldn't take him with the last pick of the draft.
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You leave out what one scout said, a guy from a team that's not interviewing him at the combine, a hard-ass, old-school type. "He cheats," the scout said, meaning that he doesn't think Aliu tries, that he cheats his team. You tell Aliu that teams have asked about him, including one assistant GM of a club who has penciled him in for an interview this afternoon. "I like him as a talent," the exec said. "It's gonna take time, but you just don't find kids that big who skate that well."
"Where will I go?" Aliu asks.
WE KNOW where he's been. He was born in Nigeria. But Aliu never considered himself Nigerian or Nigerian-Canadian or Canadian at all. He's always thought of himself as Russian. His father is from Nigeria. Tai Aliu was a geology student and sprinter at the University of Kiev in 1979 when he met Larissa, a native of the Ukraine. They married and lived in Okene, Nigeria, for two years before moving to Kiev shortly after Akim was born. Akim's family came to Canada when he was 12, but Akim, his older brother, Edward, and his parents still speak Russian at home.
His Russian ties might lead you to assume that Aliu is a product of Russia's hockey system, which has a way of turning out skilled players with great skating technique. After all, he was the talk of the CHL prospects game in Quebec City in January, which brought together the 40 top-ranked juniors eligible for the 2007 NHL draft. Aliu was impressive in the game -- skating powerfully, hitting everything that moved, showcasing a hard laser for a shot -- but he was more dominating in the skills competition. He won the one-lap race, hockey's version of football's 40, by almost 2/10ths of a second.
Turns out, though, that Aliu didn't learn to play hockey in Kiev. He didn't put on skates until his family came to Canada, didn't try hockey until he was in the seventh grade. Until he came to Canada, Aliu hadn't even seen a hockey game. By that time, the other players in that prospects game had been skating for eight, nine, even 10 years. They'd already played hundreds of games and worked on their skills at summer hockey schools.
Not Aliu. The first skates he tried on were borrowed, but his superb athletic ability (he was on Ontario's under-16 all-star soccer team) was all his own. "We were too poor to buy equipment when we first came to Canada," he says. "I couldn't pay the fees to play in leagues or go to hockey schools. The games came easy. All the other stuff was hard."
The other stuff -- life -- is why Aliu learned to fight. Anyone who's seen him play knows he'll drop the gloves with anybody. In this season's OHL finals against the Plymouth Whalers, he went after one of the biggest players in junior hockey, 6'5", 212-pound wing Tom Sestito. He hit Sestito with at least 10 consecutive rights, the last few while Sestito's back was pressed down on the ice and an official tried to peel Aliu off of him.
He developed his willingness to go at it while living in a tough neighborhood in Toronto's west end. "When we first came here from Kiev, I had a fight every day," he says. "I didn't speak English, didn't understand what people were saying, so I thought they were saying something about me."
Things didn't get any easier when he picked up enough English to get by. "Akim got into trouble in high school for fighting," says his friend David Bova. "Older kids would always try to make things hard for us. Most of us would just try to avoid them, but Akim wouldn't back down -- he never will when he knows he's right."
That personality trait made what happened in Windsor almost inevitable. The OHL's Windsor Spitfires drafted Aliu as their No. 1 pick in the spring of 2005. During the preseason, a bunch of older players were busting the rookies' chops, forcing them to strip and locking them all in the cramped bathroom of the team bus. Standard stuff in junior hockey: Suffer a humiliation in silence, and you're one of the guys. Bova could have told the Spitfires not to bother; Aliu wasn't going to do it. Which didn't go over well with the older players, who were hazed when they first came into the league. It especially didn't go over with Steve Downie, that year's first-round draft pick of the Flyers, a star on the under-20 Canadian national team and 5'10", 189 pounds of nasty.
What occurred at a practice in Windsor three weeks later has been watched 60,000 times on YouTube. Aliu and Downie dropped their gloves. The smaller Downie stayed tight, firing short rights, while Aliu threw hooks wider than a George Foreman Sunday punch. But what the video doesn't show is that prior to the fight, Downie skated up to Aliu during practice and cross-checked the rookie across the face. It doesn't show that Aliu realized he was missing three front teeth only when he left the ice and looked in a locker room mirror. "When I saw that I'd lost my front teeth, I lost it," Aliu says. "I went right back onto the ice. First chance I got, I went after him."
When that story broke and the video -- showing a No. 1 draft pick punching the lights out of a 16-year-old kid -- aired on TSN's SportsCentre, the Spits hit the fan. The front office immediately suspended Downie and Aliu. Both were eventually traded, first Downie to Peterborough, then in January, Aliu to Sudbury. Moe Mantha, an ex-NHLer who was Windsor's coach and GM, was suspended, then fired. Most of the media and insiders took Downie's side; he was Canadian and the Spitfires' sparkplug, and just months later, he led Canada to a world junior championship.
Aliu was made out to be the villain, and the cloud over his head followed him to Sudbury. There were rumors about his having trouble with his billet families, having trouble with teammates, having trouble with his coach.
Which was strange: Akim's billets from Windsor frequently made the 300-mile trip to see his games. And London Knights star Sam Gagner -- a former midget league teammate and a top-10 lock in the 2007 draft -- says that Aliu kept in touch with his former teammates all the time. But there was no denying the rocky relationship he had with his Sudbury coach, Mike Foligno, who suspended Aliu with a week left in the regular season -- about the worst thing that could happen to a kid just before the draft -- for mouthing off at a ref during a game and earning an unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty. That infraction, which gave the opposing team a 5-on-3 advantage in the third period of a critical late-season game, seemed to prove every naysayer right.
But the coach gave Aliu a second chance during the playoffs -- with strings attached. Foligno dropped him from the first line to the third and off the power play. Aliu was asked to be a soldier, not a star. He accepted his role -- although he did rack up 50 penalty minutes -- and Sudbury made an unlikely run to the OHL finals. "He came back a better player and a better person," Foligno says. "He made mistakes before. All 17- and 18-year-olds make them. Akim learned from his."
But will the coach's word be enough? Just before the combine, Aliu learned that he was going to be traded from Sudbury to the Knights, the premier junior franchise in Canada. The Knights have a new 9,000-seat arena and, with Mark and Dale Hunter as GM and coach, 2,300 games of NHL experience inside it. In Ontario next season, Aliu will be reunited with Gagner and Sam's father, Dave, a former NHLer who coached both of them on the midget Marlboros. Talking to a writer after learning the news, the draft-obsessed Aliu couldn't help but wonder how the trade might affect his status.
"What are they saying about me?" he asked.
"They're saying that getting traded to London is good for you. That the Knights know you and wanted you means a lot -- a character reference."
"What do you tell them about me?"
"That you want to be a player."
"Is there any way you can get this story printed before the draft?"
AKIM ALIU couldn't sleep the night of the draft. He was lying on the bed, staring at the ceiling of his hotel room, recounting the 30 picks that were made in the first round. He had hoped, prayed, he'd go Friday and not have to wait until Saturday morning, when the NHL would conduct Rounds 2 through 7. But when the Coyotes picked Regina Pats defenseman Nick Ross at No. 30, Aliu's heart sank. His parents sat beside him, Larissa squeezing his hand, Tai bowing his head. Later in bed, with his parents on either side of him, he went through all the names in the rankings, all the teams that held the later-round picks, and wondered what they were all saying about him now.
On Saturday morning at Columbus' Nationwide Arena, the SRO rink of the previous night is merely speckled with players, families, diehards. The highlight reels of the first-round selections have been replaced with fan text messages ("Sidney, will you merry me?") on the overhead scoreboard. Aliu hoped Chicago would take him at No. 38 -- until the Hawks selected Colorado College forward Bill Sweatt, a speedster who showed up at the combine with his arm in a cast.
The picks rolled by. An hour stretched into two. At least one team was scrambling to move up to take him when it came to Chicago's second pick of the second round, No. 56. When his name was called, Akim stood. His parents hugged him and cried, then watched as he walked down to the floor and put on a Hawks sweater. While he was taken under the stands to sign forms, pose for photos and field questions from the media, his parents phoned family with the news, Tai calling his oldest brother in Lagos, Larissa her father in Kiev and her uncle in Chicago.
Minutes later, as Akim was taking questions from Russian reporters in his first language, Chicago GM Dale Tallon was asked about Aliu's history and talent. "He said he made mistakes, but he said they were his mistakes," Tallon said, pausing. And then, "He could be the home run of the draft."
That's what they're saying about him now.
Gare Joyce is a Toronto-based freelance journalist and a regular contributor to ESPN The Magazine.