Andrew Beaton, The Wall Street Journal, December 11, 2019
Akim Aliu had been a member of the Colorado Eagles, a minor-league hockey team, for just a small part of the season in 2011 when he received an invitation to the team’s Halloween party. The team’s players, staff, management and even their families would be there.
A couple of days before the party, the Nigerian-born player was told to “come a little bit later,” he says. He didn’t think much of it, until he walked in and poured himself a beer.
That’s when he says the team’s head equipment manager, Tony Deynzer, appeared from behind a corner. Deynzer was in blackface, wearing an Afro-style wig and a jersey that had been custom-made with Aliu’s jersey number and nickname, “DREAMER,” emblazoned on the back.
Two years earlier, a coach for a different team, Bill Peters, had used a racial slur against Aliu, which resulted in Peters resigning from the Calgary Flames a decade later when Aliu brought it to light last month. In the moment at the Halloween party, he says, partygoers exhorted Aliu and Deynzer to pose in a picture together. Deynzer smiled. Aliu didn’t. In the background of one of the pictures, an infant crawled on the floor nearby.
“Guys just started laughing,” Aliu says. “All I can do is tell my story.”
Deynzer, who is still with the Eagles, didn’t respond to attempts to reach him, through the team and directly, for several days.
The Eagles, in a statement, said they “had absolutely no knowledge of this event, therefore we feel it would be premature to comment at this time.”
Aliu’s story of enduring racism and intolerance inside this predominantly white sport has already sent shock waves through hockey.
In recent weeks, he publicly disclosed that Peters used the N-word to him a decade ago while they were with the Rockford IceHogs, another minor league team. Peters, who was coach of the NHL’s Calgary Flames when Aliu made that allegation, subsequently resigned.
Last week, Aliu met with NHL officials, including commissioner Gary Bettman, to confront these issues, and he says he told them about the blackface incident. The NHL, after the meeting, said in a statement that the conversation was part of a broader, thorough review. On Monday, the NHL announced policy changes including the introduction of mandatory training programs on diversity and the creation of a whistleblower hotline for people to anonymously report issues.
Aliu’s career began with promise, but from its earliest moments it was engulfed by ugly incidents. In 2005, Aliu was the sixth overall pick in the draft of the Ontario Hockey League, a prominent junior hockey league, and in that first season he was subjected to a rookie hazing ritual, in which he and other players were told to strip naked and cram themselves into the bathroom of a bus. Aliu refused.
He joined the Blackhawks’ AHL affiliate full-time in 2009, where Bill Peters was the coach. In response to music Aliu was playing in the locker room, Peters repeatedly told him he was tired of that “n—– s—,” Aliu says. Two teammates verified Aliu’s account to TSN, a Canadian sports network.
After the incident came to light last month, Peters gave a statement to the Flames’ general manager saying that he was sorry to the organization for the language he had used a decade earlier. The statement didn’t mention Aliu or apologize to him. Aliu called the apology “misleading” and “insincere.” Peters was fired by Calgary.
Aliu says that what troubled him most about the incident at the Halloween party was how calculated it felt. In addition to the blackface and wig worn by Deynzer, Aliu felt he had been told to arrive late just to set up the racist taunt. And the jersey, with Aliu’s nickname on it, had to be custom made.