Akim Aliu responds to GTHL statement: 'They're just words'

“There’s a lot they failed to mention in their press release, and that’s just how many roadblocks they put in."

Following allegations by former NHL player Akim Aliu that the Greater Toronto Hockey League (GTHL) stonewalled his plan to launch a new organization, the Toronto Dream, the GTHL released a rebuttal statement to Aliu’s claims that arose in Rick Westhead’s recent TSN article.

According to Aliu however, the GTHL’s statements about his goal to found a new organization that would mandate managerial, coaching, and on-ice positions for racialized people and women, are false.

“There’s a lot they failed to mention in their press release, and that’s just how many roadblocks they put in,” Aliu told Yahoo Sports Canada. “You can put out all these beautiful, nice statements about how you share all these values, and try to make it sound like the only reason I didn’t do the agreement with them and the Hockey Diversity Alliance is because there wasn’t a ‘AAA’ piece; that’s the farthest thing from the truth. All we tried to do from Day 1 is try to narrow the gap that seemed to be a very very big one.”

Akim Aliu is calling out the GTHL. (Photo by Phillip Chin/Getty Images)
Akim Aliu is calling out the GTHL. (Photo by Phillip Chin/Getty Images)

Conversely, the GTHL stated that “Unfortunately, Mr. Aliu stipulated that he was only prepared to operate this organization if the GTHL would make guarantees to him of getting 'AAA' teams.”

The GTHL is the world’s largest minor ice hockey organization and their AAA programs annually produce NHL players including the likes of Connor McDavid, John Tavares, and Mitch Marner. Aliu was clear on this point, that a AAA program was never a demand, stating “It’s completely false what they’re saying.”

The GTHL also mentioned the idea of Aliu taking over an existing franchise in the GTHL at the house league level. Aliu, who runs on- and off-ice programming through the Hockey Diversity Alliance (HDA) believes he is already offering the same benefits through HDA that a house league program under the GTHL umbrella would provide, but that to take over an existing organization, “There was a price tag attached to that that we were not willing to pay to operate a minor hockey team, morally.”

Further, in their statement, the GTHL stated they “made several offers” to the HDA that "included membership opportunities in the league as well as collaborations on outreach programs.” Aliu however, asserts that throughout their negotiation, the GTHL “only put one offer on the table,” which required a path that would see his group take nine years before they could enter an organization into the GTHL.

In their response to TSN’s article, the GTHL says the organization “remains ready, willing, and able to work with all partners who have a shared vision for a game that is diverse, inclusive, and free from all forms of discrimination.”

Despite this statement, Westhead’s initial article included comments from members of the GTHL including Don Mills Flyers President Peter MacInnis, who stated "I'm really not too sure where they're trying to go with this… If you're talking inclusion, if we want to have inclusion with Black kids and Indigenous kids and Oriental kids and white kids all playing together, what the hell are we doing with a team all full of Black players?”

Another GTHL administrator, Toronto Nationals general manager Garry Punchard, also decried Aliu and the Dream, saying “all of a sudden this guy [Aliu] thinks he can get a AAA organization? We already have Black and Chinese players in our organizations. We don’t segregate anybody. As far as I know [the Dream organizers] haven’t done anything. They haven’t got a house league going. Pay your dues. They are just blaming everybody but themselves.”

MacInnis' statement, particularly the racist use of the term “Oriental” and Punchard’s comments were seen by many, including Aliu, as false, offensive and antithetical to the GTHL’s commitments to diversity, equity, and inclusion.

“Both of what those guys said was extremely racist and degrading to people of colour, but it’s just a way that the white establishment speaks to anybody that’s an outsider trying to get a seat at the table, and that’s literally all we were asking,” said Aliu.

“For them to say we were trying to create an all-Black team…at no point did I ever say I was trying to create an all-Black team,” continued Aliu. “It’s not even something feasible to say, all I was trying to do was create mandates that people would strive for for BIPOC and women in managerial positions, coaching positions, and on ice positions while offsetting fees.”

From the onset of the GTHL’s negotiations with Aliu in 2021, Aliu estimates his group presented to the league, OHF, and member committees that were established to assess his plan 10 times. According to the HDA co-founder and 57th overall pick of the Chicago Blackhawks in the 2007 NHL draft, the messages since those first days and throughout their conversations have drastically changed with ever-changing expectations. That change, according to Aliu, includes the GTHL’s most recent public statement and the stance of the GTHL’s Executive Director and Chief Operating Officer, Scott Oakman.

“My first question to Scott Oakman when I contacted him [about the Dream] was ‘do the members have a say in us coming in?’” recalled Aliu. “His answer was ‘no.’ That quickly changed when the cat came out of the bag and people knew about what we were trying to do.

“Scott Oakman verbatim told me on a call in July of last summer that he believes so much in this that he’d consider stepping down if this doesn’t happen. It seems as though his energy is not as strong as it was at that point too.”

When opposition to the Dream formed among league members, Aliu says his group worked to address those issues. Despite their efforts, according to Aliu, Oakman and GTHL president Don West informed Aliu’s group that “the owners and membership were threatening to oust the board” if the Dream were admitted to the GTHL.

Some of the concerns from the GTHL, as Aliu states, were that his organization would be taking players from other teams. In response, Aliu says they “put in a clause they wouldn’t be taking more than two players from each organization,” with a projected influx of 1200 players to the GTHL via the Dream and HDA. There were also “stipulations” on the Dream getting competitive teams, including the need to register “250 players into the GTHL stream that would go to other organizations” for the Dream “to even get a competitive team.”

Aliu feels the HDA, his partners, and the Dream met and exceeded expectations, bringing benefits to the GTHL through their proposed club.

“It wasn’t that we were out there just saying ‘we want a team because we’re special,’ we were bringing a lot of the things to the table,” said Aliu. “We were bringing in new kids, refueling the pipeline from the HDA Grassroots program.” Aliu also said he was set to contribute $100,000 to other GTHL programs to help offset costs and fees for youth, bring educational programming to the organization, and bring sponsors to offset fees.

The issue of offsetting fees and lowering costs, which are well-known barriers to participation in hockey, was one that owners within the GTHL took issue with, according to Aliu.

After addressing each concern, Aliu says the roadblocks continued mounting. He says the GTHL asked for letters from sponsors to understand how much money his organization would be putting into the GTHL and their organizations, and that the league wanted him to sign a right of first refusal for a decade in the event Aliu wanted to sell the Dream. It was a request Aliu questioned.

“How would the GTHL, a not-for-profit, buy an organization off myself or anyone for that matter, and then who would operate it? The GTHL would own and operate an organization in their own league? What would the price tag be? If they’re saying organizations are not being sold, how can they buy an organization off me then?”

Following these issues, Aliu says his group was asked to make additional presentations when new board members were added, were asked to prove they had ice time booked for an organization yet to be approved, and that the GTHL requested social media posts and content showcasing the league via the HDA. As Aliu said, the GTHL “wanted HDA to fly in former and current NHL players to shoot content that the GTHL would solely own. That doesn’t sound very fair to us that we’re a not-for-profit covering costs for the GTHL to shoot content.”

According to Aliu, the GTHL also wanted the HDA and prospective Dream group to cover other costs on top of these requests, and to guarantee other clubs remained competitive following the entry of the Dream. “They wanted us to cover their legal fees for how long we were negotiating this contract,” said Aliu. “Another clause they put in was that we make sure other GTHL teams remain competitive once we come in. How can I make sure other GTHL teams stay competitive?”

While going public with his story was not Aliu’s intent, after more than a year of coming against reported opposition from the GTHL, he felt it was the only path left.

“This was not the avenue I wanted to take, but this was the only route that’s been left to allow the general public to decide on what we’re going to do and how they view this,” he said.

While Aliu wanted the Dream to exist within the GTHL, and for partnerships to continue between the organization and the HDA, he could not stand for the messaging the GTHL continued to produce. This includes how Aliu perceives the GTHL’s treatment of other organizations striving for diversity in the sport.

“What they do is use these organizations, like Hockey Equality and Seaside Hockey, to essentially use them as organizations that toe the line and push their messaging, but at the same time they’re not moving the needle with what they’re doing with those organizations.”

Aliu feels admitting the Dream to the league would have moved that needle. “This is a bold move you need to make in order to show people that you’re about the cause that you’re preaching about.”

Still, as the GTHL said in their statement, the league believes their partnerships are making a difference that matches their goals and objectives.

“The GTHL and its members have established other partnerships with organizations that share these same goals and objectives,” their statement read. “Furthermore, the league will continue to form additional partnerships, especially with those who are striving to introduce new players to the game.”

Despite the current situation, the GTHL also stated they believe their organization and Aliu’s HDA “are largely aligned with mutual goals of making hockey more accessible at the grassroots level, while eliminating racism and discrimination in hockey.”

After reviewing the GTHL’s full statement however, Aliu does not see the alignment.

“They’re just words,” he said of the statement. “At the end of the day they can say all of the things they want to say, but unless there’s action behind it, it doesn’t mean anything. They were not willing to bend one bit; they didn’t grant us anything.”

Aliu believes his organization was designed to create a pathway for kids from grassroots programming provided by the HDA into the GTHL, and from the Dream into competitive GTHL programs, but that the actions of the GTHL and their recent statement don’t align with the claimed mutual goals.

While this is the beginning of this story, it is not the end. Westhead and Aliu have more coming, including a look at the finances of the GTHL. It’s a point from the initial article Aliu believes the GTHL conveniently left out of their statement.

“In a clever way they have left out one of the biggest pieces I spoke about in the article, and that’s the corruption and the transfer of money that’s going on in these organizations. Teams getting sold, age groups getting sold, and kids not getting opportunities because other parents are paying money to get their kids those opportunities. That was left out.”

Aliu thinks this issue is one that needs to be discussed, and due to hockey’s “culture of silence,” players and parents are afraid to bring concerns about money to the GTHL for fear of retribution.

“The culture of silence has been really disheartening for me to see,” said Aliu. “Many parents and kids have reached out about the things that are going on within the GTHL, but they’re still scared to speak on it because they’re worried about losing their positions on their respective teams.”

In light of TSN’s article and the GTHL’s response, Aliu knows this conversation is far from done. He believes when all is said and done, the GTHL will be unable to answer for the information that comes out.

“Once we continue to go down the path, they’re not going to be able to have a good answer, because I know at the end of the day, what we were trying to do was the right thing.”