Miniscule, Alone, and Powerless: How a League Failed Its Own Players

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Issue 8, Volume 112

By Kaeden Ruparel 

The NHL has demonstrated its inability to take accountability for the exploitations of power that have repeatedly occurred under its watch. The league is no stranger to failure in this department, which has certainly left a stain on its reputation and led to a lack of faith in the league from fans, athletes, and even team executives to handle future incidents of this sort. This incompetence is especially tarnishing for an organization that already receives little media attention in comparison to the other major sports leagues. The negligence of the league has proven dangerous before, and further negligence will allow for these damaging altercations to continue.

For example, former Calgary Flames and Chicago Blackhawks player Akim Aliu was a survivor of numerous racist and abusive attacks across many leagues. A year and a half before he was to be drafted, in 2005, Aliu got into a fight with high-level prospect Steve Downie after refusing to strip down in a team bus. He finished his draft year with statistics high enough to be a consensus top 15 pick but fell out of the first round (and nearly the second round) entirely, having been deemed uncoachable, with ‘character issues’ being one of many criticisms he faced. This setback didn’t stop Aliu, though, who was no stranger to adversity, having grown up as the only Black kid in his neighborhood and on local teams.

Three years after being drafted, Aliu was the victim of a profoundly racist attack at the hands of his coach at the time, Bill Peters. Displeased with Aliu’s choice of music for the locker room, Peters hurled racist insults and slurs at Aliu, calling him the n-word numerous times. Aliu chose to keep the story to himself for almost a decade until 2019, when he publicly accused Peters of the racist and later abusive behavior he had endured. Aliu also came forward with an essay in May 2020, in which he shared how the incident led to the resurgence of a feeling not unbeknownst to him throughout his hockey career: miniscule, alone, and powerless.

Aliu’s feelings resonated with Kyle Beach, another former NHL player and a sexual assault survivor who courageously came forward with his own story over a month ago. Beach was a talented prospect for the Chicago Blackhawks, selected 11th overall in the 2008 draft, but had his career cut short because of victim-blaming and a lack of accountability by the Blackhawks organization. While the Blackhawks were in the Stanley Cup Playoffs in 2010, Beach was sexually assaulted by video coach Brad Aldrich, which Beach brought up to multiple members of the Blackhawks organization days after, to no avail. Any claims that Beach did not bring his story to light are unfounded: mental skills coach James Gary attempted to blame Beach himself. Beach discussed the incident with several people, including director of the NHL’s Player Association (NHLPA) Don Fehr, whose sole responsibility was supposed to be to protect the players. None of them acted upon the incident and outright ignored Beach’s pleas for Aldrich to be removed or for measures to be taken to prevent this situation from happening again. General manager Stan Bowman revealed that coach Joel Quenneville’s reasoning for ignoring the incident was that he could not be bothered amid a so-called crucial playoff run, especially as Beach was not part of the on-ice roster.

The Blackhawks then won the Stanley Cup, which had Aldrich’s name etched into it until a month ago. Beach’s career derailed, and he never played in an NHL game, prompting claims that he was one of the worst selections in Blackhawks history. At 20, Beach was sexually assaulted, and his pleas for help were completely ignored. While a few teammates stood by him, many made homophobic retorts toward him, and others stood by without a word of protest. This last group included longtime veterans like Duncan Keith, Patrick Sharp, captain Jonathan Toews, and Patrick Kane, who did not have a career at stake like Beach did as bona fide stars in the league.

In a tormentingly emotional interview with TSN’s Rick Westhead, Beach broke down numerous times, painfully recounting his story and the ways in which he felt hopeless, powerless, and entirely alone––quite similar to Aliu. Beach also detailed the years following, in which the league refused to take action and the Blackhawks continuously attempted to throw out his case. Aliu currently faces the same problems; the league claims they finished their investigation into his incident and have reached out to Aliu’s party to figure out next steps, but Aliu’s lawyer stated that the league has not been in touch with him since the beginning of the investigation. There has been little transparency from the league about their commitment to preventing future occurrences and a lack of communication regarding the investigation.

These patterns highlight a common theme with the NHL. The league is unable to handle player safety, with a growing list of shortcomings and failures in handling these investigations. Aliu’s and Beach’s situations are some of the most severe cases, but the NHL has disregarded numerous other pleas for help and glaring issues within the hockey world. The league has ignored the numerous injuries and deaths resulting from chronic traumatic encephalopathy, which stems from repeated head injuries and is particularly prevalent in hockey, as well as the recent drafting of a player who specifically asked not to be drafted following sexual harassment allegations.

Aliu and Beach, meanwhile, have used their newfound platforms to help those unable to speak up for themselves. Beach has met with the NHLPA and begun discussions around the league and within teams and organizations to prevent further abuse of all types. He advocates around smaller town teams and lower leagues, fights for players to stand up, and acts as a role model for countless survivors. Aliu founded the Hockey Diversity Alliance (HDA) to fight for diversity and inclusion in the NHL, sparked by his disappointment in the NHL’s lackluster “Hockey Is For Everyone” diversity campaign. The HDA now has a diverse group of members from around the league and is working to grow and provide equal opportunities for underprivileged and minority communities.

Aliu and Beach’s demonstration of courage brought light to important stories. If the NHL wants to continue to grow the game and prevent these incidents from reoccurring, they need to do better. It’s these failures that lead many fans to share a similar sentiment of “loving the sport, hating the league.”