Akim Aliu recalled how no one knew what to expect when he and four NHL players of colour sat in a circle inside a dimly lit locker room and, with cameras rolling, were asked to share their most personal and painful experiences involving racism.
“Everyone was really worried — because, obviously, we’re not actors or anything and with the really raw material — that we would run out of things to talk about,” Aliu said.
Instead, a film shoot initially expected to last no more than half an hour was approaching 90 minutes when the director finally said cut.
The stories were told by Aliu, Minnesota’s Matt Dumba, Colorado’s Nazem Kadri, Toronto’s Wayne Simmonds and Florida’s Anthony Duclair, members of the recently formed Hockey Diversity Alliance. The exchange proved so powerful it became the focal point of a two-minute video that debuted Saturday to launch an HDA campaign to eradicate racism in hockey.
As part of the campaign, rolls of black hockey tape with messages of support and solidarity printed on them will be made available for purchase with $1 from each sale going toward the HDA.
The alliance was formed by current and former NHL players of colour in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of Minneapolis police in May 2020. This campaign represents its next step in raising awareness of racism in hockey, while at the same time seeking to make the predominantly white sport more accessible to minorities.
Do you stand with us? Racism has no place in our game! Show your support and join us to make this game for us all!! ✊🏽🖤 #TapeOutHate @BudweiserCanada @TheOfficialHDA pic.twitter.com/lWo0PsN8Ja
— Akim Aliu (@Dreamer_Aliu78) January 8, 2022
Dumba found the discussion empowering. With his mother Filipino, he was the target of racial slurs growing up in Saskatchewan because he has darker skin.
“I think it’s standing up for our younger selves, you know, the 10, 11, 12-year-old Matt Dumba, knowing how confused he was by all of it, and how hurt he was at a time,” said Dumba, the first NHL player to take a knee in protest of Floyd’s death. “Every guy in our group, you start talking about some of the stuff you lived, and it’s bringing out more stuff that you just had buried for so long.”
It’s also a message Dumba wanted to share with those dealing with similar experiences: to know they are not alone.
“It’s disheartening that kids are having to go through this and feel that sense of loneliness and not know where to fit,” Dumba said. “I hope it is a beacon of hope for the younger generation.”
Racism isn’t new to the NHL. What’s changed are those within the game willing to speak out.
The cultural shift began in November 2019, when Aliu posted a series of tweets accusing his former minor league coach, Bill Peters, of directing racial slurs at him a decade earlier. The allegations proved true, leading to Peters resigning as coach of the Calgary Flames.
During the locker room discussion, Dumba questions why any of them would want their child to play hockey. Simmonds responds by referring to his daughter: “If I knew she was going to have to face the same stuff I faced, probably not.”
A 14-year NHL veteran, Simmonds was entering his third season with Los Angeles in 2011 when someone threw a banana on the ice during an exhibition game in London, Ontario. The man was fined $200.
Budweiser Canada approached the HDA a year ago with its vision of the ad, with an emphasis on sending a strong message.
“We believe that we need to be comfortable with being uncomfortable because that’s ultimately how we grow, learn, change and evolve,” Budweiser Canada senior director Mike D’Agostini said.
“The intent of this campaign is not Budweiser gaining. I think it’s about our partnership, really about the HDA gaining and the hockey world getting to a better place is the goal of this,” he added. “We hear those stories, we hear the struggle that the best players at the professional level are going through, and we want to be on the right side of the conversation and change.”
Aliu helped oversee the project, and the former NHL player said he would never have teamed with any sponsor with an intent to water down the message.
“We were never going to sugarcoat anything and never do anything that’s performative,” Aliu said. “To be completely honest, they’ve kept their word from Day 1.”
What’s disappointing to HDA members is the NHL declining an invitation to be involved.
Dumba questioned the league’s lack of interest by noting the campaign’s potential to broaden hockey’s base.
“That hurts. I guess it further shows where their heart lies on these issues. That’s a tough pill to swallow for us, for our group, for a lot of people trying to promote change in our game,” Dumba said. “They could have a huge hand in that and I just haven’t seen it yet.”
“The NHL applauds our partner Budweiser and the Hockey Diversity Alliance for their efforts to promote diversity and inclusivity in the sport of hockey,” the NHL said in a statement released to The Associated Press.
“This ongoing movement requires vision and commitment from every stakeholder in hockey,” the statement read. “We welcome all who are using their voices and platforms to pursue these important goals and remain determined to continue to use ours and to do the work necessary to create real change.”
The league, which a year ago announced an effort to speed up inclusion efforts in the NHL, partnered with Scotiabank in October in launching a video promoting diversity titled “Hockey for All.”