More than 100 youth hockey teams competed in a tournament this weekend in Toronto — but one team made a very special debut.
Former Canadian NHL hockey player Akim Aliu helped to establish a first of its kind BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Colour) team that played in the tournament in the Westwood Arena in Etobicoke.
"I didn't think something like this would ever happen," Aliu told CBC Toronto on the weekend. "I'm kind of speechless to be able to provide this for the kids."
The team was founded by Aliu's Time to Dream Foundation, an organization established to help underprivileged youth "succeed in life through sport" by making sports more inclusive, diverse and accessible.
The cause hits close to home for the former professional athlete.
Aliu said he didn't always have the financial opportunities to play hockey and in tournaments when he was growing up.
He has also been vocal about the racial abuse he suffered during his hockey career. The 31-year-old journeyman played a total of seven NHL games with the Calgary Flames before bouncing around various other leagues.
In November 2019, Aliu posted a series of tweets describing the racist experiences he suffered during his time in professional hockey, including specific examples with now-former Flames coach Bill Peters.
Speaking out has prompted him to use his platform to make sure that the finances and opportunities are available for other kids who might also face the same hurdles, especially those in the BIPOC community.
"It's an all minority team so I'm overwhelmed with emotion and super excited to be able to give these kids the opportunity," Aliu said.
He said the children on the team come from a variety of communities, including Black, Brown, Asian and Indigenous.
"We feel like, if more kids from different demographics get into hockey, the pool of talent expands."
Coaches thrilled to participate
And while the team has been a great opportunity for the children, it's been a special moment for the other coaches as well.
Aaron Atwell, the team's assistant coach, said he is thrilled to be involved.
"It's amazing, I didn't think I'd get to be a part of something like this," Atwell said. "Growing up I'd see P.K. Subban or Akim but never this many visible minorities, especially on one team. I didn't think that was ever possible. The kids are amazing. They're brave for doing this."
'It's not about how you look. It's about how you play.'
The players themselves have expressed excitement and gratitude.
"What I like about hockey is the competitiveness," said Enrico Champagne, one of the players on the team.
"I like hockey because I like scoring goals and I can't wait to go to the NHL and live my dream," said Ryan Sirisombath, another player on the team.
"It's not about how you look. It's about how you play."
Aliu said he hopes the experiences that the children have being part of the team will extend to their lives outside of sports.
"I'm hoping I can give them the tools, and our team here, collectively, can give them the tools to be successful, not just in hockey, but in life in general."
For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.