Hockey Diversity Alliance launches Grassroots Original Hockey League in Scarborough
It’s the type of Saturday morning that necessitates your best fall jacket and some hot coffee but it hasn’t deterred three enthusiastic volunteers from guiding attendees to the basketball courts at Malvern Community Recreation Centre. Deep in the heart of Scarborough, the Hockey Diversity Alliance (HDA) is holding its second of three events to launch the inaugural Grassroots Original Hockey League, a program designed to make hockey accessible to children and families who would’ve been otherwise priced out.
The culture of hockey is rotten and to some cynical or worn out observers, beyond repair, but this event is a celebration of the virtues the sport can perpetuate at its best. A makeshift ball hockey arena grasps the eye, with kids breaking off into supervised 2-on-2 and 3-on-3 games, as large black banners with Hockey Diversity Alliance and Scotiabank insignia everywhere to be found. There’s also a side panel with two shooting booths, with kids testing out their new gear before eventually getting into some game action.
Aaron Atwell, a member of Akim Aliu’s Time to Dream Foundation, is manning the registration booth before working as an enthusiastic coach for the children gathered around the ball hockey floor. Atwell recently retired from a lengthy professional hockey career and he greets every family with a warm smile, offering each kid their choice of a black or white jersey with the HDA, Time to Dream and Scotiabank logos adorned, a helmet from Bauer, and a stick from CCM or Sherwood. There is certainly room to be skeptical about the role of corporate sponsorship, but the HDA’s partners have come through in abundance on Saturday to help this program get off the ground.
Aliu’s older brother, Edward, informed Yahoo Sports Canada that the on-ice component of the program begins mid-October, as members of the HDA will work as coaches throughout the year as their schedule permits, while the organization will have a day-to-day presence operationally. Three unnamed NHL teams — two Canadian squads, one from the United States— have expressed interest in replicating the program across the board.
How does this program work, and why is it so necessary at this time and place in Canadian society?
“What we've done is we've identified 12 priority underserved communities in the GTA and we're going directly in them,” Akim Aliu, the chair of the HDA, explains to Yahoo Sports Canada. “Being a boots on the ground type of organization that we've always preached from the beginning and removing all the barriers that I think hockey brings. Obviously, hockey is really tough to access for so many reasons such as the financial part of it, so we're providing everything completely free of cost: ice time, equipment, meals, transportation, et cetera.
“We're starting with four communities in Year 1 and expanding to four more next year, and hopefully we'll be in all 12 communities in the priority neighbourhoods that are identified by the city by Year 3,” he continued. “We're hoping to use hockey as a tool to get these kids to be good contributors to society and get kids off the street especially in these communities that a lot of HDA members grew up in and we're really excited about it.”
Toronto’s relationship to hockey is often a frustrating paradox: there are more public rinks than anywhere else in the world, it is a pipeline for young, emerging professional-caliber talent, and it is prohibitively unaffordable, especially for top-end prospects. The operating budget for some AAA teams within the Greater Toronto Hockey League (GTHL) range up to $10,000 per player, a shocking tag that Aliu and the HDA know is unacceptable. Building the parameters for a more equitable sport for the next generation of kids has always been of paramount importance to Aliu.
The toxicity that plagues minor hockey isn’t an abstract concept for Aliu, who was racially abused at every step of his career, and it’s playing out in real-time. , an occurrence that has allegedly happened several times. Aliu was consulted by Nicola-Lalonde’s family and spends a significant portion of his consulting working with kids and families who are racially abused within the minor hockey system.
Aliu said that he tried to work with the GTHL and Hockey Canada about the implementation of a grassroots program but after paying lip service, both organizations balked for reasons surrounding money, or fears that his program would detract from their membership counts.
When asked whether he views the HDA’s Grassroots Original Hockey League as an alternative to the GTHL and minor hockey, Aliu said that’s not outside the realm of possibility.
“I'm starting to look at it that way. That's a really good question, a really good question,” he said. “I'm starting to look at it that way. It ties in greatly to what Justin Trudeau : maybe we create a new organization that's not Hockey Canada and start from scratch. And that's what I'm thinking with the GTHL as well. These programs that we're building, we can grow it. We've already got 400 kids signed up, we're going to be close to 1,000 by next year and year-over-year, we can continue to grow this.
“What parent or child wouldn't want to have their kid come to a program that's obviously very welcoming and inclusive? The fees are drastically different, if any. And the kids feel welcome and are able to grow in this game and get better every day. And that's something we're starting to look at, we have the resources and the funding behind us to do this. If they don't want to do it, then we'll do it on our own.”
Hockey Canada has been outed as a national disgrace while being at the centre of concurrent sexual assault scandals, where it has been revealed that the governing body created hush funds to pay out victims of sexual assault. During an Oct. 4 meeting with the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage, Hockey Canada interim chair Andrea Skinner provided a hubristic testimony and balked at the idea that the board of directors needed to be replaced, while stating that rinks across the country would be in danger of having the lights being turned off without the governing body’s support. Skinner resigned hours after the HDA event ended, but it has prompted a national moment of reflection on how to create a better alternative to what currently exists at the minor hockey level. in favour of a new organization Thursday, and it’s a notion that Aliu has given plenty of thought to, labeling the national governing body as a complete embarrassment.
“I think the biggest thing we all need to do is hold these institutions accountable. And not just talk about it in the news for a couple of days, or tweet a couple of times. I think we need to see that they make change, and that takes time. The whole system needs a complete rehaul, we need some new blood, new perspectives, some innovative thinking to get our game back to where it needs to be.
“I truly believe our game has so much potential but the people at the helm right now, at the GTHL level, at the Hockey Canada level, even up to Gary Bettman are not the people to take our game to the next level.”
Steve Simmons of the Toronto Sun was never intended to be part of this story. A few hours after the HDA event ended, a TV spot summarizing the day’s actions went live and not long after Simmons filed a column that dismissed Aliu’s experiences within the sport.
, stating that the only reason he responded to Simmons is because of the attention his column received on the internet, and that the long-time hockey scribe has never spoken to him before.
“You are racist and you are arrogant. You have zero credibility and respect from even your own peers in the media space and athletes alike. If the Toronto Sun had any integrity whatsoever, you’d never write another column again. Once again I’m going to tell you, you will never divide us.”
Mark Fraser played 219 NHL games across stints with the New Jersey Devils, Toronto Maple Leafs and Edmonton Oilers. Fraser currently works as an equity, diversity and inclusion specialist within the player development department for the Maple Leafs. Fraser has been a vocal anti-racism advocate within hockey, and he’s now working on policy and programming that allows for initiatives to make hockey an anti-racist space get off the ground with real infrastructure.
A young girl, no older than seven, asks Fraser if he’s a hockey player and he beams, telling her that he used to be. She asks what teams he used to play for and Fraser is happy to indulge her, while telling her he now works with the Maple Leafs. Mission accomplished. The little girl is now beaming.
“What it means to me is to be able to see youth who look like me, picking up sticks perhaps for the first time, being interested and engaged with hockey perhaps for the first time,” Fraser said of the importance of having policy and programming in place to facilitate these goals.
“It also allows some of us former pros to be present to let them see that there's success for individuals who look like us in this sport as well.
“Between programs like this and Home Ice Hockey at MLSE, there's a lot of diversity and racial diversity in this city and we want to make sure the sport of hockey that is very prominent in this city is inclusive and that everyone feels like they can be a part of that culture. Programs like this create that accessibility and that presence,” he said.
Although the sport of hockey continues to try to push people of colour and other marginalized groups out of the sport, Aliu and the HDA are not only going down without a fight, they’re going to win the proverbial war at home.
“A lot of us came from this neighbourhood, three of us from the HDA are from right here,” Aliu said. “Obviously, it's a really difficult place to come out of and make it to the highest levels of hockey but a few of us were lucky enough to do that. A lot slipped through the cracks.
“And this is what really this program is tailored towards, the kids that maybe didn't get lucky or didn't have a family help them with fees, or didn't have an organization help them with fees. We want to be a shining example to these kids that anything is possible, no matter where you come from.”
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