The landscape on ice is changing rapidly. For years, hockey and figure skating have been dominated by white athletes, and to varying degrees, they still are today. But three Black competitors on the sixth season of CBC's Battle of the Blades — former NHLer Akim Aliu and figure skaters Asher Hill and Vanessa James — are making efforts to change that. Aliu first spoke about the racism he experienced in hockey in November, when he said he was targeted by then-Calgary Flames coach Bill Peters while the two were in the minor leagues together. Peters was fired soon after. That revelation became the tip of the iceberg, with multiple other NHL coaches being called out for abuse. In May, as the NHL was getting set to restart its season amid a worldwide racial reckoning following the death of George Floyd, Aliu and a group of BIPOC hockey players formed the Hockey Diversity Alliance (HDA). WATCH | Aliu, James, Hill discuss diversity in respective sports: Requests to NHL Aliu, 31, was born in Nigeria and lived in Ukraine until he was seven and moved to Toronto. He serves as co-head of the organization alongside San Jose Sharks forward Evander Kane which pledges "to eradicate racism and intolerance in hockey." In July, the HDA made a series of requests to the NHL including more inclusive employment practices and supporting social justice initiatives that target racism, among other asks. Earlier this month, unsatisfied with the NHL's response, the HDA cut ties with the league over what it called "performative public relations." "It would be a lot easier to implement some of the things we want to do in some of the NHL cities with their fans and with their following but they're not there yet," Aliu told CBC Sports' Jacqueline Doorey. "They feel that things are good status quo and we don't, so we feel it's up to us to take the reins of the conversation and I do believe that sooner or later they'll have no choice but to jump on board." Aliu said he's encouraged by the first few months of the HDA despite the difficult relationship with the league. "I think we found a little bit of trouble getting pulled in different directions with some of the objectives and missions that we had, but we stuck together as a group and I feel like we're doing a lot of good in the game of hockey right now and in society as well," he said. The goal now is to ensure the conversation around racial injustice in hockey doesn't get swept under the rug. "We didn't want it to be a moment, we wanted it to be a movement. So we don't want it to be one of those trendy topics like it's been in the past," Aliu said. Aliu is paired on Battle of the Blades with James, a six-time French pairs champion, 2018 Grand Prix Final champion and 2019 European champion. The two are skating for The Time To Dream Foundation, which aims to make youth sports more inclusive and accessible. WATCH | Powerful pause in sports: Transition to figure skating James says Aliu is making the transition from hockey to figure skating quite swimmingly. "He's phenomenal, he's a hard worker, he's naturally talented, very agile and flexible and he has these long legs that make beautiful lines when they're straight. He's doing a great job," James said. The two have already made a solid connection due to their shared experiences in predominantly white sports. James is also part of the Figure Skating Diversity and Inclusion Alliance (FSDIA), which carries similar goals to Aliu's HDA. "There's always been a little bit of isolation and not feeling included. … If you look at [clothes] for figure skating, you don't find tights for Black girls or people of colour, you don't find skates that are the same colour, it's hard to find matching things like that. So it gives the idea they're not welcomed," James said. For James, the main goal is to ensure the next generation of figure skaters feel welcomed in their sport. Hill, a 29-year-old ice dancer paired with hockey player Jessica Campbell, is skating for FreedomSchool – Toronto, which aims to intervene on anti-Black racism in the school system. His mindset is similar to James in trying to create a more inclusive sport than he came into, and he's also a member of the FSDIA. "I think oftentimes we don't see Black people in winter sports, [it's] assumed that we don't like the cold or we're afraid of ice [or that] it's a white man's sport or a white person's sport," Hill said. "But it's just if you have access and if you're able to do it and I think having the representation of so many Black athletes will show that you can occupy any space as long as you have the opportunity." Hill is aiming to create more opportunities and accessibility in the figure skating community. Like Aliu, he says the sport's organizations fall short. "I think it comes down to the mindset of the gatekeepers and the leaders in the sport which are our coaches and our federation heads. … It's just changing the mindset that anyone can be part of figure skating as long as you give the opportunity," Hill said. Along with Aliu, James and Hill, former NHLer Anthony Stewart rounds out the Black skaters on the newest edition of Battle of the Blades. Beyond the ice, junior Canadian champion and international competitor Elladj Baldé will serve as a judge and singer Keshia Chanté joins Ron MacLean as a co-host. "I think it's a beautiful cast because there's so much diversity and so much inclusion," James said. The season premiere airs Thursday at 8 p.m. ET.
If the NHL hopes to start a new season in January, there probably won't be any fans in the buildings and games could be played in some sort of modified bubble format, say some experts. There's also talk of an all-Canadian division but whatever plans are in place when the season opens could change over time. The NHL and the NHL Players' Association will begin meetings in the coming weeks to discuss a return to play, although there's already been some dialogue between the two sides. NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has said the league hopes to begin Jan. 1 and wants to play a full 82-game season with fans in arenas. WATCH | NHL analyst Dave Poulin discusses NHL's next steps: The border between Canada and the United States remains closed as cases of COVID-19 increase in both countries. That presents a huge challenge for a league with seven Canadian cities. "It would be premature to speculate on what next season might look like at this point," Gary Meagher, the NHL's executive vice-president of communications, told CBC Sports in an email. "The league and the NHLPA are focused on what makes the most sense from a scheduling standpoint. "We are going to be flexible and adaptable, but we also understand that important considerations like the status of the Canada-US border and the state of COVID in the next few months are simply guesswork at this point." Experts doubtful of NHL's plan Earl Brown, a professor emeritus in biochemistry, microbiology and immunology at the University of Ottawa, said even if a vaccine were developed for COVID-19 in the next couple of months, it's unlikely enough people would be immune by the beginning of the new year. "So given the way it is now, I would not put my money on [the] NHL [having fans] at the beginning of next year," he said. Moshe Lander, a senior lecturer in the economics of sports, gaming and gambling at Concordia University, also questioned the league's suggested timetable. "I cannot see that all of the boxes are going to be checked for the NHL," said Lander. "They're not going to be able to start on Jan. 1 with fans [and] with free movement of teams. Something's going to have to be sacrificed there." And Bill Foley, owner of the Las Vegas Golden Knights, suggested in a radio interview the Canadian teams could remain home and play each other without travelling to the United States. "I think they're going to play in a Canadian division," said Foley. "I don't think they're going to cross the border." However, Lander questions the logic of allowing teams to fly within Canada. "You're begging for trouble," he said. WATCH | NHL reports no COVID-19 cases after 65 days in bubbles: The NHL used bubbles in Toronto and Edmonton to successfully host its Stanley Cup playoffs. Players and support staff from the 24 teams were only allowed access to their hotel and the arena. Over the 65 days of the playoffs, 1,452 league and club personnel stayed in the bubble secure zones. A total of 33,394 COVID-19 tests were administered with zero positive results. That plan worked for the playoffs. But with some players grumbling about the time spent away from home and how the amenities inside the bubbles were not delivered as promised, it's unlikely the concept would be used for a full season. "Nobody is going to do that for four months or six months or something like that," NHLPA executive director Don Fehr told The Associated Press as the playoffs were winding up in September. Former NHL goaltender Corey Hirsch said the players would want some flexibility. "I would probably be able to do a bubble if you let me go home every 10 days for a week," said Hirsch, who is now part of the Vancouver Canucks' radio broadcast crew. "I wouldn't want to do two months straight again." Alternate bubble format? It has been reported the bubbles could cost between $75 million and $90 million US to operate. Lander suggested the idea of regional bubbles based on the NHL's four divisions. Teams could play a number of games then the players would be allowed to return home. "Rather than having one continuous season of 80 games, maybe you're going to have to look at kind of four mini-seasons," with teams rotating through the bubbles, he said. Brown understands why players don't want to be isolated again but questions the safety of allowing anyone to leave the bubble. "That sounds a little dicey to me," he said. WATCH | A look inside the NHL bubbles: Crossing the border remains a huge issue. The Toronto Blue Jays played their Major League Baseball home games at their top minor-league affiliate's stadium in Buffalo, N.Y., this season. The Jays were forced to make the move after the federal government rejected a plan for the club and visiting teams to stay in the hotel inside Rogers Centre and never leave the facility during stints in Toronto. Canada's three Major League Soccer teams were also forced to relocate in U.S. cities to play games. Natalie Mohamed, a spokesperson for the Public Health Agency of Canada, said the resumption of sports events in Canada must follow the government's plan "to mitigate the importation and spread of COVID-19." "The government is open to reviewing further proposals from the National Hockey League that includes a comprehensive public health plan agreed to by the Government of Canada and obtaining written support from provincial or territorial public health officials," Mohamed told CBC Sports in an email. There have been suggestions the NHL may be forced to reduce the number of games teams play. If fans are allowed, it will likely be far less than what buildings normally seat. No matter what happens, owners will still lose millions of dollars. "I don't see them making money in the coming year," said Lander. "It's merely going to be a matter of trying to minimize losses."
Maple Leafs reporter Justin Cuthbert and NHL Analyst Mike Stephens discuss Joe Thornton’s arrival and break down the impact that the veteran centre could have on the team’s young players and the locker room as a whole.