Out of Africa and into the NHL

TERRY KOSHAN -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 7:57 AM ET

Akim Aliu was expecting to be asked an array of interesting questions at the NHL Central Scouting combine earlier this month, but there was one that briefly caught him off-guard.

Could he report to the Washington Capitals' room as soon as possible and act as an interpreter so Capitals staff could interview Russian prospect Ruslan Bashkirov? The interpreter who was scheduled was unavailable. Aliu, fluent in Russian, made his way to the Caps' interview area. The Bashkirov interview, from the Capitals' perspective, went off without a hitch. In fact, the Capitals, who conducted an interview with Aliu in English at the combine, were impressed.

"It was interesting to watch him interact with the other kid," Caps director of amateur scouting Ross Mahoney said. "I had heard he spoke a couple of languages, and he was a real help to us. It's all the more credit to this young man."

Aliu found the experience insightful.

"I was happy to do it," Aliu said. "And I got to see what kinds of things I might be asked. I hope things work out for Bashkirov. He was a nice kid."

Bottom line? The Capitals had a positive impression of Aliu. It has not always been that way for the 18-year-old, who was born in Nigeria, lived for a time in Kiev, Ukraine, and did not begin skating until he was 10 years old.

But after a number of public incidents in two seasons in the Ontario Hockey League, Aliu, who turned 18 in April, is ready for a new chapter.

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The Chicago Blackhawks hold the first pick in this week's NHL Entry Draft but there is no clear-cut favourite to go No. 1.

Will it be London Knight Patrick Kane or someone else? The debate continues.

And then there is Aliu, the wildcard, in the draft.

"On talent alone, he would be a top-15 pick, maybe a top 10," said the scouting director for one club, who wished to remain unidentified. "But when you consider the off-ice problems, you're probably talking second or third round."

RATED NO. 41

Aliu is No. 41 among skaters in North America in Central Scouting's final rankings.

"You don't always find these kids who are so big and talented," a scout said. "There have been guys like him (who have had off-ice issues) who have turned out fine."

A dream of sorts was accomplished for Aliu when he was selected sixth overall by the Windsor Spitfires in the 2005 OHL draft. But just months later, the good feelings dissolved when Aliu became involved in a highly publicized fight with team captain Steve Downie, which was caught by television cameras and became entrenched in hockey circles thanks mostly to the Internet, where the clip is watched often. Both Aliu and Downie eventually were traded after the fight, which had its roots in a hazing incident on the team bus.

Aliu and Spitfire rookies allegedly were told by Downie and other veterans to strip and cram themselves into the bathroom at the back of the vehicle.

Aliu refused to participate in the initiation rite known as "the hotbox".

Downie went on to help Canada win back-to-back gold medals at the world junior championship, but the fight has been more of a stain for Aliu.

Aliu was not overly hungry when he met a reporter at a restaurant near Pearson International Airport in Toronto. But while he was tucking into a chicken caesar salad and sipping on a glass of water, discussed openly a number of issues. One was the scrap with Downie.

DOWNIE INCIDENT

"It was tough," Aliu said. "I was 16 years old and in my first year of junior and I did not know what to expect. After all that happened, he came out the hero and that bothered me. You know what? I am happy for his success. But the whole thing was portrayed as my fault, and I don't know how that happened. We've talked, said hi, nothing big. It's in the past and done."

Because of that incident and a few others -- like being sent home by his coach with the Sudbury Wolves, Mike Foligno, for the final two games of the regular season in March before re-joining the club for what wound up being a stunning run through the playoffs -- Aliu has been painted with a wide brush as a kid who is a hothead and has trouble dealing with authority. But Aliu wants people to learn more about him before firm decisions are made about his character.

"About 99% of what is out there is not true," Aliu said. "I'm a good, caring kid. But some people don't want to get to know me, to see what I am about."

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Aliu's story is one that probably could have happened only with plenty of character, and it started years ago in Nigeria. His father, Tai Aliu, earned a track scholarship to a university in Kiev, in what was then the U.S.S.R., and there he met his future wife, Larissa. By the mid-1990s, the Alius were not comfortable with the political situation in Ukraine and made the decision that picking up and starting from scratch would serve their two sons best.

With nothing more than their suitcases in tow, the family arrived in Toronto during the winter of 1996 and settled into a small apartment in the Dundas and Dufferin area. Though he had an educational background in geology, Tai Aliu went back to school and became a computer software engineer. The early years for the family in Toronto were far from easy.

Akim, born in Nigeria but raised until he was seven in the Ukraine, spoke no English. Hockey was not even part of the thought process.

"We were on welfare for a bit and it was a different lifestyle," Akim Aliu said. "I always thought kids were making fun of me (because of the language barrier) but later I found out that they were not. I picked up the language pretty quick."

The mosaic that is Toronto appealed to the Alius.

"Toronto is a diversified city, and I just fell in love with it," Tai Aliu said during a conversation in the family's comfortable Toronto home. "There has been a lot of work but it has been rewarding. God helps those who help themselves."

Tai Aliu and his wife were surprised when their younger son began making noise about playing hockey three years after the family moved to Canada.

Akim Aliu's friends were playing the sport and he wanted to join them.

"I said no, because we could not afford it," Tai Aliu said. "But he really wanted to play, and what could we do? The first skates we bought for him were from a garage sale at Spadina and College. We brought them home and said, 'Look what we bought for you.' He started to cry. He put them on, went to bed and slept with them on."

HOUSE LEAGUE

Akim soon was playing house-league hockey at McCormick Arena in Parkdale.

His ascension through minor hockey was a rapid one, and after a few seasons, was playing for the vaunted Toronto Marlies.

"I was meant to play hockey," Aliu said. "My parents are warriors. They battled for us and found a way to become a success. I saw what they went through. It was hard at times to see them work that long and hard for us.

But what I have now is a credit to them."

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When the London Knights open training camp for the 2007-08 season, Aliu will be in attendance, wearing his familiar No. 78 sweater. The Knights represent Aliu's third team in three OHL seasons, and for some, alarm bells are set off.

But Foligno was adamant he was not seeking to trade Aliu. When Foligno made a deal with the Knights to send Aliu to them, he picked up a second-round pick and used it to take his son, Marcus, in the OHL draft in May.

Aliu will be reunited with Knights assistant coach Dave Gagner, who coached Aliu with the Marlies. Foligno had some issues with the headstrong Aliu but said he did not regret the latter's time in Sudbury.

"He can improve his social skills, but a lot of it has to do just with growing up and maturity," Foligno said. "He has been in the limelight and there are good and bad ways to respond to that. He has to learn which is better."

Foligno sees plenty of potential in Aliu the hockey player, one who is 6-foot-2 and 200 pounds. In 53 games this past season -- he also missed some games because of league-imposed suspensions -- Aliu had 20 goals and 22 assists and 104 penalty minutes. A solid soccer player who has performed at the provincial level, Aliu is a power forward whom the Knights found attractive because they thought they collectively were too small and were pushed around in their playoff series loss to the Plymouth Whalers.

"He wants to be the best and you can't knock a guy who wants that," Foligno said. "Akim tried as hard as he could and I had no problems with what he gave. And there's not a player in the draft who will touch his skating ability. He will be the best skater available."

Aliu is thrilled with the idea of playing for Gagner again and for the Hunter brothers, Mark and Dale, in London. But a quality he had instilled while he was growing up -- whether it was learned or a product of his environment -- remains strong. Aliu speaks what he is thinking.

DISAPPOINTING

"This season was disappointing because I did not accomplish 50% of what I set out to do, and the things I wanted to do were not unrealistic," Aliu said.

"I had a lot of ups and downs, but I thought I could have done a lot more. In the playoffs I played on the third line (Aliu had a goal and five assists in 21 post-season matches) and I could have given more. But I was not given much of an opportunity."

Foligno had no qualms with putting Aliu in a third-line role that involved penalty killing. And he was pleased that the same player whom he had sent home in March for undisciplined play and saying too much behind closed doors visibly was upset when the Wolves lost in the OHL final to Plymouth.

"I looked around the room and there was sadness," Foligno said. "Akim was sitting in the corner and he was staring at a blank space and his eyes were welling up with tears. He knew he was one of the guys and he really wanted to win for the club."

As for the outspoken nature that has at times landed Aliu in hot water with his coaches, Gagner does not take issue. Stories have been passed around the league about Aliu, but ask some to speak on the record, and lips suddenly are sealed.

"I think there are a lot of kids in the draft who people don't know and probably are not what they seem," Gagner said. "At least Akim is up front with who he is and you know what you are getting. Besides, at 17 or 18, a kid should not have everything figured out, and you have to be tolerant with that."

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So what will become of Aliu on the weekend when the draft begins? One NHL scout said his club would not give Aliu a second look. That view is not held by all teams.

"I know that when he is drafted, and it might even be by my team, that I would like to go up to him and shake his hand and congratulate him," said an NHL scout whose primary focus is the OHL.

"Some teams will have concerns. He has to grow up a little bit, and there has been some negativity. He is worldly in some ways but naive in others. But he is a good kid and with the right leadership he can be a good player in the NHL."

Given the manner in which his son learned to play hockey, Tai Aliu has a hard time wrapping his mind around the fact his son is on the cusp of taking the next step in his hockey career. But the reputation his son has, whether people know him or not, gives him pause.

MISBEHAVED

"I cannot be oblivious for the fact he has misbehaved at some times," the elder Aliu said. "If I did not see any good in his heart, I would not be spending my last dime to make sure he is comfortable.

"I can not find a word to describe my feelings now. Whoever decides to give him a chance, we are going to see that a person as a saviour, because this boy has been through a lot.

"I'm proud. He is a kid who grew from nowhere, came from Africa, and at the age of 10 started to learn how to skate."

Akim Aliu knows he has brought on some things himself. But he is ready to make a full and proper commitment to the team that calls his name.

"A lot of people say I have to tone down my intensity and stuff like that, but if you take it away, then you are criticizing me for what brought me here," Aliu said.

"There are some things I wish were different. If I did not have some troubles, maybe I would have solidified a top-15 spot. Of course, I have some regrets. But I have to do the best with what I have now, and I think that is a lot."


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