Rookie season a lonely 'haze'

KEN FIDLIN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 5:18 PM ET

Alone, living away from home in a strange town, trying to cope with immense changes in his life, 16-year-old Akim Aliu drew the line.

The Toronto native would not cram his naked body into a hot, smelly toilet along with several other fellow Windsor Spitfires rookies.

That was the initiation ritual that was demanded of him on Sept. 9 during the bus ride back to Windsor after an OHL pre-season game in London.

Others decided to play along, just as hundreds of rookies down through the years, had played along.

"I've always been kind of a stubborn-headed person," said Aliu yesterday, after Windsor defeated the Toronto St. Michael's Majors 3-2 at st. Mike's Arena.

"If I don't want to do something, I don't want to do it. And I said I wouldn't do it. I knew I wasn't going in there."

It's called hazing and the flimsy premise is that it's a team-building exercise. In reality, it's nothing more than bullying and a form of degradation. By not playing along, Aliu effectively alienated himself from his teammates. The situation festered for three weeks until captain Steve Downie skated up to Aliu in practice and tapped him on the shoulder.

When Aliu turned to face him, Downie cross-checked him in the face, chipping a couple of teeth. After Aliu went to the dressing room for repairs, he returned to the ice and fought with Downie.

"The only way anyone ever knew about (the hazing) was because of the fight," Aliu said. "That's when it came out."

It came out, all right -- in big bold headlines all over North America. In the aftermath, Moe Mantha has been suspended from his role as Spitfires GM by the league for the rest of the season and playoffs. He's also been suspended as coach for the next 40 games and the team has been fined $35,000.

Downie, a first-round pick by the Philadelphia Flyers last summer, was suspended for five games and has been ordered to seek anger management counselling. He quit the team and has asked for a trade.

And Aliu?

He is still a rookie trying to survive in the best teenaged hockey league in the world. There is so much growing to do -- physically, mentally and emotionally -- in such a short time.

But to have to figure it all out under the troubling circumstances of the past two months is more than any teenager should have to bear, just because he said no to a stupid, repulsive hazing ritual.

After a bad start, the Spitfires are beginning to get their act together. They beat the London Knights last Thursday for the first time in 23 games, spanning three years. After losing in Sarnia on Friday, they won on the road yesterday for only the second time all year.

Still, Aliu is on an island as far as his relationship with his teammates goes.

"It's been getting a little better, but it's awkward because everybody is still thinking about what happened," said Aliu. "I can't change everyone's minds. They have the right to think whatever they think. If they're against me, then they're against me. I can't really change anyone's mind.

"I just go in the dressing room, do my thing and get out of there. I don't really try to interact with any of them. Just do my thing and get out of there."

Aliu, at 6-foot-3 and 210 pounds, is an imposing physical specimen with good skills. He can skate, handle the puck and shoot -- three goals and two assists in 12 games -- but he is a long way from being a polished player. Yesterday, he had perhaps eight shifts, but didn't see the ice in the last 15 minutes.

"I don't think I've lived up to half my potential," said Aliu, who was the Spitfires first-round pick out of minor midget last May. "It all comes with ice time. The more ice I get, the better I'll get. No rush."

In other circumstances, he'd be learning in splendid anonymity, just another rookie in the OHL. But, because of the headlines, he has become a target for verbal abuse wherever he goes.

"It happened today," he said, matter-of-factly. "It happened from the other team. It happens from fans when I walk out. I'm getting used to it. It was (difficult) at first because I wasn't really used to it. But now I just block it out. You don't pay attention to it."

If it's true that what doesn't kill you only makes you stronger, then this kid is going to grow into a rock. Sadly, it didn't have to happen this way, or this young.


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