Update (2/12/2017): Everyone’s favorite Nigerian-Ukrainian hockey player is getting closer to a return to the NHL. Columbus Blue Jackets beat writer Aaron Portzline reports that Aliu has signed a professional tryout offer with the Jackets’ AHL affiliate, the defending Calder Cup champion Cleveland Monsters. While an AHL tryout is still very far away from an NHL call-up, it’s certainly a step closer than an ECHL deal. If he performs well in Cleveland and earns a contract, he could be playing with friend, junior teammate, and Columbus captain Nick Foligno by next season. Aliu has 12 points in 13 ECHL games so far this season and, unbelievably, 61 penalty minutes as well.
12/6/2016: One of the more interesting prospects of the last decade is back in North America. Akim Aliu, a second-round pick of the Chicago Blackhawks back in 2007, has signed with the Florida Everblades, the ECHL affiliate of the Carolina Hurricanes. Aliu returns to the United States after playing with Amur Khabarovsk of the KHL last season.
A native of Okene, Nigeria, Aliu is one of three native Africans to ever play in the NHL, and the only one to line up at forward. Much like fellow countryman Rumun Ndur and the legendary Olaf Kolzig, Aliu left Africa at a young age, spending much of his young life living in Ukraine. Following the fall of the Soviet Union, Aliu’s family moved to Canada, where he discovered hockey. Despite having never played the game before, Aliu was such a natural talent that he was drafted into the Ontario Hockey League after just a few years on the ice.
In his first junior season with the Windsor Spitfires, Aliu was involved in a highly publicized incident with teammate Steve Downie, after Aliu refused to take part as the victim of a hazing ritual. This led to Downie attacking Aliu in practice which then led to a fight. Both players were suspended and demanded trades out of Windsor.
Aliu’s junior career took off in his second junior season, now playing for the Sudbury Wolves, during which he scored 42 points in 53 games and drew the attention of NHL scouts. Some believed that Aliu could go as high as the first round, due to his stature (6’4″, 220 lbs.), physical, gritty play, and excellent shooting ability. Aliu ended up as the 56th overall pick to the Blackhawks. The next season, Aliu was traded again, this time to the London Knights, where he had the best season of his career, junior or pro, with 61 points in 60 games to go along with a whopping 133 penalty minutes.
Despite his success in 2007-08, Aliu was stuck in juniors for another season before bouncing around the AHL and ECHL for two years. In 2010, Aliu was traded to the Atlanta Thrashers alongside Dustin Byfuglien (who is a remarkably accurate comparison of what Aliu could have been), Brent Sopel, and Ben Eager for a package of players and picks. Aliu never cracked the Thrashers lineup though, or the Winnipeg Jets’ for that matter. He was traded again in 2012 to the Calgary Flames, where he finally got his shot. The Nigerian winger had two goals and an assist in two games for the Flames at the tail end of the 2011-12 season, and hopes were high for the next year. Unfortunately, Aliu was held scoreless in five games to start the year and hasn’t seen NHL ice since.
Ever since, Aliu has been a journeyman of sorts, signing minor league contracts at the AHL and ECHL level, as well as stints in Sweden and Russia. A recent career development has been a switch to defense for several of those teams, much like Byfuglien, where his size and strength can be put to more use. Still just 27 and a great athlete with a versatile skill set, the dream isn’t totally over for Aliu. Many players have made it to the NHL from the ECHL, which grows stronger in its talent pool with every new season. While it’s unlikely that he gets another chance to play with the best in the world, Aliu is one of the more fascinating stories of recent hockey history and a guy that fans can get behind. A shot at NHL redemption for Akim Aliu would certainly be something, and it all starts now with his new opportunity in Estero, Florida.