HARTFORD -- The path to a professional hockey career usually begins with a few wobbly strides on the ice by a toddler.
Hartford Wolf Pack forward Akim Aliu was living in the Ukraine as a toddler, not long after his family moved from Nigeria to the Eastern European country. Hockey was not part of his family’s life during his years in the Ukraine, so he knew nothing about the sport until he was 10.
By then, his family had relocated to Toronto. His father, a track and field athlete who grew up in Nigeria, didn’t understand hockey. His mother, who grew up in Russia, knew nothing about hockey.
But they encouraged their son to pursue Canada’s national sport.
“Everybody in Canada plays hockey,” Aliu said.
The late start didn’t prevent him from becoming an elite prospect. Aliu was a second-round draft pick of the Chicago Blackhawks in 2007 and he made his NHL debut with the Calgary Flames at the end of the 2011-12 season.
It has been an improbable journey for a the 6-foot-4, 225-pound right wing. At age 24, he finds himself on his 10th team since turning professional in 2008.
The goal is still a steady job in the NHL and Aliu remains an attractive prospect because of his size.
“I’m just hoping I can contribute any I can and things will work out here,” Aliu said. “We’ll see how things go.”
Aliu spent the past two seasons in the Calgary Flames organization, playing mostly for AHL Abbotsford. He saw action in two NHL games two seasons ago and five games last year, but he was a free agent last summer.
This season, he played 14 games with the Montreal’s AHL affiliate in Hamilton before he was released from a Professional Tryout (PTO) deal in November. He joined the Wolf Pack on a PTO Dec. 17.
“I was surprised [by the release] … I thought I was playing pretty well there,” Aliu said. “I was playing a lot of minutes and I was getting along well with the coaches. They liked me, I like them. But this is another opportunity.”
Aliu spoke Russian when his family moved to Toronto and he still identifies with Russian culture. All of his extended family is in either Eastern Europe or Nigeria, and he last visited a few years ago.
His background is an anomaly in the world of hockey and he’s grown accustomed to answering questions about his extended family. It was a popular subject during his stint in Calgary and he’d be happy to talk more about his lineage with the NHL media.
The NHL, of course, remains the focus. Aliu has one goal and seven penalty minutes in seven games for the Wolf Pack, who have been struggling to score goals all season. It remains to be seen how long his audition in Hartford will last, but he Aliu is attempting to open some eyes.
“This is a great opportunity for me,” Aliu said. “I’m just trying to help this team win some games.”Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun