Inside the Hockey Diversity Alliance’s Winterfest and what it means to Toronto

Arun Srinivasan
5 months ago
TORONTO — There are dozens of children running around inside the community centre while tired yet enthusiastic hockey parents line up for some much-needed coffee Saturday morning and in many respects, Trinity Bellwoods Park looks like your typical portrait of Canadiana. But this is no ordinary event. During the final day of NHL All-Star Week, the Hockey Diversity Alliance (HDA) are holding their first annual Winterfest, transforming the hub of Toronto’s west end into a winter wonderland, while providing media, fans, parents, city council members and other interested parties a window into their programming initiatives.
It’s been 18 months since the HDA launched their Grassroots Original Hockey League and they’ve met all their internal programming and registration targets to date, prioritizing several underserved communities within the Greater Toronto Area. Aaron Atwell, who played professional hockey for a decade and Edward Aliu, Akim’s brother, are operating the ball hockey tournament inside the community centre, with the help of six coaches and several volunteers, so they only have time for a quick fist bump in order to keep the proceedings running smoothly.
Six teams from Rexdale, Jane and Finch, Regent/Moss Park, Malvern, Keelesdale and Flemingdon are squaring off indoors and Doja Cat’s Paint The Town Red blares inside before another game commences. Each participant gets a CCM-issued HDA jersey and equipment, while the outdoor rink sports the HDA logo, along with corporate sponsors Lululemon, Canadian Tire, Kraft and Jumpstart.
I spoke to Akim Aliu on Monday and caught up with him again Saturday afternoon after the celebrity game. It’s a monumental accomplishment in his career and the day’s festivities are a tangible linkage to how Aliu envisions minor hockey should operate in Toronto and Canada more broadly.
“I think we’ve shattered the myth of not having interest with people of colour to play our game,” Aliu told The Leafs Nation on Saturday. “I think for us, it’s one of those things, it’s about removing barriers and providing opportunities to our youth. It’s obviously things we wished we had when we were growing up, we were blessed enough to get a break at an important time to be able to get access to the game of hockey but a lot of kids slip through the cracks.
“I mean, look at what happened today: a lot of people of colour really enjoying themselves, feeling included in the game and I think it’s an experience they’re going to take with them for a really long time and hopefully this will ignite them to want to play hockey.”
Throughout the park, there are HDA signs and banners everywhere, with a blue-and-white balloon hub welcoming the day’s attendees to the outdoor arena where a full ice hockey game takes place between two HDA youth clubs, then a celebrity game featuring Marshawn Lynch, Anthony Duclair, Wayne Simmonds, Nik Antroprov, Adam DiMarco (HBO’s The White Lotus) among others highlight the afternoon portion. A DJ sits atop a Red Bull-sponsored truck and blasts disco remixes of hip-hop classics while onlookers gaze at the proceedings.
“I thought it was really important for us to be able to tap into people who are outside of hockey, who draw in their audience,” Aliu said. “Obviously, I reached out to Marshawn, who is a brother of mine. He’s not looked at as a hockey guy and we had some really cool actors here and just people from a different space, we can use their audience and bring in new folks who otherwise wouldn’t be interested in the game.”
Arizona Coyotes defenseman and HDA co-founder Matt Dumba spoke to The Leafs Nation before the celebrity game, in between dapping up excited kids who are thrilled to see one of their role models.
“Seeing something like this, I would’ve never dreamed this since I was a little kid but seeing all our hard work over the last 3-4 years is just incredible, man,” Dumba told The Leafs Nation. “Super proud of this group. Everyone that has helped us from the ground up, all the volunteers, all the sponsors, it’s just amazing what we can do as a group and how loud our voices are when we work together. It’s a beautiful thing, it’s going to be an awesome day.”
Aliu is trying to dispel the notion that the HDA is outwardly confrontational and would rather focus on his team’s programming initiatives, along with the ascending scope of their youth programming, which will intake over a thousand players entering next season. It’s all about the work, tangible action and affecting policy rather than DEI buzzwords for Aliu and Saturday’s event is a showcase for the group’s work within their own community, with the goal of expanding to several new cities
“Speaking truth to power and calling out the issues in the game is non-confrontational but for us, more importantly, it’s what are we doing to back that up? We have some notable names that are part of our group so when we say things, it kind of spreads far and wide,” Aliu said.
“But at the same time, we are proud folks. We want to have programming to back it. I’d be lying to you — that’s actually my first school right there — I’d obviously be lying to you if I said we’re not out here trying to prove the naysayers and doubters out. We are! I think we’re doing it with flying colours and people have a ways to catch up what we’re doing and how we’re doing it.”
Toronto mayor Olivia Chow and deputy mayor Ausma Malik were in attendance. Despite Chow’s open hostility towards Toronto’s unhoused population with a mandate to increase the police budget, Malik has been a genuine advocate towards people of colour and spoke about the importance of genuine representation in Toronto’s hockey space.
“It has been so incredible to see the work of the Hockey Diversity Alliance over the last several years,” Malik told The Leafs Nation. “The way they’ve engaged young people from communities across the city to see a place from themselves in hockey. In the lead-up to pulling this event together, to have it align with All-Star (week) is just another way to champion and show what it means for hockey to be for everyone.”
The paradox of hockey being prohibitively unaffordable in the world’s hockey capital is front and centre at the discourse around Toronto’s hockey culture, during the backdrop of All-Star weekend, with all the world to see. Aliu, Dumba and the rest of the Hockey Diversity Alliance are on a mission to positively affect hockey’s future, in a world where players from underserved communities are scarcely given a chance. And for one afternoon, we got a new vision of Canadiana, how hockey ought to be pursued in Toronto and beyond, and where the HDA will continue to operate at the forefront of providing new opportunities to those who rarely receive them.
“We’re only going to grow if we’re in it together,” Aliu said. “It’s difficult work to start this. Starting the Hockey Diversity Alliance was at a sensitive time in the world and a lot of people took a risk to make this happen. We’re always looking for support and allies but at the same time, we’re always going to keep it 100, and make sure we’re 10 toes down and doing the right thing.”

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