Nigerian-born Aliu ready to step up to NHL with gifted Blackhawks

In a young hockey career that has captured attention on and off the ice, Akim Aliu says he’s ready to take the next step – making a name for himself in the National Hockey League.

The 19-year-old signed a three-year entry level contract this week with the Chicago Blackhawks, the team that drafted him in 2007 with the 56th overall pick, much lower than projected by scouts for the big, tough and fast right winger.

Spats and feuds with coaches and at least one teammate – the sandpapery Steve Downie – marked Aliu’s junior career, in which he played on three teams in three years. But he also stood out for his ferocious play on the forecheck and a decent touch around the net.

“It’s been an up and down career so far and this is one of the ups,” Aliu said after skating with his junior team, the London Knights.

Aliu has to crack the Hawks’ lineup in training camp or return to London for a final year of junior, but many are pulling for him if only because his is one of the most interesting stories among the recent crop of junior aged talent.

Aliu was born in Nigeria, but spent most of his childhood in Ukraine, where his Nigerian father Tai was a sprinter at the University of Kyiv. His mother Larissa is Ukrainian.

He didn’t speak a word of English and had never held a hockey stick when the family moved to Toronto when he was 12, but only a few years later he was playing on one of the city’s top midget-aged teams with rising star Sam Gagner.

At a combine where junior prospects were interviewed by teams ahead of the 2007 draft, Aliu was asked by one club to serve as interpreter for a Russian player.

Now he wants to make the jump to the NHL with the Blackhawks, a team touted as a future power with young talents like Jonathan Teows and Patrick Kane and the signing on July 1 of rushing defenceman Brian Campbell to an eight-year contract.

“Hopefully my junior career is over,” said Aliu, who quickly added that he is also perfectly happy in London. “They have an unbelievable organization in Chicago.

“I think that in a couple of years, we’ll be a team to watch for.”

To crack Chicago’s lineup, it is expected that he will have to outplay prospects Jack Skille, a first-rounder in 2005, and Troy Brouwer for a spot on the second or third line.

He made an impression at a rookie camp this summer with both his scoring and his fists. At six-foot-two, 216 pounds, Aliu is not afraid to drop the gloves. Some see him as a future linemate and protector for Teows and Kane, although it’s difficult to imagine 36 goal-scorer Patrick Sharp taken off that trio any time soon.

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“I think that’s the most over-rated part of my game,” he said of fighting. “I think that when I do fight, I do well, but that’s not what I try to go out and do.

“If a guy is going to challenge me or take liberties with my teammates, then I’ll do it. The game I want to play is to be a skilled power forward. I want to be able to bang and crash, but not too much so that it takes away from my skill level.”

Aliu’s combination of size and speed – he won the fastest skater contest at the 2007 Top Prospects game – had him rated to go in the top 15 of the draft, but NHL clubs were put off by his indiscipline as a junior.

Perhaps it was because he wasn’t raised in Canadian hockey culture that he refused to participate in a hazing ritual with the Windsor Spitfires in 2005 in which rookies were ordered by the veterans to cram into the so-called Hotbox – the tiny restroom at the back of the team bus.

The next day at practice, he was cross-checked in the mouth by Downie, chipping three teeth. Aliu went for treatment, then returned to the ice and fought his team captain. The resulting furor over hazing cost coach Moe Mantha his job.

Both players were traded and have since made up, but Aliu had more trouble with coach Mike Foligno with the Sudbury Wolves and was suspended by the team after taking some thoughtless penalties.

He seems to be maturing as his junior career goes on and it is his play on the ice that gets most of the attention now.

Last season, he had a career high 61 points, including 28 goals, for the Knights to go with 133 penalty minutes in 60 games. He has 123 points and 316 penalty minutes in 160 junior games thus far.

At the end of last season, he was signed to a tryout contract and played two games for the AHL Rockford IceHogs, where he had no points and two penalty minutes.

Now he’s ready for the Blackhawks camp, having put on some extra weight in the off-season.

“They said I had a good shot at making it but that it’s all up to me,” Aliu said. “I think I have to play to my strengths.

“I’m a big, powerful guy. I’ll just try to get in on the forecheck and try to get the puck. I want to show them what I can do.”