Aliu relishes fresh start with Heat

The best Christmas gift that Akim Aliu received in 2011 arrived a day late.

Heat forward Akim Aliu

Heat forward Akim Aliu

The best Christmas gift that Akim Aliu received in 2011 arrived a day late.

On Boxing Day, the 22-year-old right winger found out he’d been loaned to the Abbotsford Heat by the Winnipeg Jets, the team that held his NHL rights.

The news was a great relief to Aliu (pronounced ah-LOO), who had spent most of the fall and winter at home in Toronto after a falling-out with the Jets during training camp.

“It’s been a long year,” Aliu acknowledged during a recent post-practice interview. “I sat at home for a long time trying to get an opportunity somewhere else, and Calgary (the Heat’s NHL parent club) was nice enough to give me an opportunity. Hopefully I can make the best of it and make this my home.”

In all, Aliu spent the better part of two months cooling his heels at home, interspersed with short stints with the Colorado Eagles, the Jets’ ECHL affiliate, and EC Red Bull Salzburg, an Austrian club.

Aliu didn’t go into great detail on what happened in Winnipeg, other than to say he and Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff didn’t see eye to eye.

“Different things happened at different stages,” he said. “Myself and Kevin had been together in Chicago before (with the AHL’s Wolves in 2010-11, when it was the Atlanta Thrashers’ affiliate). Things didn’t work out. I’m just looking forward, and I’m really excited to be here.”

In many ways, Aliu couldn’t have found a better landing spot than Abbotsford as he sets about recharging his career.

Heat bench boss Troy Ward takes a “holistic” approach to his job – he’s as interested in how his charges are handling their responsibilities off the ice as on it, and he’s more sensitive than most coaches to players’ motivations and needs.

Ward has had success in the past working with players perceived to be high-maintenance – Krys Kolanos’s all-star season being Exhibit A in that regard.

Ward acknowledged that Aliu arrived with the reputation of being hard to manage, but said to this point, he’s been “awesome” to work with.

“I have to rid him of old habits,” Ward noted, “to help him become a successful player and and successful person.

“We’ve got to look at how we change behavioral patterns and how we change relationships with teammates, relationships with coaches, how he handles the equipment staff. Those are the things we’re going about now. As we work on those things, we’ve still got to work on the player.”

Aliu brings an intriguing blend of size (6’3”, 205 pounds) and skill to the table, befitting his status as a former second-round draft choice of the Chicago Blackhawks (56th overall in 2007). He scored four goals in his first nine games with the Heat.

Ward wants to see Aliu establish himself as a reliable checking forward at the AHL level, before being entrusted with more of a scoring role. It’s a development arc that fellow Heat forward Guillaume Desbiens followed as a younger player, when he was a member of the Manitoba Moose.

“He’s going to have to play a role here he’s never embraced before,” Ward said. “If he can learn to check and play smart and play with some discipline, I think he’ll be a big part of our team.

“We have a special player here. I think he can help us. You can see loads of skill, but at the same time, you have to look at the bigger picture. It’s about his day-to-day activity as a person that will override his playing ability, and that’s what we’re working on right now. And to his credit, he’s been totally open to that. I think he feels there’s an open door here.”

Aliu said he’s willing to take on whatever role Ward needs him to fill. Less than two weeks into his tenure in Abbotsford, he already feels at home with the Heat.

“Honestly, it’s been awesome,” he said. “They’ve all been very welcoming, and they’ve been teaching me a lot in the first few days here. It’s a great group of guys, and they’ve made me feel warm and welcome.”

Aliu has a unique background – he was born in Okene, Nigeria, then moved with his family to Kiev, Ukraine before his second birthday. He got a relatively late start in hockey, only beginning in the sport after his family moved to Canada when he was 10.

Many hockey fans still remember Aliu’s name from an ugly hazing-related incident in 2005-06, early in his junior hockey career with the OHL’s Windsor Spitfires. Aliu, 16 years old at the time, was involved in an altercation during practice with current Tampa Bay Lightning forward Steve Downie, an older teammate. Aliu reportedly had refused to participate in a hazing episode, and Downie knocked out three of Aliu’s teeth with a blindside cross-check before dropping the gloves with the youngster. The ensuing publicity shone a bright light on the issue of hazing in hockey.

“It happened a long time ago,” noted Aliu, who said he’s tired of talking about the incident at this point. “But I’m fine with it. I’m trying to get past it.”

Aliu has looked right at home on the Heat’s third line, where he’s played alongside cagey centre Quintin Laing. Laing, the Heat’s captain, has taken a special interest in the newcomer.

“Lainger’s been good with helping me out during practice, with drills and understanding the team concept, the way they play here,” Aliu said.