by Lindsay Kramer || NHL.com
Lindsay Kramer, the AHL correspondent for NHL.com, profiles an up-and-coming player each Monday during the season, and his AHL notebook appears each Thursday on NHL.com.
So much about Rockford rookie forward Akim Aliu‘s game seems ready for pro hockey.
Size? Check. Does 6-foot-3, 212 pounds and still growing work for you?
Talent? Got it. Second-round pick by Chicago in 2007. Eighteen goals and 26 assists in an injury-shortened season for London and Sudbury this year. Fast and powerful as a freight train.
Maturity? More than anyone can imagine, or anyone who hasn’t mirrored Aliu’s hardscrabble life from his native Nigeria to Russia to Toronto.
But hairstyle? Not so much. He reported to the Rockford IceHogs earlier this month with a middle streak dyed yellowish-blond, a remnant from his playoff run in Sudbury.
That’s a junior thing. A few days after joining the IceHogs earlier this week, he was already planning on getting it re-colored to its original hue.
"I think in juniors, guys are a lot younger," said Aliu, 19. "Coaches let them do their thing with their hair. When you come to the pro level, you have to be professional at all times."
Chances are good that Aliu will still find a way to stand out even with a more conventional look. He always has, and with good reason.
Aliu comes to the pros with one of the most interesting and well-known backstories of any prospect of his generation. That’s all well and good, and he is gracious in reviewing the well-worn details.
But right now, he’s all about the present and the future. He could conceivably return to juniors next season, though that seems unlikely. The handful of games he’ll play in the rest of this season will likely set the table for the true start of his pro career.
"They (Chicago) told me I’m done with juniors," he said. "I think I’m ready to go. I have to work on my game to get bigger and stronger. I think over time I’ll adjust better and better."
The particulars are familiar to anyone with a curiosity about the sport: Aliu was born in Nigeria, but his family moved to Russia when he was just a toddler. When he was about 12, they relocated to Toronto, where Aliu first tried and fell in love with hockey.
One problem, the family was dirt poor, crammed into a one-bedroom apartment. Still, his parents did what they could to provide him entry into the sport.
"I’m enjoying the ride now. I think about what I’ve accomplished. It’s unbelievable," he said. "All I did was keep working hard and enjoying the game. I never thought about making money."
While Aliu might have been light in the wallet, he was overflowing with pride. He famously refused to partake in a rookie hazing on the Windsor team bus in 2005. That incident festered to the point that Windsor star Steve Downie and Aliu fought in a practice, a blowup that became a YouTube sensation. Both players were eventually traded, with Aliu winding up in Sudbury.
"There’s some things you think about going back and changing. But then everything would have been perfect, and that’s not how it is in the real world," Aliu said. "It’s just the way I was brought up, it was just my character (to stand up for himself). It’s good to be known, come in with a little bit of a reputation. I don’t mind attention. It’s not a big deal."
And how does he feel now when he watches his fight with Downie?
"I go watch it when my buddies joke around about it. Things like that happen. It doesn’t bother me," he said. "I’ve had some good experiences, and some not so good experiences. Hopefully you learn from everything."
But a couple of tentacles from Aliu’s past are issues he knows he has to deal with if he wants to move forward. Aliu clearly earned the reputation in juniors as someone with a short verbal fuse and an impulsive nature, and in his second game with the IceHogs this season he picked up a 10-minute misconduct for mouthing off to the ref.
"I play on an edge. But as I get older, I think I’m getting better at controlling (his temper)," he said. "Hopefully, I’ll be able to harness that and use it to my advantage."
And since he joined the sport relatively late, each new stage that Aliu reaches has the potential to highlight any lags in his development. But IceHogs coach Bill Peters hasn’t seen that as an issue so far.
"He’s worked hard, come in, asked good questions," Peters said. "It’s all about the pace (of the pro game). He has to get adjusted to that speed, and he will. I don’t think there’s much missing in his game as far as development."
In his own self-assessment, Aliu doesn’t cut himself any slack.
"I’m not terrific at anything," he said. "Maybe the effort’s not there like it should be. But it’s something I’m working on as I get older. I think I caught up (in his skills) as much as I can. But I think about, what if I started earlier?"
It’s a point worth pondering, but ultimately not nearly as important as the ones still to be made. A lot of people know where Aliu comes from and some of the things he’s done.
What matters now is where he’s going next, and what mark he’ll eventually leave behind as a player and a person.
"Hopefully, they see me as a good player and a good person. I want to leave a mark on the game, someday. Be a kid who tried to do what’s right. Sometimes it’s not the popular thing to do," he said. "I get hungrier and younger as the years go on. I just want to get better and better every day. I feel free, away from everything when you’re on the ice."