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3.97/5.0 Stars
Rating if the Book Were a Movie: PG/PG-13

Creative Team:

Writer: Akim Aliu and Greg A. Elysee
Illustrations: Karen De La Vega and Marcus Williams
Publisher: Scholastic 


Story: 4.4 Stars
Artwork: 3.4 Stars
Cover Artwork: 3.5 Stars
Dialogue: 4.1 Stars
Mechanics: 4.2 Stars
Editing: 4.2 Stars 

About the Book:

Dreamer tells the tale of Akim Aliu’s life. We get to see his rise from pee wee hockey to accomplishing his dream of playing in the NHL. We also get to see the systemic racism and bigotry that Akim had to endure and overcome to achieve his dream.

Reader’s Notes:

I live in a city that has a major junior hockey league team. Having a major junior team in your city creates a lot of buzz about hockey. It’s compounded when the team wins the Memorial Cup or players from that team flourish in the National Hockey League (NHL).

People don’t realize all of the demands of youth hockey. It’s akin to being a Jedi. To quote Qui Gonn Jinn, “It’s a hard life”.

I work with someone that has a son on a U-14 team. The league fees are $3500 for the season. That does not include equipment, travel, tournament admission fees, or the cost of ice time and skating coaches for additional lessons.

This doesn’t cover the time commitment. From August through May these kids have practices, out of town games, and tournaments. In many cases, to get experience at a higher level, players have to live with a billet (host) family during the season. In a typical year these kids are lucky to be home with their families for two and a half months.

Mr. Aliu and Mr. Elysse shine a light on these sacrifices that come with making your dream a reality with Dreamers. We get to see Mr. Aliu’s validation as he’s selected to play for a major junior team, where he stands to have the opportunity to get drafted. We also see how the game he loved became his own personal Hell.

There are plenty of things to pay attention to with a hockey player. Do they get in the corners and fight for loose pucks? Are they a forward that will actually play defense, or do they hover near the blue line in hopes of the puck squirting out to them for a breakaway? Will they chase down a player while on jello legs instead of going to the bench if it means preventing a breakaway? These are things that matter.

What color a player’s skin is under that sweater should not even be considered. Unfortunately, as a Black hockey player, Mr. Aliu never got that benefit. In his 12 year old season he had an N bomb shouted at him by a parent from the opposing team. Not a soul came to his defense. Not his teammates. Not his coaches. Not a single parent in the stands. Mr. Aliu was on an island in the middle of that sheet of ice.

Sadly, this wasn’t an isolated incident. As a 16 year old Mr. Aliu was selected to play for a major junior hockey team. This should have been in his top five list of greatest life moments. Instead it was the beginning of his torment. A player on the team that was “going to be a star” in the NHL took a dislike to him because he was black. The first time they met he used the N word in reference to Mr. Aliu.

As a hazing ritual this player locked all the rookies, who were naked, in the bathroom and turned up the heat. Mr. Aliu reported it to the coach. The player got a talking to. As retribution, the player knocked out seven of Mr. Aliu’s teeth with a hockey stick.

The player was eventually traded. When that happened the rest of Aliu’s teammates turned their wrath on him. They saw this player as the key to a deep playoff run. The fact that he was a racist sociopath didn’t matter.

For those of you that are wondering why Mr. Aliu didn’t just quit that team and go to another one, it doesn’t work that way. Players on a major junior team have a contract. In exchange for their services they get gear, food and lodging, and a stipend for gas money to get to and from practice. The team holds the rights to a player. The only ways a player can leave a team are to retire or be traded.

When news of the hazing incident broke one NHL player called it “amusing”. Aliu lost seven teeth and was labeled a troublemaker for something “amusing”.

Through it all Aliu had an impressive junior hockey career. He had more than enough talent to play at the NHL level. He was still fighting the troublemaker label though. His numbers justified him being a first round pick. Because of that label he slid to the end of the second round.

Although he wasn’t drafted as highly as his agent expected, Mr. Aliu’s dream had come true. He was going to be a professional hockey player. Then his dream turned into a nightmare. Bill Peters, the coach of the Chicago Blackhawks AHL team, took to calling Aliu racial slurs. When he stood up to the coach a letter was written about how he wasn’t a good fit. After scoring double digit goals in 48 games as a defenseman, Aliu was demoted to the ECHL.

Eventually Aliu was traded to the Calgary Flames and made his NHL debut in the 2011-12 season. In two games he had two goals and an assist. I hope he kept all three pucks. He’d never score another point in the NHL. He’d go on to play five more games in the NHL. Then he spent the next seven years bouncing from league to league in hopes of skating on NHL ice again before retiring in 2020.

Mr. Aliu’s fateful tale (among others) allows us to see how hockey truly has a problem. Coaches at all levels have the ability to play God for their players. They run amok, completely unchecked. NHL coaches are worried about their team. They aren’t paying attention to what is going on in the minor leagues. If the minor league coaches like you you get to move up. If they don’t, you can find yourself on the outside looking in, regardless of your abilities.

The NHL prides itself on being diverse. In some ways they are. Players in the league hail from all over the world. Very few players are black. As an exercise I asked my hockey friends how many black NHL players they could name over the span of the last 30 seasons. Between the five of us we came up with 13. Names. Over. 30. Years. That is not diversity.

The NHL needs to be better. In recent years they have had players like Wayne Simmonds and P.K. Subban, both remarkable players, that never were given the opportunity to be one of the faces of hockey when it comes to marketing.

Hockey also has to be better at policing itself. Mr. Aliu’s story should never have gotten so far. Nor should Kyle Beach’s. These were two careers cut short by standing up against wrongdoing in the name of maintaining the status quo and not making waves.

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I grew up loving all things geek. I started reading and collecting comics when I was 8. My personal collection has roughly 8,000 books in it. When I’m not doing something geek-related I love spending time with my amazing wife and kids, gaming, and working on cross stitch projects.

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