Akim Aliu has approached almost everything he has done in life with a note of caution.
Given his background, his story, this is completely understandable.
It's also why he is even more grateful than usual for the prompting that was provided by his girlfriend and family, the encouragement that was needed to take a leap of faith into the Battle of the Blades (2020 edition).
"I am forever thankful to them for pushing me to do this," said Aliu, preparing for another all-important performance with partner Vanessa James on the popular CBC show Thursday night. "I didn't agree to do it until basically the last second. I was hesitant about doing it, just because I am still active as a player and I wasn't sure how that would be looked upon."
And then there is the issue of a sport that does not necessarily play well into the hands of an athlete who has often kept to himself.
"A lot of people who know me know that I am not the most emotional athlete," Aliu continued. "I don't express my feelings and a lot of that has to do with being in the hockey world. The truth is that there is some acting that goes into the Battle of the Blades, tapping into different characters to hype up your performance."
"I knew that those things would be a challenge for me. This has been one of the hardest experiences of my life, but also one of the most rewarding. I am having an absolute ball on the show."
If life is a series of learning narratives, the past month or so has fit the bill ten-fold for the young man who was born in Nigeria and enjoyed two separate stints as a member of the Sudbury Wolves between 2005 and 2009.
Like most young hockey players, Aliu had very little sense of a realistic comparison between his sport and the figure skating community that can be sometimes mocked by those with little knowledge of the sport.
"I can't wait for these conversations to come up again, where people might suggest that figure skating is not manly or this or that," he said. "For me, all of that has been blown completely out the window. I honestly think that figure skaters and gymnasts are some of the best athletes in the world."
"People do not understand how hard it is."
"The rocker on figure skates is completely different, the toe picks are a nightmare, the blades are super long. I've always prided myself on being a big man that could skate, but it's nothing like what these athletes are doing. Their ability to switch edges, the body control they have, the explosiveness they have to jump, the balance needed to land, the body awareness - it's incredible, it's insane."
"I have a newfound respect for what they do," added Aliu. "I'm honestly upset at myself for not tapping into figure skating a little bit earlier. I think it would have helped my game."
And it's not only on the ice where his eyes have been opened.
"Our choreographer (David Wilson) is one of the best in the world, and he's a gay man," said Aliu. "I've taken pride in the fact that we have bonded and developed a relationship, allowing me to learn a lot from him and what he's gone through in his life. Figure skating is a lot more emotional sport and people involved are a little more mindful of their spirituality, just because of how much performing goes into it."
"I'm so thankful to be able to tap into a different version of Akim, and it's something that I would not have been able to do without the help and support of the people that are around me."
Much has happened in the life of Akim Aliu since he became something of an OHL rarity, acquired twice by the same team (the Wolves) in the span of his junior career. To this day, the emotions that tie the very well-spoken member of the Hockey Diversity Alliance to northern Ontario remain strong.
"I just think it relates so much to my life," he said. "We moved from Nigeria to Russia, where I didn't want to be, and then moved to Canada (when he was seven), and I couldn't speak english and now had all of my friends in the Ukraine. In a way, getting traded to Sudbury tapped into those same feelings for me."
"I'll never forget my dad and I pulling up in front of Sudbury Arena," he recalled. "I stepped out of the car. I was frozen and said to him, "I don't think I can play here." But then you look at the way that things turned, the friendships that I made, the run in 2007 that was so special. I think a lot of people might be surprised to hear this, considering that I also played in London, but Sudbury was the best time I had in junior hockey."
"Mike (head coach Mike Foligno) and I had a really good relationship," he said. "We didn't see eye to eye on everything, but I really feel that we both had a genuine love for each other and wanted the best for each other. I think that trumps anything."
"I went from not wanting to be in the city to absolutely loving it."
And with all due respect to the iconic local presence that is Meagan Duhamel (for very good reason), Aliu remains hopeful that Sudbury might send a little love back his way, as he and Vanessa James look to continue their ascent towards a Battle of the Blades crown this fall.