While he played other sports growing up, it was always going to be hockey for Akil Thomas, thanks to a deep admiration for his father, Kahlil.
“My dad was a hockey player and I really wanted to be like him my whole life,” Thomas said. “Obviously, I had interest in other sports like lacrosse, football and baseball and I played them and I really liked them, but my whole life had always revolved around hockey.”
Now 20, Thomas is a second-generation hockey player. His father, who is an assistant coach with the ECHL’s Greenville Swamp Rabbits, spent over a decade playing minor-league hockey across North America, including in the Toronto Maple Leafs’ system at one point with the St. John’s Maple Leafs.
Thomas’s uncle, Leo, also played minor-league hockey and in 2018 became the first black head coach of a professional hockey team when he was named bench boss of the Macon Mayhem of the Southern Professional Hockey League.
Thomas spent his early years in Florida, where his father’s playing career wound down, before returning to Toronto to play with the storied Toronto Marlboros minor hockey club.
A black player in a predominately white sport, Thomas found support in the city’s tight-knit black hockey community.
“The black hockey community is pretty tight, it’s pretty close, especially in Toronto,” Stewart said. “[Former NHL player] Anthony Stewart is a guy who mentored me a little bit and talked to me, just kind of telling me what to expect. We look after each other and I’m thankful for those guys and just hearing stuff from guys who have done it, who’ve made it. It hits a little bit differently and means a lot to me. If I can hopefully make the NHL one day and do the exact same thing they did for me, I think that would be huge for another kid.”
Thomas’s dream of reaching the NHL started to become more tangible when he was taken in the second round of the 2018 NHL Entry Draft by the Los Angeles Kings out of the Ontario Hockey League’s Niagara IceDogs, but it was a single goal Thomas scored earlier this year that completely turned his life upside down.
With one shot, Thomas went from NHL prospect to gold-medal hero when he potted the winning goal in Canada’s IIHF World Junior Championship gold-medal triumph over Russia in January.
Thomas beat Russian goaltender Amir Miftakhov with a backhand with just under four minutes left in the third period to cap a frenzied comeback that saw Canada battle back from 3-1 down to win its second gold in three years.
Before that could even happen, there was the little matter of being one of the 23 players selected to wear the Canada sweater at the World Juniors. Thomas says waiting to find out if he made the team after the selection camp in Oakville, Ont., was one of the more stressful mornings of his young career.
“It was crazy,” Thomas said. “My roommate at the hotel was [London Knights centre] Connor McMichael and basically, if the phone rang or if someone knocked on your door, one of you guys was going to get cut. So we were both there like ‘Oh, no,’ and we were peeking out the eyehole to see if anybody was coming and if we heard somebody in the hallway, we were freaking out. On TSN, there was coverage of it and any second they could say something. It was actually one of the most nerve-wracking moments of my life. When we made it, a huge weight fell off of our shoulders.”
Thomas’s profile has exploded since that gold-winning goal and his hockey career has been in upheaval, too, getting traded from the IceDogs to the Peterborough Petes. Thomas says he’s adjusting to the new normal.
“It happened really quickly; it’s been crazy,” Thomas said. “There’s been so many people reaching out, so many feelings and then the trade happening and all of that, saying goodbye to Niagara and saying hi to Peterborough. I think I’ve been adjusting pretty well and I feel good now. I’ve got a solid routine, I know everyone. I know all the coaches’ names and stuff. I’m really liking it now and, obviously, we’re a pretty good team.”
Being one of the game’s more prominent black players right now, Thomas hopes young kids of all ethnic backgrounds continue to take up hockey.
“I think it’s the best sport in the world,” Thomas said. “I think winning the Stanley Cup is the hardest trophy to win. It’s a really fun sport and I encourage everyone to play it, no matter what race you are. It’s a sport that’s changing in terms of who is playing it and how it’s played, too.”
As for any advice that Thomas might have for young people just starting out in hockey or even only thinking about playing the sport, it’s to stick to it.
“Pursue your dreams,” Thomas said. “Don’t let anything hold you back. In life, there’s a lot that can steer you off the path to your dream, but you’ve got to just put your head down and go after it. That’s what my parents taught me since Day One and it’s pretty much the only thing I have to say. I’ve had the privilege to have a lot of people impact me and guide me in the right direction. If I can be that someone for another kid, who maybe in 10 years scores a big goal for Team Canada, that would be amazing.”