Akil Thomas didn’t need much time to make his mark on the Ontario Hockey League.
After being the 12th overall pick of the 2016 OHL Priority Selection, the well-travelled Thomas set a Niagara IceDogs rookie scoring record with 48 points including 21 goals, the most by a rookie in all-time franchise history since 2003.
The Toronto-born forward carries with him a fiery enthusiasm and love for the game, traits fostered by a childhood spent around the rink with his father Kahlil who played 12 seasons of minor pro in cities like Flint, Michigan, Oklahoma City and Jacksonville, Florida.
Pops travelled 6944 kilometres to watch me slap a puck around on ice, thankful for him! ?? pic.twitter.com/OXZ3w0Alej
— Akil Thomas (@AkilThomas2) August 15, 2017
“I didn’t really go to day care as a kid,” he said with a laugh. “I was at the rink with my dad, watching his practices and hanging around with his teammates, so hockey has always been a part of my life.”
In addition to the knowledge and experience of his father, Thomas has also benefitted from his uncle Leo who played 13 years of minor pro ending in 2016 with the Mississippi RiverKings and Fort Wayne Komets.
After spending the early years of his childhood largely in Florida, Thomas returned to Toronto to play his Peewee, Bantam and Minor Midget hockey with the GTHL’s Toronto Marlboros where he played a year-up on occasion alongside current IceDogs teammates in Vegas Golden Knights prospect Ben Jones and newly acquired blueliner Elijah Roberts. Thomas and Jones played on a line together throughout much of last season and the two found some chemistry together down the stretch.
With a highly successful rookie season under his belt, Thomas will return to St. Catharines on the heels of a gold medal performance at the Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament in Slovakia and the Czech Republic. He played a prominent role on the Canadian squad, registering six points (2-4–6) in five games including a pair of assists in a 4-1 gold medal clinching win over the Czech Republic.
“I’ve never really played with a group of guys that good,” he said. “I mean it’s the best players in Canada and it was a lot of fun to have the success that we did. All of the guys bought in and our coaching staff did a tremendous job drawing up the plan for us. Everything came together.”
— OntarioHockeyLeague (@OHLHockey) March 11, 2017
Thomas has produced offensively at every level he’s played and led the 2016 OHL Cup Showcase in scoring with 13 points (6-7–13) over seven games as the Marlboros lost a double-overtime championship heartbreaker to the York-Simcoe Express.
The 17-year-old has a desire to round out his game and improve on the defensive side of the puck too. He cites Philadelphia Flyers two-way centreman Claude Giroux as a player whose game he has come to appreciate.
“My dad has been on me about that stuff my whole life,” he chuckled. “He was always one of those guys that his coach would throw out there in the last minute if his team needed a goal or if they had to defend a lead.
“You want to be one of those trusted players in any situation and I’d like to continue working hard to earn that confidence from the coaches in Niagara.”
After David Bell took an assistant coaching position with the AHL’s Ontario Reign, long-time assistant Billy Burke takes over behind the bench for the IceDogs this season. He acknowledges the special talent that Thomas brings to the ice.
“Players like Akil don’t come around every year,” Burke noted. “He was able to adjust to the speed and everything else that comes along with playing in the OHL as a 16-year-old. His personality really endeared him to his teammates and they took him under their wing and he exploded. He saw time on the first line and went up against 19-year-olds regularly and handled himself very well.”
— OntarioHockeyLeague (@OHLHockey) April 19, 2017
The IceDogs return with a young team once again in 2017-18, looking for Thomas to be an important cog in their offensive wheel alongside Jones, Edmonton Oilers prospect Kirill Maksimov, overager Johnny Corneil and sophomores Oliver Castleman, Matthew Philip and Danial Singer.
Though he’s just 17, the IceDogs have a lot of confidence in their draft eligible budding young star.
“His skill level and hockey sense are outstanding but he’s also very committed,” Burke added. “He’s always the last guy off the ice at practice and he applies himself in the gym.
“His combination of talent and a tremendous work ethic is going to lead to big things.”
Over 20 days in August ontariohockeyleague.com will shine a summer spotlight on storylines from all 20 OHL clubs. See more from the OHL 20 in 20 series.