Akil Thomas attended a different type of day care when he was little.
“At 2-3 years old, Akil used to come with me to every practice almost every day,” Kahlil Thomas, a retired minor league hockey player told me recently. “He was too young to go to a day care center. Our trainer didn’t mind when he came because he would just sit there for the whole hour and a half, except to go to the wash room, and watch practice up and down. That was his day care.”
When the Memphis RiverKings practices were over, young Akil would get on the ice and have practice sessions with his dad.
“I really don’t get enough of hockey,” Akil, now 16, told me. “You’ll see me after practice in my driveway, stick handling or something. My mind shifts to hockey 24/7.”
Saturday, Akil’s attention will shift to the Ontario Hockey League’s Priority Selection draft, where the high-scoring forward is projected to be a top pick.
Then there’s also the NCAA Division I college route, taken by NHLers like Jack Eichel, the Buffalo Sabres rookie forward, and Toronto Maple Leafs wing James van Riemsdyk. Several schools, including Arizona State University, the University of New Hampshire, Boston University, Penn State University, University of Michigan, and the University of Maine have inquired about Akil, his family said.
His stock has risen since his performance in last month’s OHL Cup Showcase tournament. He helped lead the minor midget hockey Toronto Marlboros to the finals against the York-Simcoe Express.
The Marlies lost the championship game 2-1 in double-overtime. But Akil led the tournament in scoring with 6 goals and 7 assists in seven games and was named to the Gatorade OHL Cup All-Star Team.
He posted 33 goals and 39 assists in 56 games last season for the Marlies.
“Akil, at his age, is a much better player than I was at his age,” said Kahlil, a right wing who played 828 games for 13 teams in nine leagues in three countries from 1996 to 2008. “He’s definitely going to go far. He definitely had more skill than I ever had.”
Akil says he’s patterned his game after his father’s, except that dad helped “make me a bit better than him.”
“I gave him pointers here and there, but I stress hard work more than anything,” Kahlil said. “Hard work can trump any politics in front of you any day – whether it’s the color of your skin, the politics with who knows who, who’s the sons of this or that.”
Akil began playing organized hockey in the United States. Scouts began noticing him after he helped lead a Florida AAA youth hockey team to a championship in Philadelphia in 2008 when he was eight years old.
As his game improved, Akil and his family faced a dilemma that most talented hockey players in Florida confront – whether to stay in the Sunshine State and be a big fish in a small frozen pond or relocate to where there’s a larger pool of competitive players to push you.
In 2011, the family packed their bags for Toronto – where Kahlil grew up – so Akil could play prep school hockey at Upper Canada College. This season, he skated for St. Michael’s College School and the Marlies.
“The toughest decision of my life,” recalled mother Akilah Thomas, who grew up in Silver Spring, Md.,and accompanied her husband on his hockey sojourn. “I’m such an American and we lived in the South. We moved from the sunshine to the snow.”
“The first year was extremely hard, but everything fell into place,” she continued. “I finally gave up thinking ‘Florida, Florida, Florida’ and just gave it my all and adjusted my mindset. This is where we need to be now – so suck it up, mamma!”
Kahlil doesn’t remember the decision to move being that difficult because “we were coming home to family, to a city that we knew.”
However, he confesses that “now I want to go back.”
“I miss Florida,” he said.
But Florida will have to wait. There’s just too much hockey going on. To say the Thomas household is a hockey household is an understatement. In addition to Kahlil’s hockey exploits and Akil’s budding career, Leo Thomas – Kahlil’s brother and Akil’s uncle – is wrapping up his playing career, splitting time this season between the Southern Professional Hockey League’s Mississippi RiverKings and the ECHL’s Fort Wayne Komets.
“To go out on top, to win a championship would be the ultimate goal,” Leo told me. “Afterward, I would love to get into some coaching, definitely do something in hockey. I’ve been playing this game since I was four years old. All us Thomas guys are lifers.”
Maybe he can work with his brother. Kahlil and Akilah became hockey team owners last year when they purchased the Oshawa RiverKings of the Greater Metro Junior A Hockey League with close friend and former hockey player Dave Nicholls.
Kahlil is general manager and head coach for the franchise. Akilah is the team’s sales and marketing manager.
“I just want to help kids who are late-developers or are overlooked” by major junior teams and college hockey programs, he told me.