Macon makes black hockey head coaches – and hockey history.
The Macon Mayhem introduced Leo Thomas as its new head coach Wednesday, scoring something of a hat trick in the Middle Georgia city that gave the world Otis Redding, Little Richard and the Allman Brothers Band.
With the appointment, Thomas becomes the only black head coach in North American professional hockey currently and the first in the 10-team Southern Professional Hockey League.
“I didn’t realize it until (Tuesday),” Thomas told reporters at a news conference Wednesday at the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame in Macon. “Like, wow, this is a pretty big deal. When I started playing at a young age, I dealt with so much stuff being colored and stuff like that. I can’t even express the joy and happiness I have right now.”
Thomas also has the distinction of being the third black head coach in Macon’s storied hockey history. John Paris Jr.coached the defunct Macon Whoopee of the old Central Hockey League from 1996-97 to 1998-99.
Paris became the first black head coach to win a professional ice hockey championship when he led the Atlanta Knights to an International Hockey League title in 1994.
Graeme Townshend, the National Hockey League’s first Jamaican-born player, succeeded Paris as the Whoopee’s head coach in 1999-2000.Townshend now coaches Jamaica’s Winter Olympics hockey effort and operates a hockey camp in Maine.
Now it’s Thomas’ turn in Macon. He’ll helm a team that finished second in the SPHL last season with a 33-16-7 record. The team lost to the Huntsville Havoc in the second round of the playoffs after winning the league’s President’s Cup in 2016-17.
“I’m just going to bring my style of hockey which is hard-nosed, in-your-face and skill,” Thomas said. “I’m not going to go out there trying to goon it up or anything like that. Just bring all the stuff I’ve learned through the years and bring it to this team and make myself, and everybody that’s helped me, proud.”
Thomas had been a Mayhem assistant coach since the team’s championship season. Before that, the 36-year-old was a high-scoring forward for several minor league teams, including the Fort Wayne Comets of the ECHL the SPHL’s Mississippi RiverKings, and the IHL’s BloomingtonPrairieThunder.
A Toronto native, Thomas comes from a hockey family. His nephew, Akil Thomas, a center for the Ontario Hockey League’s Niagara IceDogs, is a potential first-round pick in the 2018 National Hockey League Draft June 22-23 in Dallas, Texas.
Leo Thomas’ older brother, Khalil Thomas, was a career minor-leagurer who played center for the CHL’s Memphis RiverKings and Oklahoma City Blazers, the United Hockey League’s Flint Generals, and the SPHL’s Jacksonville Barracudas.
Khalil Thomas and his wife, Akilah, are now part owners of the Oshawa RiverKings of the Greater Metro Junior A Hockey League.
Leo Thomas is part of a small but growing fraternity of minority hockey coaches who are working their way through the professional, amateur and youth ranks.
Calgary Flames Assistant Coach Paul Jerrard was the only minority NHL coach who worked games from the bench last season. The others were specialty coaches who were in the press box or video room on game days.
Fred Brathwaite coached the New York Islanders’ goaltenders while Scott Gomez ran the Isles’ power play strategy. Sudarshan Maharaj tutored the Anaheim Ducks’ netminders. Frantz Jean handled the Tampa Bay Lightning’s goaltenders. Nigel Kirwan served as the ‘Bolts video coach.
On the amateur level, Jason McCrimmon is head coach and part owner of Detroit’s Motor City Hawks of the U.S. Premier Hockey League, a Tier III junior league where players showcase their talents for college or major junior hockey programs.
In April, Duante Abercrombie, an alum of the NHL’s “Hockey is for Everyone” program, was named head coach of the Washington Little Capitals 16U National Team. That squad has a track record of developing players for junior, college, and professional hockey teams.
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