As a child, Akil Thomas looked forward to Christmas, but not because of the extra time spent with family and friends or the gifts under the tree. He was always most excited about what happened the day after Christmas - the World Junior Championship.
"It's just part of what you you did with your family. Everyone came over and piled in front of the TV and watched Team Canada. It's like an extra holiday," he explained. "There's been so many good games and moments and so many good players that go on to have great NHL careers and I just remember watching them and wanting to be like them and it was a dream of mine to play on this team."
Thomas will see that dream realized on Thursday when he dons the red and white maple leaf as Canada and USA faceoff on the first day of the 2020 IIHF World Junior Championship in Ostrava, Czech Republic.
"It's crazy that I'm now that guy on the TV and there will be little kids watching me and dreaming of being on this team some day too," the 19-year-old said with a huge smile on his face. "It's unreal. This opportunity means the world to me. I really don't have the words to describe how excited I am."
Thomas, who was drafted by the LA Kings in the second round of the 2018 NHL Draft, represented Canada twice before at the U18 world championship, but his road to this tournament was a little bumpier.
"I was at the summer showcase last year and I got hurt in the first game and I think they might have forgotten about me," he said with a chuckle. "This year, I wanted to make sure they couldn't forget me and I wanted to earn a spot in the Canada-Russia series and an invite to selection camp."
"Every step throughout this process, I played like it was for the Stanley Cup. I wanted to show them I could be a guy they'd be excited to have on this team in December and be part of the group that helps lead this team to a gold medal. And, now that I'm on the team, I'm not going to let up."
One of the biggest assets Thomas is expected to bring to the team throughout the tournament is his versatility.
"He brings a lot of skill to the table, but he also has the ability to fill a lot of holes for us, if we need him to," Head Coach Dale Hunter explained. "He can play right wing or center. He takes faceoffs. He really does it all and as a coach that just gives you options. He can play power play. He can play PK, five-on-five. If things aren't going well or there's an injury and I need him to fill a different role, he can do that. His skill got him here and earned this opportunity for him, but his versatility is what's really valuable to us."
Thomas' strengths include his hockey IQ, his skating and his shot. He worked hard on it this summer hoping it would become one of his biggest assets and Hunter has definitely noticed.
"He has a real good wrist shot," the head coach stated. "It seems to go in quite a bit. If it's a close game, I'd definitely throw him out there because his shot is that good and could win the game for us. I've seen him with his club team a lot and I know what he can and can't do and the kid can shoot."
He's still working to improve his strength to win more one-on-one battles and his endurance so he can be more consistent and bring it every shift.
"Growing up in Florida, most of the games are tournaments and you'd play like five games in three days and consistency was a huge thing," explained Thomas, whose dad played semi-pro hockey in Jacksonville.
"Maybe you'd play great in the evening, but not so great in the morning or whatever and so I always focused on being consistent and being the same player no matter what and as I've moved up that doesn't get any easier. You have to bring it every shift or else someone else will. So if I can be consistent with my effort, I can be more of the player I want to be. I know I'm not there yet."
Thomas is captain of the Niagara Ice Dogs of the Ontario Hockey League and is one of the team's offensive leaders with 15 goals and 29 assists for 44 points in 27 games, but with Team Canada he is expected to be in a bottom six role.
"We have so many good players that I know I might not play too many minutes," he said. "So, I just have to make sure I make the most of them and do the right things, play good defense and contribute as much as I can on the offense and hopefully earn some more trust and more ice time.
"I know the better I do, the more opportunity I'll have to play a bigger role," said the 6-foot, 180 pound forward. "[The coach] knows that I can play anywhere he needs me to play and whatever role he needs me to play. Whatever I can do to help the team is what I want to do and I accept that. I will do whatever I can to be part of the team that wins gold."
That said, Thomas is embracing the opportunity to do more that just play well and hopefully go home with a fancy new accessory around his neck. He wants to pay it forward.
"Throughout the tournament, I want to show the coaches and my teammates and everyone watching back home who Akil is and show them my best. I want to be a guy on the team that makes a difference and is a deciding factor in winning the games that matter."
"I want little kids watching at home to be inspired and say they want to be like me, just like I grew up watching [Jordan] Eberle and [Connor] McDavid. I want to be that guy. I want to inspire kids to have goals and go after them because I am living proof that it can happen."