Standing in the bowels of the Sudbury Community Arena, Akil Thomas is unmistakably clad in Niagara IceDogs gear. As captain, he dutifully wears his toque and tracksuit, but the team-issued attire disguises the fact that the LA Kings prospect has a style all of his own.
Six years earlier, as a 13-year-old, Thomas started developing clothing with his friend, Ethan Low. At that time, Thomas was living in downtown Toronto with his family and hated having to ask his parents for money for bus fare or to grab a bite with his buddies.
Instead, an entrepreneurial Thomas started making t-shirts with Low and selling them to his friends and classmates.
"At 13 if you get five bucks you're pretty stoked," Thomas laughed. "It just kind of became a hobby when I was younger."
As Thomas got older, his fashion sense matured. He branched out from the hockey t-shirts he and Low had been producing. Although he was grateful that his teammates and classmates proudly wore it, he wanted to develop a brand that the whole world could wear.
"We wanted to make something that could actually be serious one day," Thomas stated.
What started off as a way to make a few bucks, quickly evolved into a business. It was not long before Zale was born. Thomas admits that it took a while to find a name, but he always had a logo in mind for the apparel company.
"My mom is from Barbados and we have a trident on the flag, so we knew wanted to have a trident," Thomas explained.
He knew the trident has a significant place in Greek mythology, but needed a term to tie it all together. After spending a few hours online, scouring for synonyms and breaking down definitions, they agreed on Zale. "It means power of the sea," Thomas noted.
"Growing up in Florida and being by the ocean all the time and my mom being from Barbados and me playing hockey on frozen water, it seemed like a cool connection and we thought it was perfect."
Although Thomas had big dreams for Zale, he never imagined it would take off the way it has. "It's kind of cool how it has snowballed. I never would have thought I'd be here talking to you about this one day," the Niagara pivot acknowledged before a game against the Sudbury Wolves.
For Thomas, the most surreal part is when he sees strangers sporting the brand. "It still kind of surprises me," he reflected.
"It was mostly just my friends who were supporting it before and now to see a lot of random people with it on is incredible. I never thought it was going to be like this."
With Zale's popularity increasing, Thomas and Low have brought on another partner in order to shoulder the workload. "My partners are in school and I'm in the OHL. We have pretty busy schedules but when we have a day off, we dedicate some time to run the business," he said. "I enjoy it because it's working towards something I created."
While Zale continues to develop into a thriving business, Thomas's focus unquestionably remains on the ice. After scoring 81 points in his second season with the IceDogs, Thomas was selected 51st overall by the Kings at the 2018 Entry Draft.
Although the skilled centerman had hoped to be chosen on the first day, he was thrilled when the Kings announced his name. "It was amazing. LA was the team I wanted to go to. It was a tough first day, but it was all made up for it on the second day by getting called by LA," Thomas divulged. "It was a dream come true."
Since then, Thomas has worked tirelessly to turn that dream into a reality. After attending his first Kings development camp, Thomas finished his third campaign with the IceDogs with102 points and signed a three-year entry level contract with the Kings.
He's now on pace to surpass last year's point total, but knows that it will take more than that to make it to the NHL. With two development camps under his belt now, Thomas can see the level of work required to turn pro.
"The OHL is obviously a really good league, but there's obviously a big difference between the OHL and the NHL and that's what I've kind of got out of the camps that I've done," he said.
The most important realization for Thomas is that the little things add up. "Little things like off ice habits. Little minor details in everyone's game, the way they do drills and the way they play games. It's the little things I've picked up on," he detailed.
As Thomas continues to work towards a career in pro hockey, he has some great role models in his father, Kahlil, and uncle, Leo, both of whom played professionally.
"When I was young, I went to the rink with my dad a lot. I didn't go to daycare too much," the Florida native said. "From a young age, I was accustomated to the hockey schedule. It was cool to grow up with my dad and my uncle playing pro hockey and watching them win championships."
Thomas's father and uncle are still involved in the game and both coach professionally. In May 2018, Leo was introduced as the head coach of the Macon Mayhem of the Southern Professional Hockey League, becoming the only black head coach currently behind the bench for a pro hockey team in North America.
Meanwhile, Kahlil is an assistant coach with the Greenville Swamp Rabbits of the ECHL.
Both men serve as an inspiration for Thomas. "It gives me motivation for me to one day break a barrier and do something like that, too," he declared. "I love hockey and if I had to stop playing I still think I'd be in the game, so I look up to them."
With Zale on the rise and Thomas taking another step forward in his hockey development, it's clear that he has a bright future on and off the ice.