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NHL Draft

Thomas aims to excel on, off ice in NHL

Niagara forward, projected first-round pick in 2018 draft, plans to be active in Hockey Is For Everyone initiative

by Mike G. Morreale @mikemorrealeNHL / Staff Writer

Every Thursday, will look ahead to the 2018 NHL Draft with an in-depth profile on one of its top prospects.

Niagara forward Akil Thomas never required day care as a youngster. The ice rink was his haven when he tagged along with his dad, Kahlil Thomas.

"I grew up going to the rink with him every day," Akil Thomas, 18, said. "I watched his team practice and I always had a lot of ice available to me as a kid after those practices. Hockey was my life, so as I started getting older it became obvious I would pursue it one day.

"That's what I'm trying to do now."

Kahlil Thomas, a retired minor-league hockey player, played right wing for 13 teams in nine leagues in three countries from 1996-97 through 2007-08.

His love for the game enabled Akil to learn many valuable lessons when on the road. 

"I was born in Toronto, then moved to Mississippi then to Flint, then Oklahoma then to Orlando to Jacksonville and then back to Orlando," the younger Thomas said. 

During that period, Kahlil Thomas played for the Mississippi RiverKings, Flint Generals, Oklahoma City Blazers, Orlando Seals and Jacksonville Barracudas.

"When my dad retired, I was 10 years old, and we moved to Toronto so that I could pursue my hockey dream," Thomas said.

Akil Thomas, No. 10 in NHL Central Scouting's midterm ranking of North American skaters, is projected to be selected in the first round of the 2018 NHL Draft in Dallas on June 22. He will look to become the 11th black player chosen in the first round of the NHL draft in the past 13 years; the most recent is defenseman Pierre-Olivier Joseph (No. 23) by the Arizona Coyotes in 2017.

A little-known fact about Thomas is he also made a cameo appearance in the film, "Soul On Ice: Past, Present, and Future," which takes the audience through the winding history of black players in hockey.

"My family is close friends with the director of the film (Damon Kwame Mason); he just took footage of me playing in games and shooting on net when I was with the Toronto Marlboros a few years ago," Thomas said. "I saw it air in the movie theater for the first time and it was pretty cool to see myself in the movie."

Thomas considered it an honor to be involved in a project that was as much about Willie O'Ree and his legacy as a groundbreaker in hockey as anyone else. O'Ree, who broke the color barrier in the NHL when he debuted for the Boston Bruins as a forward on Jan. 18, 1958, is a pioneer for diversity in hockey through the NHL's Hockey is for Everyone initiative.

"It's special to me because I'm kind of involved in that now, so it's pretty cool to kind of commemorate [O'Ree] for everything he's done," Thomas said.

Thomas (5-foot-11, 169 pounds) was named to the 2017 Ontario Hockey League All-Rookie Team after scoring 48 points (21 goals, 27 assists) in 61 games for Niagara last season. He is the IceDogs' third-leading scorer this season with 59 points (15 goals, 44 points) and first with 24 power-play points in 50 games this season.

"He needs and wants the puck, and that hunger is going to get him to the NHL," said Karl Stewart of NHL Central Scouting. "He's the new hybrid of NHL wingers. It used to be that the center was the guy who touched the puck the most, but now it's the wings who can orchestrate plays, and Thomas is that type of player. 

"You won't take the puck away from Akil Thomas just because of his hunger for it and the way he protects it."

Thomas views himself as a two-way playmaker with a pass-first mentality.

"Last year was more of just surviving in the OHL, getting my feet wet," he said. "My mindset each shift was just hoping I didn't turn the puck over. This year, I want to be a difference-maker and have an impact for my team."

Thomas began opening some eyes when he scored 72 points (33 goals, 39 assists) in 56 games in the Greater Toronto Hockey League during his minor midget season in 2015-16. He then led the Marlboros to the championship game of the OHL Cup Showcase that season. Even though the Marlboros lost 2-1 in double overtime against York Simcoe in the final, Thomas led the tournament with 13 points (six goals, seven assists) and was named to the Gatorade OHL Cup All-Star Team.

"It's kind of the first showcase where all eyes are on you at a pretty young age," Thomas said. "I had a pretty good tournament and I think from that point I was confident in my abilities to play under pressure and kind of rise to the occasion."

He then scored six points (two goals, four assists) in five games to help Canada to a gold medal in the 2017 Hlinka Memorial, now called the Hlinka Gretzky Cup

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