The NHL is celebrating Black History Month in February. Throughout the month, NHL.com will be featuring people of color who have made or are looking to make their mark in the hockey world.
Today, we look at Akil Thomas, a 20-year-old forward who scored the tournament-winning goal for Canada at the 2020 IIHF World Junior Championship.
Akil Thomas is still getting use to all the pride-filled nods and congratulatory smiles from strangers who pass him on the street.
More than a month has passed since Thomas scored the biggest goal of his young career, one that powered Canada to the 2020 IIHF World Junior Championship. He and his country are still basking in the gold medal afterglow.
"I'm kind of recognized more which is pretty cool, I guess," said Thomas, a 20-year-old center for Peterborough of the Ontario Hockey League. "It's been crazy; that goal really changed my life."
"That goal" came with 3:58 left in the third period and gave Canada a 4-3 win against Russia in the gold medal game. Thomas, who was selected by the Los Angeles Kings in the second round (No. 51) of the 2018 NHL Draft, got free in the Russian zone, skated past two defenders at full speed, deked and took a backhand shot that went past goalie Amir Miftakhov.
[RELATED: More Black Hockey History coverage]
The goal made Thomas an instant hockey hero in Canada and brought comparisons to other international game-winners, including Paul Henderson's goal in Game 8 of the 1972 Summit Series against the Soviet Union and Sidney Crosby's overtime goal that gave Canada a 3-2 victory against the United States and the gold medal at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.
"It's right up there with all the biggest goals scored for Team Canada, that's for sure," said NBC Sports analyst Anson Carter, a former NHL forward whose wraparound goal against Sweden gave Canada a 3-2 win and the gold medal at the 2003 IIHF World Championship in Finland. "It doesn't matter that it's not a senior men's world championship or an Olympic gold medal.
"There's a ton of pressure to bring back the gold in Canada because everyone in Canada watches those games at the holiday time, so for him to do what he did on that stage is huge."
Thomas managed to be the difference-maker he wanted to be for Canada at the tournament despite seeing limited playing time as a fourth-line forward -- a role he wasn't used to.
He was captain of Niagara in the OHL before being traded to Peterborough days after the World Juniors. Thomas is tied for 14th in scoring in the OHL with 68 points (19 goals, 49 assists) in 40 games for Niagara and Peterborough.
Courtesy: Kenneth Andersen Photography
"I was hoping to be one of those players the coaches would rely on (at the World Juniors), but that wasn't my role on the team," said Thomas, who played 5:23 on nine shifts during the championship game. "Obviously, that was tough because that was one of my dreams to be the guy who played a lot at World Juniors, the guy who would help the team win. At the end of the day, I kind of achieved my goal. I was just trying to stay positive during the tournament, and It just kind of paid off."
He's been showered in appreciation since. Thomas and some of his WJC teammates performed a ceremonial puck drop before the Toronto Maple Leafs played the Winnipeg Jets at Scotiabank Arena on Jan. 8.
The Niagara communities declared Jan. 9 "Akil Thomas Day" on his last day with the OHL team there.
The attention has also been good for business. Thomas has a clothing company, Zale Apparel, that he and friend Ethan Low began six years ago.
"It blew up after World Juniors obviously," said Thomas, a resident of Scarborough, Ontario. "Right now, we're busy answering emails, figuring out a lot of stuff in terms on how we're going to move forward and kind of take advantage on the high we're on right now."
Thomas hopes his World Juniors moment and his OHL performance will help launch his pro career with the Kings next season.
"I want to get there a soon as possible and show what I have to offer and, hopefully, I can do that," he said. "Being through two camps (with the Kings), I know what they expect of me and what they want me to improve on. There are no surprises. I know what I have to do, and I'm going to go into the summer and go after it."
Nelson Emerson, director of player personnel for the Kings, attended the championship game and was impressed that Canada coach Dale Hunter had enough confidence in Thomas' abilities to have him on the ice in the closing minutes of the game.
"He scores the goal that wins the gold medal; no one gets to do that, he did it," Emerson said. "That's a notch on his belt that he'll have that, confidence-wise, will help him coming into camp.
"But in saying that, he's got to come in here and he's got to earn what we're going to give him," he said. "There's a lot on the table for him. He's got to compete, he's got to work hard for those pucks. We're excited once we get our opportunity to watch him as a pro."