TORONTO -- Akil Thomas became a Canadian hockey hero when he scored the winning goal against Russia in final of the 2020 IIHF World Junior Championship in Ostrava, Czech Republic, last month.
On Friday, Thomas, a 20-year-old forward with Peterborough of the Ontario Hockey League, got to learn firsthand about some of his own heroes, black players who throughout history forged the path for future generations to play in the NHL.
The Black Hockey History Tour, presented by American Legacy, made a stop in Scarborough, a suburb of 600,000 people east of Toronto that happens to be Thomas's hometown. It gave him the chance for the first time to tour the mobile museum that celebrates black achievement in hockey by showcasing today's stars while also looking back at the pioneers and trailblazers who helped shape NHL history.
"This is so cool," Thomas said. "To learn how players such as Willie O'Ree and others opened the door for players like me, well, that's special."
Thomas also had the chance to meet and greet area children who were playing ball hockey across the parking lot from the truck in the nearby Malvern Community Centre. The kids cheered loudly when Thomas was introduced as the star of the World Juniors.
It was Thomas's goal at 16:02 of the third period that proved to be the difference in Canada's 4-3 victory against Russia in the gold medal game Jan. 5.
"It's been a whirlwind ever since I came home after scoring that goal," Thomas said. "I've been so busy, but it's been a good busy. Things finally have settled down in the past week."
Video: Thomas, James on Black achievement in hockey
Thomas, selected by the Los Angeles Kings in the second round (No. 51) at the 2018 NHL Draft, was traded to Peterborough by Niagara on Jan. 9. He has 68 points (19 goals, 49 assists) in 39 games this season and was grateful to Peterborough for allowing him to come to the event in what was an off day for the team.
"Having the tour and the truck come here is so important," Thomas said. "I grew up not that far from here. These kids look up to us and think they have a chance. Maybe one day they'll look at me at helping smooth the road for them to get to the NHL.
"Scarborough has produced so many black players -- Mike Marson, Kevin Weekes, Anthony and Chris Stewart, Joel Ward, Wayne Simmonds, just to name a few. The Stewarts helped me in my development and hopefully I can one day do the same for these kids."
Joining Thomas at the event was Val James, who played seven games for the Buffalo Sabres in 1981-82 and four games for the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1986-87. James said the new generation of black players like Thomas gives the next wave hope they could be professional hockey players one day.
"For the longest time, young black kids would watch hockey and say to themselves, 'None of these players look like me.' That's no longer the case," James said. "Guys like Akil are symbols of the continuing trend of inclusion in the game, and that's great."
The tour will be in the Toronto area again on Saturday before moving to the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey, on Monday.