“After they won those two Cups, I became a Kings fan,” Akil Thomas told us recently.
Selected in the second round of this year’s NHL Entry Draft, Thomas is among a group of prospects arriving in Los Angeles for Rookie Camp this week, all sharing at least one thing in common – they grew up only knowing one Kings team, that of a winner.
They don’t connect with Marty McSorley and the ’93 Finals. They remember Dustin Brown in 2012. Similarly, Blues forward Geoff Courtnall likely means nothing to them. Instead, St. Louis is just some team the Kings have been beating in the playoffs recently. Even the name Roman Cechmanek doesn’t register; nor does a big trade with the Avalanche in 2001. Those aren’t even passing thoughts. Instead, it’s further proof that the decades prior have truly become a distant memory.
Even as recently as 2010, when the Draft was held in Los Angeles, a common theme at the time was ‘Look at all these kids born when Wayne Gretzky came to the Kings, they’re now old enough to be drafted by NHL teams.’
Fast forward to 2018 and we’re no longer talking about players who played at the Great Western Forum. When teenagers today think of the LA Kings, they only know a winning franchise.
“As a young player, I first wanted to be a goalie because I was a big fan of Jonathan Quick,” Thomas continued with a bit of a chuckle. “My dad didn’t let that happen, so I gravitated toward Drew Doughty. I like how he makes plays and his overall skillset. That pushed me to want to be a defenseman, but my coaches never let me do it.”
Doesn’t sound too bad. Thomas goes from playing forward by default to being drafted 51st overall.
“When I was growing up in Florida there just weren’t tons of good players in that area who could play forward; there wasn’t a lot of depth,” he explained. “Because I was generating offense for the teams I played for, they needed me more at forward; they needed guys to score goals. Maybe if I grew up in Toronto, where there is more depth and good players, maybe I would have been given a shot at another position – and maybe I would have liked it – but it’s probably too late now.”
Yes, probably. This isn’t a Brian Boyle situation, where you can look for the player to switch positions after being drafted. Thomas is coming to camp as a forward.
Clearly, the spot suits him, as well. Thomas was a consistent goal scorer over the past two years with the OHL’s Niagara IceDogs, notching 21 and 22 goals. During the 2017-18 campaign, he more than doubled his assist total from the season prior (increasing from 27 to 59), giving him 81 points in 68 games played. He then remained a point-per-game player in the playoffs, recording 11 points in 10 post-season contests.
Thomas is expected back in the OHL this season, which is quite a contrast from the road his father traveled as a minor-league hockey player. During a 12-year stretch from 1996 to 2008, Kahlil Thomas suited up for 13 different teams in nine different leagues.
“My family is originally from Toronto and we were in Florida because my dad played [in Jacksonville] before retiring,” Thomas said. “It was just a matter of time until we moved back to Toronto with our family and friends. I was playing two years up in Florida and I was getting to the age where guys were growing and I was just a kid. It came to a point where it was kind of dangerous for me to play against guys two years older. Plus, my dad wanted to start coaching again anyways, so the timing made sense.”
Off the ice, Thomas remains a big gamer and admits that when he plays his NHL game on Playstation, he always uses the Kings as his team. Perhaps it gives him a chance to channel his inner Doughty and Quick during those times because when he hits the ice for real, he’s clearly settling into his role at forward.
Thomas’ connection to the Kings doesn’t merely stop there though.
“Not only were the Kings the first NHL team I ever spoke with, I also talked to LA the most out of any of the teams leading up to the Draft,” Thomas shared, making reference to his initial conversation with LA scout Bryan Denney. “I thought it was going pretty well all season, then towards the end of the year the interviews became a lot harder and more intense. Even so, in a low-key way, they were the team I wanted to go to the entire time, so I’m glad that part is all over with.”
Having only been a member of the Kings organization for a few short months, it’s all still a bit surreal for Thomas, who won’t turn 19 until January.
“Even now, it doesn’t really feel like I’ve been drafted to the NHL or that I might get a shot to play with an NHL club in a few years,” he said, with a tinge of daydreaming-like disbelief in his voice. “Looking forward to being an NHL player, as a kid, was a lot for me. I had my dad and my uncle to look up to and they never made the NHL – though they came close to it. Growing up, I always knew how hard it would be. Even to be in the OHL right now is like, ‘Wow, I’m in the OHL!’ It doesn’t really feel real yet.”
As quickly as things are happening, reality may start creeping in fairly soon. A week after the Draft, Thomas was in LA for Development Camp. Then, last month, he attended Team Canada’s World Junior Championship evaluation camp – yet only after being added to the roster just a few days before it started.
“When I saw the initial list, I was kind of disappointed and I hoped that if something happened, I would be a guy that was called upon,” he admitted.
Unfortunately, Thomas ended up getting hurt in the second period of the first game, so he was never really able to put his full talents on display.
“I got hit weird and felt something in my shoulder so I went off [the ice],” he recalled. “I came back and played the third period, but afterward it was pretty sore. The doctor told me it was just a showcase game and that I had the season to prepare for. I’m all good now and I’m not going to dwell on that. I’m just going to prove to them they should have had me on the first list. I’m going to have a great first half of the season and do what I can to make that team in December.”
Until then, Thomas still has several items to juggle. He had been training with the IceDogs back in Niagara prior to flying to LA this week. Now, he’ll turn his attention to the Kings again – albeit, probably just for a brief period.
“My focus at Rookie Camp will be to do all I can to make the Kings team this year,” Thomas said, with a noticeable change in tone, now sounding much more confident. “It probably won’t happen, but that’s just my mindset going in. Who knows if [Gabe] Vilardi cracks the lineup this year or not, but he is one guy I look up to because he’s a year older. He’s probably going to step into the organization before me and I want to see what he does that I need to start doing to make that next step.”
Thomas is scheduled to wear No. 86 at Rookie Camp this week. While your first NHL number – even your first camp number – is usually a big deal, it won’t hold nearly as much weight for Thomas as the No. 55 tattooed onto his chest.
“I got that in 2010, for my friend Noah Costa,” Thomas shared. “He passed away in a tragic accident, so I got a tattoo for him. He wore 55, so then I wore 55 for a few years. Ultimately, I thought a tattoo was a good way to commemorate him. I try to make him proud. I want to make the NHL for him because he gave me those tools to accomplish the hockey dreams I have. I don’t have to worry about wearing 55 on the rink anymore because I wear it with me everywhere now.”
Someday in the future, when Thomas slips on a Kings jersey for his first official NHL game, regardless of some digits sewn on the back, they won’t be the number running through his mind that night. Meanwhile, the crest on the front of that same jersey could be that of his childhood team. All of it speaks of a Hollywood-type story in more ways than one.
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The Kid has Character!!!
Excited to see his progress.