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In My Own Words: Akilah Thomas

The mother of 2020 World Juniors hero Akil Thomas talks about her life as a hockey mom, her reaction to her son’s historic goal, and what the game has meant to her and her family

Akilah Thomas
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February 10, 2021
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Akil knew he was going to score. And so did I.

The morning of the gold medal game at the 2020 IIHF World Junior Championship, Akil texted me. Our family … we are manifesters. We visualize what we want. And Akil visualized himself scoring. Once he sets an intention, he’s going to do everything he can to make it happen.

He texted me and said “Mom, I’m going to score the winning goal.” That made my day.

I have goosebumps when I talk about that moment. As a parent, it was tough to see him on the bench for most of the game. I know his emotions and I know what was going through his mind.

But he got his chance. With four minutes to go, he got the tap from Dale Hunter. Everything he had visualized was coming true. It was going to happen. He had the puck, he poked it past the Russian defenceman. And then…

The television froze.

Suddenly there was nothing on the screen. What happened?

And then the texts and calls and FaceTimes started. When the TV came back, the boys were celebrating. We saw the replay. Our house went nuts. I erupted in tears. Ugly crying.

It was just so gratifying because I know he sat on the bench frustrated. But he finally did it and he told me he would. He kept his word. His manifestation worked.

When he scored that goal, every single practice came to mind. Every runny nose, every game, every city, every move, everything about his whole life came to mind in that moment because it was so beautiful. Nothing mattered but that golden moment. Everything else melted away.

That moment happened because of a game, and because of a country, and because of a coach, and because of a little boy that dared to dream. That's what that was for me.

There were so many calls and so many texts and so many messages. I think we heard from every single member of our family, including Akil’s two great-grandmothers in Barbados. The love and support from every city that we had lived in was enormous. Oklahoma people were reaching out, Memphis was reaching out, Michigan was reaching out, Orlando, Miami, Tampa, Jacksonville, it was just amazing.

And everyone that reached out had played some role, big or small, in our journey as a hockey family.

I emigrated to Canada in 1986 from Barbados. Not exactly a hockey hotbed. All we knew was tropical life. We moved to Toronto, which was the first shock because it was winter and we stayed inside more than we went outside. Winter was a lot longer than summer.

When I was in high school I met Akil’s dad, Kahlil, who was playing junior hockey at the time. About a month later, he asked if I wanted to come to a hockey game. So, I went to the rink and it was … cold. Very cold. But I haven’t stopped going to the rink since. It went from Kahlil’s hockey to Akil’s hockey to my youngest son Akyn’s hockey. I was a hockey wife and a hockey mom, and I loved it.

And because Kahlil was playing and was constantly on the move, so were we as a family. He went from Pensacola to Flint to Memphis to Flint again to Oklahoma City to Jacksonville and Orlando. Every few years, it was a new team in a new city in a new state.

Akil started skating two days before his second birthday. By the time he was two-and-a-half, he joined a team. He was so little he could barely talk, but he was ready to play. The problem was finding equipment. We were living in Memphis at the time, and they didn’t have anything small enough for him. We ended up having Akil’s Uncle Mike, who lived in Toronto, find little gloves and little shinpads and hand-deliver them to us in Tennessee.

As we went along, two kids became three, became four, became five. There was always somewhere to be, something to do. If it wasn’t hockey, it was vocal training. Or it was ballet. Or one of the kids had to go shopping. It kept us on our toes all the time and kept things interesting.

When it came time to move again, we just did it. We never thought about it. It wasn't stressful, we just sorted everything, packed it and off we went to a new location. The first thing we did once we got unpacked is find out where the team was for Akil.

I can’t say enough about the hockey community. Every time we moved, it was like becoming part of another family. That’s such an incredible part of the game. Every team Kahlil played on, there was a welcoming committee of some kind that would show you the ropes and help you out around town.

Because we were around them so much, I always got to know the wives on the team and the moms of the other boys. There was always a games night or a girls’ night or we did spa days. It was actually a lot of fun being in the different cities. I really enjoyed those parts of my life, and they’ve given me friendships I still have to this day.

Akil was around 10 when we started to think he might benefit from a higher level of competition. He was playing in tournaments up and down the East Coast, and we had met a group of parents from Toronto who thought he would do really well there. Then he went to The Brick Tournament in Edmonton in the summer of 2010 and led the tournament in scoring. I think it was there he really decided he was a ‘Canadian’ hockey player.

I’ll admit, I wasn’t sold. I was pregnant and we had just settled in Orlando. I loved the warm weather. Kahlil was retired and it was time to finally settle down. But we made the trip north to check out a few schools, Akil fell in love with it, and we had to make another decision. Do we send him up there to board, or do we come along?

In the end, it wasn’t a tough decision. The economic recession was taking hold in the U.S., our family was in Toronto and, most of all, it was what was best for Akil. So, it was back to 6 a.m. practices in the cold, traffic jams on the 401 and another new start in a new city.  

It was such a great decision for the family. We got to be closer with grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles, and Akil got to take the next step on his journey. He played two seasons with the Toronto Young Nationals and three with the Toronto Marlboros before he was a first-round pick of Niagara in the OHL draft.

Here's a funny story: When I was pregnant with Akil in 1999, I worked for a printing company in Toronto. Years later, long after I had left the company, the owners sold it and bought a junior hockey team – the Niagara IceDogs. So, when we went to St. Catharines after Akil was drafted, there was this unexpected reunion. Some of the staff from the printing company even worked for the IceDogs. It was so crazy, but felt so comfortable to hand off Akil to them. I knew he was in good hands.

From his first season in Niagara, Akil’s career has taken off. Internationally, he played for Canada at the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge, the Hlinka Gretzky Cup, two IIHF U18 World Championships and, of course, the World Juniors. He was named the captain in Niagara in his last season, was taken in the second round by Los Angeles in the 2018 NHL Draft and just within the last week started his pro career in the AHL. I could not be prouder of what he has accomplished.

But I have always challenged him – what are you going to do with your success? He wants to impact the lives of other children any way he can. I co-founded a non-profit group, The DNA Brand, and through that we adopted a village of orphans in Ghana last March.

At Christmas, Akil was able to rally a bunch of NHL players, fans, friends and family to raise money and throw them their first-ever Christmas party. It was phenomenal. Since then, we have been able to open a school for them, and eventually we’re going to have hockey happen there.

Our goal is just to improve the lives of others in a positive way, whether through a conversation, mentorship or even just being an example.

Being an impromptu woman, doing things on the fly was not something I was good at. When you get into the hockey world, a trade can happen any day. You can get released from a team. The game could go into a shootout. As a mom, bedtimes, traditions and all these things didn't matter anymore – our life revolved around a hockey schedule.

Living and loving that life has taught me how to be more of a chameleon. I learned how to be more patient and how to not sweat the small stuff. I learned sacrifice. I learned patience. I learned to be adaptable and ready to change on the fly.

Being a hockey mom taught me to teach my kids strength. Not just physical strength, but emotional and mental strength. It taught me how lucky Akil is to be where he is, and that he has the power to give back to others so they can potentially have the same experience or even better.

It taught me that it's alright to share my tricks, my mindset, my habits, my schedules and my love … to boost up other kids, not just mine.

Even though I’ve never played a game, hockey has shaped a lot of me. I’m proud of who it has helped me become, but to see the amazing man it has helped my son become – that’s all a mother could ask for.

For more information:

Dominick Saillant
Director, Communications
Hockey Canada
514-895-9706
[email protected]

 

Esther Madziya
Manager, Communications
Hockey Canada
403-284-6484
[email protected]

 

Spencer Sharkey
Manager, Communications
Hockey Canada
Office: 403-777-4567
Mobile: 905-906-5327
[email protected]

 

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