Akil Thomas admits that he hasn’t been too bothered about staying entertained during quarantine. The 20-year-old Los Angeles Kings prospect has been staying with family in Greenville, South Carolina during the coronavirus pandemic.
“They live here, so I don’t really see them during the season,” the forward says. He’s spent the last four seasons in the Ontario Hockey League, last playing for the Peterborough Petes before the OHL cancelled the remainder of the 2019-20 season. “I’m trying to take this time to see them, hang out with them, play board games with them. Stuff like that. I’m not up to much.”
By that, of course, he means aside from hosting a weekly hockey podcast, running an apparel company called Zale and now, hosting two virtual NHL 20 tournaments over the next two Saturdays.
“I think I’m kind of ahead of the curve,” he tells me, while listing things that could help him have a career after hockey. It’s something that strikes me through our conversation, how he always seems to be looking ahead to the future and where he fits in. This is a player who chose the OHL route because he thought it could prepare him better for eventually making the NHL, but also chose to continue to pursue his education, despite the league’s heavy schedule.
“Most of my goals in life are kind of towards hockey right now,” he assures me. Thomas was drafted 51st overall in the second round of the 2018 NHL Entry Draft. He signed a three-year, entry-level contract with the Kings last spring.
“Hopefully one day I can make the NHL and toward the end of my career, I can focus on [Zale] a little bit more.”
For the next two weekends, his attention will need to be more immediate, as the entrepreneur will take on the challenge of hosting two 256-player NHL 20 Esports tournaments virtually.
Players in the inaugural Just Dishin x Zale NHL 20 Esports Event presented by Triple Deke will go head-to-head in an All Star bracket-style competition for cash and prizes, over PS4 (May 23) or XBOX One (May 30). Both tournaments will be hosted by a partnership between Zale and Just Dishin’ (another hockey streetwear brand) and will include giveaways from sponsors, such as 26 Shirts, Barstool Sport’s Spittin’ Chiclets, Bladetech Hockey, Howie’s Hockey, HOLDAT Clothing, The Martin Group, Picasso’s Pizza, Skate Skins, STX Hockey, Triple Deke and TSN’s Bardown. Proceeds from the event will be going to COVID-19 relief efforts.
I spoke with Thomas on fashion, video games and much more ahead of the first weekend. Scroll to find more about the prizes and how to enter.
(Editor’s note: This transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity)
JFTC: I want to start with your apparel company. How did that begin?
AKIL THOMAS: When I was 13, I started selling hockey tee-shirts with my buddies. It just got old for me, and us starting to get older, I realized it was kind of immature. I wanted to create something that I could target way more people with, so that’s what I try to do now. I ended up registering it as a legit company in 2015 with a partner [Ethan Low] — I was 15 at the time, my partner was 15, so it started when we were pretty young. Five years down the road, today, it’s doing pretty well and doing some pretty big things, so that’s kind of cool.
JFTC: What are your goals with the company?
It’s hard to say now, just because my main focus is on hockey. Most of my goals in life are kind of towards hockey right now, so it’s kind of hard to say. Hopefully one day I can make the NHL and toward the end of my career, I can focus on it a little bit more and stuff.
But really and truly, the people I’ve brought along on my team are kind of the people who create goals for it, because it’s very time-consuming. Obviously I’m really busy during the season with hockey, so it’d be hard to say.
JFTC: I know you’ve incorporated your background into your company (Zale’s logo is a tribute to his mother’s Barbadian heritage). Are you worried about showing your personality and background in a league that doesn’t necessarily encourage that, or do you think the young stars coming up are changing that?
I think the league’s kind of changing. I wouldn’t say ‘worried,’ because I’m not worried about showing myself. I’m me and I’m not gonna change, but obviously there’s ways I could go overboard, just because I’m not established yet in the NHL.
At the same time, I think you see more and more NHL players starting to get active on social media because they realize that it’s such a tool nowadays. With a brand and big name, if you have a social media following, that can help down the road with life after hockey. I think I’m kind of ahead of the curve on that one.
JFTC: When you look at fashion in the league, who do you look to?
Auston Matthews has done a couple modeling shoots. He’s always dressed pretty well in the pictures he posts and stuff like that. He’s definitely a stylish guy. Alex Nylander is pretty stylish, as well — he wears crazy things, I’ve heard, to the rink and stuff. I think that’s kinda it for now. That’s the only guys I’ve noticed that stand out on a style level. Obviously P.K. Subban does a lot of modeling, as well.
JFTC: He can wear a hat!
[laughing] Yeah, I’m not a hat guy, maybe that’s why I didn’t say him.
JFTC: So how did you get from there, starting a clothing company, to now and sponsoring this virtual NHL tournament?
We actually started with Matt [Keeler] from Just Dishin’. We’re a part of it, but I wouldn’t consider us a sponsor — if anything, we’re kind of hosting it. Matt’s a guy I met through Instagram. We were kind of brainstorming on how we could collaborate with each other, because he did a massive in-person tournament a couple months before COVID-19 happened.
So we were just brainstorming, like hey, why don’t we create an online NHL tournament? That’d be pretty awesome for the people that are bored in quarantine right now, and we can raise funds for COVID relief initiatives, that’d be awesome, as well. We’re doing both.
JFTC: What are the struggles doing this virtually?
It’s hard to contact everyone if we need to contact everyone. There’s tons of people involved, so a lot of emails going left and right, rather than in person, you’d just walk up to the person. It’s a good lesson, ‘cause we have one next weekend and if things go well, we’ll probably do this again, so it’s good to learn a few things. And I’m sure a couple issues will happen. We’ll just take it and prepare for the next one better.
JFTC: It’s a whole new landscape! What issues have you already talked through potentially coming up?
For some reason, there’s one guy that we see that he has paid, but for some reason — the registration is open on our website and Just Dishin’s website — so for some reason, his name is not in the system, but it shows that he paid in our payment history. Just figuring out if he enrolled with a different email, or different name is something we’re doing right now, but we just couldn’t see any records of him registering.
JFTC: Are you hoping this event could move in-person in the future?
I hope so. I definitely hope so. We’ve gotten a lot of followers, actual traffic to the website because of it. It’s great for the brands, and it’s also great for the people to just have fun for a day. I’m really excited. I’m actually playing in it myself, I’m a big NHL guy. So if everything goes right, I’d love to do it in the future. Especially because we’re raising funds, too, for a great initiative and it’s very essential right now.
If everything goes well, we’ll definitely do this again. I think I’d rather do in-person, just so we can interact with players, fans — we’ve got a bunch of influencers involved, so if we could have them show up, it’s be awesome for everyone to get together. We’re giving away a bunch of stuff, giveaway are kind of better in person, so you can see the things you’re trying to get. We’re actually actioning off something that’s pretty cool and that’d be awesome in person, as well.
JFTC: Are you allowed to tell me what it is?
One of our sponsors, he’s — I don’t know what it’s called, like a woods-craftsman? He’s super good at creating trophies and stuff with wood. Basically, he created one of me. He like carved my face out on the piece of wood, carved with a gold medal that I won at World Juniors. I sent him a picture of it, I sent him a picture of my autograph, a picture of my writing, and I don’t know how he did it, but he carved it out and put like, a gold finish where he carved it. It’s pretty cool. We’re trying to raise as much money as we can for the COVID relief initiatives with that.
JFTC: So when you’re playing NHL 20, do you chirp other players in the way that you’re familiar with or is it different online?
To be honest, in the last year, if I’m playing with a random person, I haven’t even talked to the person I’m playing. Not that many people have mics in NHL, whereas Fortnite, Call of Duty, people have mics. But if it’s my friend, 100 percent, I’m chirping him the whole game.
JFTC: Do you think you’ll hear a lot of that during the tournament?
I’m gonna anticipate most guys will have mics, just because they know it’s going to be a streamed event everywhere. But I’m looking forward to like, if there’s little kids that wanna talk to me and stuff, I’m looking forward to being able to play them. It’ll be pretty cool.
JFTC: You don’t get a lot of opportunities to connect with your fanbase like this.
Yeah, and to play video games, that’d be even better, so I’m excited.
JFTC: Can you tell me a little bit about Soul On Ice: The Podcast and what you’ve been doing there?
This guy I know [Damon Kwame Mason] made a documentary on black hockey players and I guess he was so good that the NHL hired him. He made a truck that goes around the country — it’s called the Black Hockey History truck, I believe. It’s kind of like a museum, and he goes around the country, different NHL arenas, showcasing them before the games, right in the ticket area so people can see. It’s pretty cool, actually. So he’s one of those guys, who’s a black hockey player enthusiast. I’ve known him for years, so I knew he had a platform with Soul On Ice the movie he made. I actually starred in that a little bit, so I knew he had the platform, the followers.
So one day Elijah [Roberts] and I were talking about starting a podcast — my teammate, and one of my best friends — and I said hey, why don’t we team up together and do it? You have a brand with Soul On Ice, you’ve done a movie, you’ve got followers, a lot of people saw it, and you’ve got an in with the NHL. It’d be awesome to do this together.
We’ve done it, it’s worked out pretty great. We’ve had a couple really good and notable guests. We’ve had Ron McLean, Sarah Nurse, Jaden Lindo, Joel Ward ... We wanna get the big, big names. Akim [Aliu] would be an awesome guy to get on, obviously with the controversy, I think we’d get a lot of plays with him. It’s something that’s pretty cool.
JFTC: All of this is keeping you busy without hockey. What else have you been doing with your time?
Just working out. Stickhandling, shooting pucks, rollerblading, spending time with family. I’m in Greenville, South Carolina right now with my family. They live here, so I don’t really see them during the season. I’m trying to take this time to see them, hang out with them, play board games with them. Stuff like that. I’m not up to much.
Registration for the Just Dishin x Zale NHL 20 Esports Event presented by Triple Deke is $25 (USD) and is open until 11:59 p.m. ET on May 27, 2020. Prizes are as follows:
- 1st Place: $2,250 prize value including $1,250 cash, $500 in gift cards from Just Dishin and Zale, a custom MSN Lazer Award ($500 value), STX Stick of the winner’s choice ($250 value) and Bladetech Custom Blades ($100 value)
- 2nd Place: $1,050 prize value including $750 cash and $300 in gift cards from Just Dishin and Zale
- 3rd Place: $500 prize value including $300 cash, plus $200 in gift cards from Just Dishin and Zale
- 4th Place: $250 prize value including $150 cash and $100 in gift cards from Just Dishin and Zale
To sign up, visit JustDishin.com/pages/Just-Dishin-X-Zale-Esports. For more information about the tournament, visit JustDishin.com or follow on social media at @JushDishin on Twitter and on Instagram at @justdishin and @zaleapparel.