It started out as an idea to earn a little money to use transit in Toronto, but now Akil Thomas’ clothing line, Zale Apparel, is setting him apart from his peers set to have their name called at the upcoming NHL Draft.
Along with friend Ethan Low, Thomas created the clothing company to make t-shirts for his hockey and school friends; however, their little side business turned into a brand when the pair partnered with NGAGE – a company that invests in young people with business ideas.
“We kind of matured out of the idea and we started to care about how we looked when we went out and saw people,” Thomas explained. “We got more into fashion and kind of caring about what we wear. One day I was just like ‘Why don’t we start something serious that could grow to be anything one day?’
“We met the right people and took the right steps. I got a lot of help and support along the way. Hopefully it just keeps on growing along with my hockey career.”
Zale Apparel now sells t-shirts and hats through its website. The logo is a stylized trident – a tribute to Thomas’ mother’s Barbadian heritage.
The clothing line was also a talking point with each of the 25 teams Thomas interviewed with at the recent NHL Scouting Combine in Buffalo.
“Two teams asked me, ‘Does it effect your play?’ And I said, ‘Of course not’,” said Thomas. “Hockey has been my main thing ever since I was two, probably younger.
“Other (teams) were just kind of joking around. One team (said), as soon as I walked in, ‘I don’t think we can interview you’, and I kind of got scared. They were like, ‘You didn’t bring any Zale Apparel for us’ - a lot of teams joked around with it and it made me feel pretty comfortable with it. It made interviews different than others.”
Business interests aren’t the only thing that separates Thomas from other players set to hear their name called in Dallas June 22-23.
Since he was born in Brandon, Florida and his mother hails from Silver Spring, Maryland, Thomas could’ve gone the NCAA route and chose the U.S. National Team Development Program. However, Thomas, whose father is from Toronto, made a promise to his parents when choosing the Ontario Hockey League path, that he’d also focus on his education.
After fast-tracking through high school, skipping a grade in the process, Thomas began taking university classes last fall as a 17-year-old.
“I’m in business communications at Brock (University). First semester was professional communications and then second was intro to business,” said Thomas. “(When) I decided to go to the OHL, I made a promise to my parents that I’d get my degree one day in something.
“If I’m not taking classes (during the season) then I’m not really doing anything besides hockey so I thought, I might as well work towards my promise to my parents and kind of keep my mind active.”
On the ice, the 18-year-old is described a skilled, two-way forward that plays both the centre and wing positions for Billy Burke’s Niagara IceDogs. He also kills penalties and quarterbacks the team’s power play.
Offensively, Thomas is strong along the perimeter and uses his feet and vision to get the puck to the middle of the ice. He is known for the quick release on his shot – something that helped him score 22 goals and a team-leading 81 points in 68 games this season good for 14th in OHL scoring.
He also wears an 'A' for the IceDogs as a member of the team's leadership group, a somewhat unusual occurrence for a player so young and will be considered for the team's captaincy for the upcoming season.
“Whoever ends up drafting him is going to be very surprised,” said Burke. “He’s going to be better than they think he is. He’s very complete, he understands defence and coverage. He understands how to use his change of speed to his advantage offensively breaking out of the zone, but also picking up guys on the back check.
“He’s very smart, and he’s incredibly skilled. I’d be very surprised if his goal totals in the OHL don’t go way up next year. He just has a very high ceiling, is a very complete player with excellent skill and IQ.”
The five-foot-11, 171-pound forward is ranked 15th amongst North American skaters by NHL Central Scouting for this month’s draft while ISS Hockey has Thomas at No. 27 in its ranking of the Top 200 players available.
“I think he plays better at centre in junior just because of his smarts and his skating,” said ISS Hockey scout Ben Gallant. “But his strength is going to be a big issue going forward if he’s going to play centre at the NHL level.
“There was improvement this year and he did start last year as a 16-year-old at centre as well. He’s shown he can get away with not being the strongest player and still be an effective centre.”
Internationally, Thomas represented Canada at the 2017 Hlinka Memorial tournament scoring two goals and four assists in five games while winning gold.
In April Thomas was part of Canada’s team at the IIHF Ice Hockey U18 World Championship contributing a goal and an assist in four games.
Despite the disappointing finish in Russia, Thomas called it a good learning experience.
“Coached by Don Hay, obviously a very well-known coach and coached a lot of good players,” said Thomas. “Any Hockey Canada experience is amazing because I’ve never been to Russia before let alone play hockey there against some of the best players in the world. Every experience overseas is kind of amazing.
“We had a really good group of guys, obviously disappointed that we lost, but it was a good experience and something that I’m going to remember forever.”
The under-18 experience also gave Thomas another opportunity to play with fellow 2018 draft prospects Ty Dellandrea and Serron Noel. The trio play against each other in the OHL and were part of the Hlinka Memorial squad last season.
“Akil’s an incredible teammate and incredible player as well,” said Dellandrea. “He’s super skilled and good with the puck, fun to play with.”
Added Noel: “Highly skilled player, underrated playmaker, I think. When you’re playing with him, he can really make those plays and obviously he’s really dangerous when he has the puck on his stick. He might hear his name called earlier than everyone expects.”
As he looks to take the next step in his hockey career, Thomas, who tries to model his game after Claude Giroux, has high expectations of himself for next season in the OHL.
“In my mind, I want to win the Memorial Cup next year with my team and I want to be top-10 in the league in face-offs and I want to lead the league in points so I’m really taking a dominant approach and I’m not thinking, ‘I hope I get top-30 in points’,” he said. “I want to go for No. 1 and I’m going to try to dominate next year.”
When Thomas hits the draft floor at the American Airlines Center later this week he’ll do so in style. He’s taken his design experience from Zale Apparel and applied it to his draft-day suit.
“I got to pick the pattern inside the jacket, the pattern inside the cuff - basically everything I customized so it’s going to be a really special suit,” Thomas explained. “I got my two grandfathers’ initials put in it, on the inside of it, so it’s going to mean a lot to me and it’s going to be something I kind of hang up in my house one day.”