Hockey

Akil Thomas notches natural hat trick to lead hockey's 1st all-Black line since '40s

Akil Thomas skated alongside Ontario Reign teammates Quinton Byfield and Devante Smith-Pelly on Sunday to form pro hockey's first all-Black line since the 1940s. He scored a natural hat trick to force overtime and again in a shootout for a 5-4 AHL win.

Kings prospect, Byfield, Smith-Pelly combine for 6 points in Reign's AHL victory

Reign head coach John Wroblewski on Sunday iced a forward trio of Quinton Byfield, middle, between Devante Smith-Pelly and Akil Thomas, right. They combined for six points with Thomas scoring a natural hat trick to force overtime and the winning goal in a shootout. (Ontarioreignhockey/Instagram)

It was much more than a typical midseason road game for the surging Ontario Reign.

On Sunday, first-year head coach John Wroblewski sent centre Quinton Byfield on the ice between Akil Thomas and newcomer Devante Smith-Pelly early on against the Condors in Bakersfield, Calif.

It marked the first time three Black players skated on a line in a professional game since Herb Carnegie, his brother Ossie, and Manny McIntyre played as the Black Aces line for various teams in the 1940s in Quebec.

"We were so happy to be on a line together. It was a special feeling, for sure," Thomas told reporters Monday on a Zoom call. "We have four Black guys on our team [forward Bokondji Imama is the other] so it didn't feel crazy that we were on a line together.

"For me, it's cool young Black kids who play hockey maybe see it and get inspired and feel they have a place in the game. It doesn't matter what colour we are, just that we [players] have an opportunity to inspire other people."

Thomas' father, Kahlil, twice played on all-Black lines as a forward during his minor league career and sent his son a text message upon seeing the 21-year-old follow his path.

"He was on a team that started five Black players — two defencemen and three forwards — and hopefully one of these days we'll see that happen," said the younger Thomas.

'I just wanted to do the best I could'

The Ontario trio never practised as a line before Sunday's American Hockey League game. Thomas was teammates with Byfield, 18, on Canada's world junior squad in 2020 but hadn't met Smith-Pelly before the latter joined the California-based Reign earlier this month.

"[Coach] changes the lines quite a bit and we're probably used to that now as a team. I wasn't worried about it," Thomas said. "I just wanted to do the best I could with the guys.

"We're a young team and can use a guy like Devo," he added of the 28-year-old former NHLer. "We're roommates on the road so we're getting to know each other and I'm trying to soak in as much as I can. Q's a funny guy. We have a bunch [of them] on our team and we all get along really, really well. It's a tight room and jokes every day."

Founding Maple Leafs owner Conn Smythe once said Herb Carnegie was good enough to have played for the team if he were white. Carnegie was never given an opportunity to play in the NHL and spent much of his life fighting racism through education. A charity in his name, the Herb Carnegie Future Aces Foundation, works to foster self-esteem and ethical behaviour.

Byfield, Thomas and Smith-Pelly made an impact at Mechanics Bank Arena on Sunday, combining for six points.

Byfield opened the scoring at 4:43 of the first period to extend his goal-scoring streak to four games, with Smith-Pelly drawing the secondary assist for his first point since joining the Los Angeles Kings' affiliate.

1st hat trick as a pro

Smith-Pelly, who previously played in Russia's Kontinental Hockey League in 2019-20, scored seven goals in 24 games for the Washington Capitals during their Stanley Cup championship run in 2018.

"Devo's a big body and smart," Thomas said. "[He] played in the NHL for [eight seasons] and probably isn't in his best skating shape but you can tell he has a mind of the game. Q's a big, fast centre, can make plays and score.

"The biggest thing for me was to do my best to forecheck hard, get the puck to them. We complement each other well. We also had a couple of injuries so we didn't play together all [game]."

With the Reign trailing 4-1 late in the third period, Thomas notched his first-ever three-goal game as a pro — a natural hat trick — in a span of two minutes and 43 seconds against Condors goalie and Edmonton native Stuart Skinner to force overtime. Thomas then scored again in the shootout to help seal the 5-4 win — the Reign's fifth in six games — and was named the game's first star.

"It was pretty cool and something I'll never forget. It was a lesson to never give up," said Thomas, a second-round pick for the Kings in 2018. "There was good vibe going into the third period. … Coach was still drawing up plays so we thought we could [come back]."

Byfield, who the Kings made the highest-selected Black player in the NHL draft at No. 2 overall last Oct. 6, collected an assist to move the former Ontario Hockey League star with Sudbury to third spot in team scoring with 13 points in 19 games this season.

WATCH | Byfield discusses historic draft:

Canadian Quinton Byfield becomes highest-drafted Black player in NHL history

1 year ago
Duration 2:03
Quinton Byfield, from Newmarket, Ont., has become the highest-drafted Black player in NHL history going to the Los Angeles Kings as the second overall pick. 2:03

Thomas had one assist at the 2020 world juniors until the gold-medal game against Russia on Jan. 5 when the Toronto native notched the winning goal with 3:58 left in regulation to cap a three-goal, third-period comeback in Ostrava, Czech Republic.

WATCH | Thomas goal cements world junior gold for Canada:

Akil Thomas scores game-winner for Canada with incredible effort

2 years ago
Duration 1:04
Akil Thomas scored with less than 4 minutes left in regulation, as Canada beat Russia 4-3 to win the world junior championship gold medal. 1:04

The Reign are home this week for three games, beginning Wednesday evening against the San Diego Gulls, followed by back-to-back contests Friday and Saturday versus Tucson and Bakersfield.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Doug Harrison has covered the professional and amateur scene as a senior writer for CBC Sports since 2003. Previously, the Burlington, Ont., native covered the NHL and other leagues for Faceoff.com. Follow the award-winning journalist @harrisoncbc

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