The sports world has fallen silent over the past month. On March 11, 2020, the NBA cancelled their season indefinitely. Following that decision, nearly every sports league around the world did the same, including the Canadian Hockey League (CHL).
The CHL is the governing body for Canada’s top major junior hockey leagues, the Ontario Hockey League (OHL), the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL) and the Western Hockey League (WHL). The CHL has a total of 60 teams and they are the top feeder league for the NHL.
The most talented 16-20 year old hockey players in the world play in the CHL. The player's end goal is to play for the CHL championship, the Memorial Cup. Four teams get the opportunity to play in the Memorial Cup; the champion from each league and the host team.
The CHL had to make the tough decision to cancel the 2020 Memorial Cup, officially putting an end to the 2020 CHL season.
20 year-old Akil Thomas was playing in his final year of major junior hockey for the Peterborough Petes of the OHL when the season was put on hold in March. Thomas started his OHL career for the Niagara IceDogs in 2016. He was selected 12th overall by the IceDogs when he was 16 years old. Thomas played three and a half seasons with Niagara before being traded to the Petes following the World Junior Hockey Championship.
The Petes had already clinched a playoff spot and were getting ready to make a run for an OHL title before the season was cancelled. Peterborough had the second best record in the OHL Eastern Conference, with 78 points. The team was full of top end talent, from Thomas to Nick Robertson and Seymon Der-Arguchintsev. With such a stacked team, the Petes had a really good chance to make it to the Memorial Cup.
“It was obviously extremely disappointing and I was in shock. I really felt bad for the GM and the coaches who have invested so much time into training for me and my teammate Jack York (traded from Barrie to Peterborough at the trade deadline.)," said Thomas.
“As a coach you just think of winning a championship and it looked like we had a perfect chance to win. To see it not become something possible was extremely disappointing and I just felt bad for everyone involved.”
Thomas, who was a second round pick of the Los Angeles Kings in 2018 will no longer be eligible to return to the CHL next season because he aged out.
Thomas entered the OHL as a 16-year-old and will be moving onto the next stage of his hockey career at the age of 20. For every kid leaving home at a young age to play in the best junior league in the world, Thomas had to adapt to his new lifestyle as one of the best young hockey players in Canada.
“Playing junior hockey has changed me as a person in the way that I can adapt to anything,” said Thomas. “I moved away from home at 16 and I ended up living with a family I didn’t really know. Sometimes my billets were out of the house so I had to cook my own food, and that was important for me to learn at 16."
Playing in the OHL has also prepared Thomas for the next step in his career, the pros.
“The OHL schedule is 68 games and that’s obviously a big workload and it’s definitely prepared me for pro hockey. I should be well adjusted to the [pro] schedule and I’m looking forward to trying to translate my junior game to pro.”
Thomas had an impressive junior career. In 241 games he scored 105 goals, 210 assists, for 315 points in four years, including a 102 point year in 2018-2019 with Niagara. Thomas has scored some huge goals in his career. The biggest being the goal which gave Canada the 5-4 win over Russia in the 2020 World Junior Hockey Championship.
When asked about his favourite moment in his four years of major junior hockey, Thomas said this.
“There's been so many good moments and that's why it's hard [to answer], but it was probably going into the playoffs last year with the IceDogs. Every playoff game was a packed house, the coaches were so excited, the whole city was excited,” said Thomas. “We would come into games and be excited to play in front of a rocking crowd. We always had fun. It was disappointing the way it ended but it was definitely fun while it lasted.”
Thomas will most likely be playing his professional hockey next year in the AHL with the Ontario Reign or in the NHL with the Los Angeles Kings.
It is sad to see athletes across the world not get a chance to finish their seasons, especially for someone like Akil Thomas, who had one final shot to try and get to the Memorial Cup. Despite the sadness of not being able to finish a season, or lift a trophy, we all can look forward to the day where we will be back on the ice, field, or courts. This season might be over, but an athlete’s love for the game will never vanish and the memories they made would last a lifetime.