But the Los Angeles Kings forward prospect said he’s enjoying starting his professional career with Eisbaren Berlin in Deutsche Eishockey Liga (DEL), the country’s top pro league.
“I’m lucky to play games, practice, be part of a team, experience a new country,” said Thomas, a center selected by the Kings in the second round (No. 51) of the 2018 NHL Draft. “So it’s been fun.”
It’s also been challenging for the 20-year-old. He was one of five prospects the Kings loaned to Eisbaren Berlin, along with forwards Aidan Dudas, Alex Turcotte and Tyler Madden and goalie Jacob Ingham while the NHL and many North American minor leagues consider how to conduct the 2020-21 season due to concerns surrounding the coronavirus.
Dudas and Madden returned home after sustaining injuries, leaving Thomas and the others to learn the ropes of being professionals overseas.
“There have been many, many challenges outside of the rink, stuff like getting groceries and figuring out what the driving street signs mean,” Thomas said. “Even just going to a German restaurant, trying to figure out what you want, what they have and all that.”
There have been on-ice adjustments too. Thomas said he’s trying to get used to playing on the larger ice surfaces in Europe.
“Because there’s so much area it’s almost kind of easier to defend just because you can let the guys play on the outside,” he said. “But to actually be effective and to be dominant you have to do different things and all that. It’s definitely an adjustment, but for what I want to work on going into [NHL training] camp, it’s definitely good. I want to work on making more plays at the pro level and having the confidence to drive the play and stuff like that, so it’s good in that aspect.”
Thomas was a top-line player for most of his four seasons in the Ontario Hockey League, scoring 315 points (105 goals, 210 assists) in 241 Ontario Hockey League games for Niagara and Peterborough. He also scored the game-winning goal for Canada in the championship game of the 2020 IIHF World Junior Championship last season. Now he said he’s adapting to playing any role with Eisbaren Berlin, from first-line forward to fourth-line forechecker.
Thomas played his first game Nov. 13, in the MagentaSport Cup, a preseason tournament for eight DEL teams. In two tournament games he has three shots on goal and has averaged 12:15 of ice time.
The DEL season is scheduled to start Dec. 17.
“In terms of hockey, all of us are first-year pros, adjusting to having teammates that have families at home, adjusting to professional coaches,” Thomas said. “Every player is really good so you can go up and down the lineup very easily. It’s a very business-like mentality so we take our preparation for even practice pretty seriously because we know everything is going to be reported back to the Kings and we want to have a good showing 24/7.”
Kings director of player personnel Nelson Emerson said the organization is keeping track of Thomas’ progress by watching game video and speaking with Eisbaren Berlin sport director Stephane Richer, who played 27 games as a defenseman for the Tampa Bay Lightning, Boston Bruins and Florida Panthers from 1992-95, and coach Serge Aubin, who played 374 games as a forward with the Colorado Avalanche, Columbus Blue Jackets and Atlanta Thrashers from 1998-06.
Jarret Stoll, who works in player development for the Kings, meets weekly with Thomas virtually, Emerson said.
“The progress reports we’ve gotten on Akil have been tremendous,” Emerson said. “He’s fitting in great. Guys like him, coaches like coaching him, no issues there. How he acts around the group, strong reviews.”
Thomas said the Kings’ message to him before heading to Germany were to use the time overseas to soak in the professional environment, and work on building muscle and getting stronger for the rigors of the NHL.
Thomas (6-foot, 171 pounds) said he’s taken to the task and is eager to show the Kings the results.
“I’ve been working my tail off in the gym and stuff with the other guys trying to get in the best shape as possible for camp,” Thomas said. “I definitely want to show them that I’ve definitely developed physically from the last time they saw me a year ago. I really want them to get the idea that I’m ready physically, I’m different, I’ve changed, I’m more mature. I want to show them that I’ve added to my game. I want to show them that I could be of use to them any way possible. And hopefully I can feel like I’m flying when I come back on a smaller ice surface.”
When he’s not on the ice or in the gym, Thomas said he spends time in the apartment he shares with his fellow Kings prospects. He’s also continued co-hosting Soul On Ice: The Podcast with award-winning filmmaker Kwame Damon Mason and Ryerson University forward Elijah Roberts.
The podcast is part of the NHL family of podcasts that includes NHL Fantasy On Ice, NHL Executive Suite, NHL Draft Class, NHL @TheRink and Puck Culture.
Thomas said he hopes to have a chance to play with forward Quinton Byfield, who was selected No. 2 by the Kings in the 2020 NHL Draft, at some point.
They played together previously for Canada at the 2020 WJC and for the OHL in the 2019 CIBC Canada Russia Series.
“That would be pretty cool, even if it’s just like an exhibition game, show them that I can get pucks to him,” Thomas said. “He’s a pretty easy player to play with, to be honest. You know what you’re going to get out of him. He can make those skilled plays. He’s easy to play with in the corner because of his big body.”