A lot can happen in 12 months.
For Akil Thomas, that cliche could not be truer. At this point last season, Thomas was away from his Reign teammates, not cleared for contact and separately rehabbing two offseason shoulder surgeries. He had yet to make his season debut and wouldn’t for a month to come. Fast forward one year and a healthy Thomas has gotten off to an impressive start to the young AHL season, which has him beaming with pain-free confidence.
When Thomas and his doctors decided the time was right for the Kings’ 2018 second-round pick to go under the knife and repair both of his shoulders during the 2021 offseason, Thomas admittedly did not foresee the recovery being as hard as it was on him mentally. On the surface, often times from the outside, rehabbing an injury is only about regaining your abilities physically. In reality, while you’re working hard to get back to 100%, you also have to focus on your mental health as well.
“I thought it was going to be easy and a walk in the park actually, I really thought I could just be patient and I wouldn’t be effected mentally,” Thomas explained. “After the [shoulder surgeries] it took a long time to recover. I started to be affected mentally right around training camp last season because I was away from the group and they were all on the ice together, and at that time I couldn’t even shrug my shoulders. That’s when I realized that it wasn’t going to be easy and it was going to be a long road ahead.”
As Thomas continued to rehabilitate and recover, the hard work on and off the ice finally paid off.
After missing the Reign’s first 18 games of the 2021-22 season, Thomas finally made his season debut on December 4th, 2021 against the Bakersfield Condors. While relieved and elated to be back on the ice with his teammates, life wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows from then on. With two surgically repaired shoulders, Thomas had to adapt and adjust.
“Once I did start playing [in games], it was still tough because I wasn’t the same player yet and I didn’t feel like myself,” he said. “It took a while to get back on my feet even when I was playing. I talked to some people to help me with my mental health to help me get back my old self and I think that was just big for me going forward. I was able to refocus, think about what kind of year I had the season prior and kind of get my thoughts towards the remainder of the season. I just tried to stay patient and come to the rink with a good attitude, a positive attitude, and use every day to get better as I continued to come back from my shoulder surgeries.”
— Ontario Reign (@ontarioreign) October 19, 2022
When coming off of any injury, it takes time to get back into your groove and feel “back to yourself” as Thomas eluded to during my conversation with him earlier this week.
There was one answer, however, that really caught me by surprise. While double shoulder surgery is no minor endeavor, it took Thomas over a year for him to feel back to himself since on the ice. Take into consideration that Thomas still played 40 games in the AHL last season but at no point was completely comfortable with his game as he worked his way back into peak form with two newly worked on shoulders.
He underwent his surgery in the summer of 2021 and it wasn’t until he hit the ice in San Jose in mid-Septepber of 2022, for the Rookie Faceoff, that he truly felt like Akil Thomas again.
“I would say I didn’t feel like my total self until the rookie tournament this year (September 16-19),” he said. “Even in the summer I didn’t really feel one-hundred percent, so obviously when you have two brand new shoulders it takes time to trust them. It took time for my touch for the game to come back, I think that was kind of the biggest thing for me to regain. I think my game kind of revolves around my touch, my feel and my patience with the puck. It definitely took time.”
At that point, it became understandable as to why Thomas, typically an offensive threat at the AHL level, only notched one point in his first 19 games back last season. Yet, despite still being in the midst of getting completely comfortable, Thomas finished the 2021-22 season in outstanding form. Closing out the year, Thomas notched three multi-point games, including a hat trick against Colorado on April 20, and recorded four goals in four playoff games.
Now healthy, Thomas has notched four points (2-2-4) in six games and ranks second on the team with a +7 rating to boot, the best mark amongst all forwards in the AHL. According to Thomas, the much quicker start directly translates to having a healthy offseason to prepare.
“Just being able to work out regularly this summer was huge, the last few summers I’ve had shoulder issues because of what I fixed last year, so this offseason was the first healthy offseason I’ve had in about four or five years,” he detailed. “It’s been a very freeing summer and it really helped me mentally.”
With a clear mind and no restrictions or lingering issues, Thomas was able to focus strictly on hockey and improving pieces to his game he felt needed more attention.
The results have been notable in the early goings of a new AHL season, one that has seen the Reign jump out to a 5-1-0 start. Thomas put an emphasis on getting faster and stronger over the summer, while also workon his his play with the puck. The results have been noticeable.
“This offseason I wanted to get faster and wanted to get stronger, especially in the upper body,” he said. “I wanted to become a little bit more confident with the puck and improve skating a little bit more, which could me to make more plays with the puck and play a little bit riskier. I also wanted to build my engine up kind of, being able to last longer and be more durable during shifts. I felt like I pretty much hit all the dots in terms of my personal goals this offseason and I feel great now.”
Currently centering a line with fellow 2018 draft picks Tyler Madden and Aidan Dudas, the trio have combined for a goal in all but one game they’ve played together this season, following Madden’s return to game action. Between the three, chemistry has developed not only on the ice, but through of the bond’s they’ve built off the ice. Able to relate to each other, communicate and grow up together in professional hockey, Thomas feels all three factors have been immeasurable.
“We all came into the AHL at same time and you know, Madds and I have battled injuries and whatnot,” Thomas explained. “I also think just like we’re more experienced being in our third year of professional hockey. In making the little plays and scoring a goal here and there that we probably wouldn’t have made a year or so ago. The experience has been the key but we’re all buddies, we all lived together in our rookie season. We want to be better for each other and I honestly think we have a lot more, as a line, I think we can do a lot better. I think we have some more in the tank, but it’s been a pleasure playing with Aidan [Dudas] and Tyler [Madden].”
Helping the Reign out to the AHL’s hottest start of the season, as the only. teamin the league with 10 points, Thomas and the Reign are back in action tomorrow, Saturday, October 29th, when they host the Bakersfield Condors at 7:00 pm at Toyota Arena.