Samuels-Thomas chasing new NHL dream

American Hockey League

Mar 2, 2021

By AJ Manderichio/SanDiegoGulls.com

During a recent American Hockey League game at Orleans Arena in Las Vegas, Jordan Samuels-Thomas noticed the new look of hockey.

Two of the Ontario Reign’s top prospects, Quinton Byfield and Akil Thomas, faced off against Henderson’s Jermaine Lowen. The three Black players represented significant milestones – Lowen as the first professional hockey player from Jamaica; Byfield as the highest-drafted Black prospect; Thomas, the son of former American Hockey League (AHL) player Kahlil. Joel Ward, a former standout forward in the National Hockey League, serves an assistant coach for the Silver Knights.

Then there’s Samuels-Thomas, a former Gulls player, who recently joined the officiating ranks and serves as the only Black referee at the AHL level.

“After the game, it hit me,” he explained. “’Wow, that’s pretty cool.’ I had never skated in a game like that in my life. It’s just different. That was an isolated situation, you’re not going to see that every night. But it shows it can happen. If kids were there at that game, they could see the different ways they could get involved with hockey. It’s a great sport. It has its flaws, like things do, but I think as long as people are making efforts to improve it, that’s all you can ask for. Things don’t change overnight – people’s hearts don’t change overnight – but we are seeing improvements.”

Samuels-Thomas still harbors the same NHL dreams he held as a child growing up in West Hartford, CT. The 30-year-old recently retired from professional hockey to pursue officiating. He’s pushing to become just the third Black official in NHL history, joining Shander Alphonso and Jay Sharrers.

The path follows a similar pattern to his four-year AHL career. He spent two of those seasons with the San Diego Gulls, compiling 13-13=26 points and 35 penalty minutes in 74 games. More important than the numbers, Samuels-Thomas had the chance to meet Willie O’Ree, a man he admired and credits for his interest in hockey.

“I grew up always knowing who Willie O’Ree was,” he said. “I read his book; my dad would tell me stories about him. Growing up, being a black player, it’s inevitable for you to run into certain situations. I realize that, while I’ve had some difficult situations, he endured a lot for me to even have the opportunity and the confidence to do that. Until I played for San Diego, I had never met Willie O’Ree. I remember the first time I got to meet him, I think it was after warmups as I was heading back to the ice, and he came over and he gave me a fist bump, and we got to talk a little bit before the game. That’s a really cool experience, actually just meeting the guy and talking with him. After the game, we met up and exchanged numbers, and we’ve kept contact. 

“What he’s done for the game is awesome. It’s a choice, in the sense that he didn’t have to take that next step and be an ambassador for the league, but that’s his life. What’s he done off the ice will be remembered more for what he did on the ice, in terms of advancing the game and making hockey accessible to as many people as possible.”

As he finished his 2019-20 season, split between the ECHL’s Worcester Railers and the Heilbronner Falken of the Deutsche Eishockey Liga 2 in Germany, Samuels-Thomas evaluated his options. He could look to continue his playing career, join the coaching ranks or continue with his role as a writer at The Athletic. A discussion with the Professional Hockey Player’s Association (PHPA) opened the door to becoming an official and allowed him to continue to pursue his NHL dreams.

“It seemed like this was a really good opportunity to continue being on the ice and continue chasing the NHL,” Samuels-Thomas said. “I was fortunate enough to play four years in the AHL, and that’s as high as I made it. The opportunity to pursue and kind of have that carrot or that goal of making the National Hockey League, I like the lifestyle and the work that needs to be done to ref in the NHL one day. That’s really my goal. 

“That’s been my mindset since I was 10 years old is make the NHL. I didn’t as a player, but if I continue working hard, I can have a good opportunity to do that as a referee.”

The similarities stood out immediately. Samuels-Thomas continues to maintain a rigorous training regiment and strict diet and added more endurance training to compensate for the lack of breaks during periods. He dove headfirst into the rule book, getting help from the NHL’s managing office and his peers at the NHL and AHL levels.

“That’s a big part of the mental aspect of being an official – being confident in your calls and showing that confidence,” he said. “That can only come through preparation with the rule book and how you prepare for the game and your body language. That’s something I take really seriously, because in my experience, I know what a good communicator looks like and a bad communicator looks like.”

Samuels-Thomas also quickly found a common ground with players.

“It’s good to have the respect of the players, because they know I understand,” he said. “I’m always going to make the call and try to call it at the NHL standard, but it’s also nice because they know I understand that even if I make a call they don’t agree with, I’m just doing my job. I’ve had so many guys say, ‘You have a job to do, and I understand it,’ just like they have a job to do. That’s been really good, and I think that’s helped my development.”

While he stays focused on developing into an NHL referee, Samuels-Thomas admits the significance of his pursuit isn’t lost on him. He’s noticed the increased efforts of the NHL to encourage diversity and the work of former players like Matt Dumba, J.T. Brown and the Hockey Diversity Alliance. He recognized the Los Angeles Kings and the hiring of Blake Bolden, the first Black woman to play in the National Women’s Hockey League, as a team scout. Samuels-Thomas knows his own pursuit could impact the community, opening up another avenue for those interested in the sport.

“It makes a huge difference,” he explained. “If I didn’t turn on the TV one day and see Mike Grier – a guy who’s stick I actually got at a Whalers game when I was younger – see Anson Carter, a guy who had dreads. I actually had dreads my second year in San Diego. Seeing guys like that can play in the NHL makes a difference.

“I think anytime you can get in the community, it’s sort of like a human instinct, like someone who looks like me is doing this, therefore I can do that. I think that’s important. Being someone who is there, someone who has that platform for kids and families to see you care, makes a huge difference. If I can inspire a kid or family to not just play hockey, but pursue what they love, that’s what it’s all about. Pursuing your passions no matter what and not thinking you can have a limit to what you can achieve.”

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