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Bokondji Imama understands why he has been cast in his current role. He’s a black man in a predominantly white man’s game. He has been vocal whenever incidents of racism occur in the game that he loves. And he’s a fighter so he won’t back down.
All the same, the Tucson Roadrunners forward would love it if a reporter were to approach him to discuss something other than his thoughts on racism in hockey.
Imama would love to express the pride that he carries in his heart at being the son of two immigrants from the Congo.
He would love to detail his dad’s tireless charitable work back in the Congo to bring food and medical supplies to impoverished people.
He would love to discuss his burning desire to follow in Bokondji Sr.’s footsteps.
He would love to chat about the trust that junior coach Danny Flynn placed in him in his second season with the Saint John Sea Dogs; faith that earned him a QMJHL title and a shot at pro hockey.
He would love to share his ultimate dream: to become an NHL player.
“One hundred percent it bothers me that that’s all people want to talk about, but maybe it’s just up to me to raise my status as a player,” Imama said of his recent stances on race. “And how can I complain when we are still in this situation; when this is reality? I think I would have been even more frustrated if all of that stuff was going on and people were not taking notice or writing a story about it.
“I know sometimes we want to think it’s different. Even people of color want to think that that stuff is not going on any more. In my day-to-day life, do I feel this way all the time? No. But when a situation happens it still hurts. Even if it wasn’t directed at me, it still hurts.”
The incidents have been frequent. In January, San Jose Barracuda forward Krystof Hrabik made a racist gesture directed at Imama that earned him a 30-game suspension.
Last month, Jacksonville Icemen defenseman Jacob Panetta made a racist gesture toward South Carolina Stingrays defenseman Jordan Subban, who is black. The gesture earned Panetta a season-long suspension from the ECHL and his team released him.
One month later, Ukrainian forward Andri Denyskin was suspended for a year after directing a racist gesture towards HC Donbass defenseman and former Coyotes prospect Jalen Smereck during a game last fall.
It all added up and Imama took a stand.
“It’s unfortunate that single players or persons will screw up the whole image of the hockey community, but we do have to take ownership and figure some things out now,” Imama said. “It’s 2022 and we are still dealing with this type of crap. It’s just sickening and there’s definitely not enough being done to end it.”
To join Imama in the fight against racism, the Roadrunners had these shirts made for sale with all of the proceeds going to the Hockey Diversity Alliance, whose mission is to eradicate racism and intolerance in hockey, and to inspire a new and diverse generation of players and fans. The Roadrunners intend to keep selling the shirts.
“It resonated in so many ways, not only from a timing standpoint with Black History Month (which ends today) and so many initiatives around hockey and supporting all of the things that Willie O’Ree did way back in hockey history, but also in supporting Boko and saying, ‘Enough is enough’ and wanting to put our voice forward,” Roadrunners president Bob Hoffman said. “We really put a lot into his court and asked, ‘How do you want to proceed with this and how would you like to see this unfold?’
“He was instrumental in the design of the T-shirt and he selected who the benefactor would be in the Hockey Diversity Alliance, which is just a great fit for it. We support all of our teammates, but certainly in this case, we were happy to stand strong with him.”
Genesis of a giant
Imama’s grandfather went to school in Canada and later worked at the embassy as a diplomat. His son, Bokondji Sr., also did his schooling in Canada and made it his mission to build a family and a better life in Montréal because it was a diverse community and the primary language is French, just as it is in the Congo, a former Belgian colony.
Bokondji Jr. played a lot of sports growing up – hockey, football, baseball and soccer among them.
“Some days, he would play three different games,” Bokondji Sr. said. “We spent a lot of time together ‘til he grew up on me.”
Despite the variety of options, Boko gravitated quickly to Canada’s national pastime.
“It was that competitive nature, that physical nature,” he said, laughing. “In hockey, kids start chirping at like eight years old. It gets intense right away and I was hooked.”
Neither father nor son knew anything about the game initially.
“My first hockey practice, he didn’t even know how to put my gear on,” Boko said. “He had to watch other parents but I also had to figure out a lot myself.”
Fortunately for Bokondji Sr., other parents took a liking to him and helped guide him through those early years. It was a bit of an eye-opener when Baie-Comeau Drakkar selected Imama in the fourth round of the 2012 QMJHL draft, but it was a greater surprise when the Tampa Bay Lightning selected Imama in the sixth round (No. 180) of the 2015 NHL Draft, six months after Baie-Comeau traded him to Saint John.
“I saw him the first time when he got traded to Saint John,” said Coyotes director of amateur scouting Darryl Plandowski, who was the Lightning’s head amateur scout at the time. “It was his size, strength and toughness that caught our eye at first. We didn’t expect him to score 40-plus goals a year later.”
Neither did Imama, but new Saint John coach Danny Flynn saw something in Imama that previous coaches may have overlooked as he searched for his place in major junior hockey.
“I knew he had some hands, I knew he could shoot the puck, I knew he would pay the price to score and I knew he could skate so we tried to grow his game,” said Flynn, who also coached former Coyote Conor Garland in Moncton.
“I said, ‘We’re going to make you into a top-six guy. I thought he’d be an ideal guy as a bumper on the power play because he would be strong in front of the net for tips and rebounds, but also if you could one-touch it to him, he had a quick release and a heavy shot. With his reputation of being a tough customer, he also got a lot of room around the net.”
Playing on a line with Matthew Highmore (now with the Canucks) and Mathieu Joseph (now with the Lightning), Imama led the team and finished eighth in the QMJHL in goals with 41. Saint John posted the Q’s best point total (102) and went 16-2 in the playoffs to capture the Jean-Rougeau Trophy and advance to the Memorial Cup.
“Danny was actually the first one to kind of trust in me offensively,” Imama said. “I’ve always been the grinder, but that year was the first time in a while that I heard a coach telling me, ‘You have something more to give and I would like you to keep working on it.’ He put me on power plays. He put me in great situations. I knew it was always in me but when a coach actually gives it to you and he lets you grow into it, it definitely gives you extra confidence.”
Scoring aside, Imama still had to fulfill his familiar role as the team’s protector. He finished 13th in the Q his final season with 105 penalty minutes, but it was an incident the previous season that cemented his legend.
Saint John forward Joe Veleno became the first player from Quebec to be granted exceptional status and play in the QMJHL at age 15. In a game against Halifax, Mooseheads 20-year-old center Kelly Bent got in a tussle with Veleno. Imama wasn’t going to stand for Bent violating an unwritten rule about age disparity in fights so he jumped over the boards and went at Bent repeatedly while the officials tried to keep him away.
Imama earned a 15-game suspension from the the league, but he also earned the undying respect of his team, which went 12-1-2 in his absence.
“I told the team, ‘He’s going to miss 15 games so let’s show him how much we respect what he did for us,’” Flynn said. “And we did.”
An age-old problem
Boko can’t remember the first time he experienced racism.
“It started the first moment I put skates on as a kid,” he said. “My whole life, I was physically gifted so at these tournaments that we went to all over Quebec, I was the easy target.”
The experiences are not contained to the ice, however. One day, Imama was walking into a grocery store while glancing at his cell phone and he was accosted by an elderly woman.
“It’s an 80-year-old woman so what am I gonna do?” he said. “You’ve just got to take it, but then I’m thinking: ‘This 80 year old woman, she has kids and her kids have kids. If they’re all sharing her mentality, I get where the problem can be coming from. It’s taught all the way down.’
“Clearly my presence was making her uncomfortable, but she doesn’t know me. She doesn’t know that I’m just an honest hockey player that is just trying to win his life and go about my business. She just saw me as a threat. There’s no reason for me to be a threat to her, but I have a strong physique and black men are sometimes scary for people.
“She could have just given me a smile. I would give her a smile right back and she would say, ‘Oh, this guy’s actually charming.’ But, sometimes we don’t even get that chance. We don’t even get the ‘hi,’ the little smile. It just goes straight to stereotypes like, ‘Oh, this guy must be a gangster or something.’ That’s just how she saw me.”
Imama appreciates the support that he gets from his teammates. The T-shirt, for example, was a Roadrunners affair at every level of the organization, with even wives and girlfriends of players collaborating on ideas. There is a reality, however, that none of his teammates will ever grasp.
“Nobody can understand how it feels,” he said. “When something happens, I’m alone. I’m the one person of color here.
“Even me, I don’t even know how to put it into words. It’s anger, it’s frustration and knowing my family doesn’t want me to react in a violent way. If it was up to me, any guy that tried to disrespect me like that, I know how to make them pay, but that’s not going to fix anything. That’s not gonna change anything, so you’ve just got to deal with all types of different emotions and you’ve just got to find the right way to let those emotions out because it is a sensitive subject.”
That was the driving force behind the T-shirt and it is the driving force behind Boko’s future plans. He traveled to New York last month to help launch a campaign entitled Celebrating Black Excellence and Joy in Hockey.
“I had to do something,” he said. “Things have happened to me many times. I wanted to take some action, actually try to lead and make a change.
“It started with my statement. Enough is enough. And I think the all for all for all on the back of the shirt, it just says that it’s not just for black people; it’s for everybody. I just want everybody to live in a better society.”
Imama chasing a dream
Imama’s goal is still to crack an NHL roster. Despite the offensive flair that he discovered in juniors, he knows that the punching of that NHL ticket is directly tied to the punches that he throws on the ice.
“We all sign up for it, right?” he said “I started doing it way back in juniors. It is not easy for sure. It’s easier for me to go fight when I’m at 100 percent, but when you’re at 75, 70, that’s where you need to find that extra bit. It’s like any other job. With the top scorer, I’m sure some games he doesn’t feel like it or there’s something wrong, but people are still expecting things from him.
“Of course I always think I can score, but there’s always that fine line of knowing my DNA, what I bring. Every single player that plays hockey wants to be that guy that gets goals, that gets points, but if I stick to my DNA, I think I can have success wherever I’m playing. That was my ticket to get drafted. That was my ticket to sign my first entry-level contract and that’s why I’m still around.”
Roadrunners coach Jay Varady has never sensed frustration from Imama, given his pigeon-holed role.
“More than anything, I think Boko wants that shot because he deserves it and he’s earned it; not because something happened to him along the way,” Varady said. “He’s a physical specimen, he spends a ton of time in the gym, he’s fit, he’s a captain for us and he’s a presence in our dressing room so he does work on things and he does try to get better. He’s a lot the rest of the guys here. He’s just he keeps pushing.”
In his ultimate fantasy, Imama would use his NHL platform to draw more attention to issues of race. He would use it to help his dad’s charity, the Bokondji Imama Foundation which has often been funded by Bokondji Sr.’s own money.
It’s a good bet that Imama will earn a recall to the Coyotes at some point soon, perhaps after the March 21 trade deadline. Whether that happens, his dad already has seen enough from his son on the ice, in the community and in the press to fill him with pride.
“It’s definitely a dream come true; such an honor to see our boy do what he loves to do at the pro level and growing as a man, but it’s not over. His dream is to play in the NHL,” Bokondji Sr. said. “He’s been handling tough situations like this since a young age; always responded well. I’m beyond proud to see now a man standing up for what’s right and dragging others with him. He must continue to do that and advocate to end racism.”
Boko won’t stop chasing his dreams. He knows that’s what his father and mother (Kumbia) would want.
“My parents always made me feel like everything was possible for me,” he said. “If I was not a hockey player, I know my dad would have supported me just as much with whatever I would have done. They always let us know that there’s a dream to go get somewhere.
“I want to be a full-time NHL player and I want to use this platform to impact kids that look like me. I want to help out my dad with whatever he does in Africa, help those families that are sick, that don’t eat every day, don’t even sleep every day. I want to fight against racism. I have a lot that I want to do so maybe it’s on me to just get a bigger platform. I’ve just got to be a bigger Boko.”