At 26, Bokondji Imama became last season the first French-speaking African player to play in the NHL, the North American ice hockey championship, the best league in the world in the discipline.
From our correspondent in New York,
Tempe, suburb of Phoenix, Arizona. April 22, 2022. Mullett Arena, home of the NHL’s Arizona Coyotes, is half full, but the nearly 4,000 fans in attendance witness a historic first. With his number 15 flocked on his back, the player of Congolese origin Bokondji Imama becomes the very first hockey player from French-speaking Africa to set foot on the ice of a meeting of the biggest league in the world of the discipline. To continue to make history a little more, the next day, he scored his very first goal against St. Louis, in front of his family who had made the trip for the occasion. ” That moment, I felt such strong emotions, such joy after all the way since I first put on skates. I was so proud, so happy, it remains one of the best days of my young life so far! he smiles.
Born in Montreal in August 1996, the son of immigrants from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Bokondji Imama quickly found his first love in sport. He practiced no less than five disciplines during his childhood, from football to athletics, passing by basketball among others, and discovered ice hockey at the age of 9, in a region where this sport is set up as a religion. . ” I was motivated by my father and also by the context, because hockey is present everywhere in Quebec and in the four corners of the country, so it’s hard not to try it! he laughs. I quickly felt comfortable on the ice, and the passion for this sport very quickly grew in me, I felt that I had potential to develop and when I throw myself into something, I do it all the way. . »
“Boko”, as people call him, made his mark in the regional leagues and quickly became a phenomenon, making people talk about him with his classy actions on the ice rinks every weekend. At the age of 15, he was already playing in one of the best academies in the country, the Baie-Cormeau Drakkars, and NHL recruiters followed him closely, impressed by his game and his imposing physique. ” I realized at that moment that I could play at the highest level and I redoubled my efforts to get drafted [recruter] by a National Hockey League franchise. I spent many hours in the gym, on the ice and finally got to enter the most competitive league in the world. “, he recalls. On June 27, 2015, when he was only 18 years old, his name was called by the Tampa Bay Lightnings, who selected him in the 180ᵉ position (sixth round) of the NHL Draft. The first step of his ice cream dream comes true.
An athlete committed against discrimination
As is customary for young drafted prospects, Bokondji Imama is sent to a minor league team to complete his training and thus be better prepared for the big jump in the NHL. He is therefore loaned by the Lightning to the Saint John Sea Dogs and slams goal on goal for two seasons with the team based in eastern Canada. He was traded in 2018 to the Los Angeles Kings by Tampa Bay, and the City of Angels team put him in an incubator at the Ontario Reigns, near Toronto. The winger continues his apprenticeship, but in the spring of 2019, during a match against the Bakersfield Condors, defender Brandon Manning utters racist insults to him, which will be worth five matches of suspension to the culprit. The Congolese-born player continues on his way, but does not forget. He is traded again in 2021 to the Arizona Coyotes and is still biding his time to start in the best league in the world, he who has a string of high-flying seasons in the minor leagues. But in January 2022, a new racist incident occurs. San José player Krystof Hrabik insults Imama, and the penalty falls for the Californian: 30 match suspension.
” It’s scary how these kinds of incidents happen over and over again, and since I was little I’ve been the subject of racial slurs quite frequently, laments “Boko”, who adds, “my dad always told me to stay strong and keep fighting to achieve my goals, but i can’t stay silent about a problem in the world of ice hockey: black players are targeted with insults and I have to fight against that, to be a voice for the cause. Imama creates a foundation that helps players from minorities and sets up initiatives to create a support platform for players who have been victims of discrimination and racism.
” I represent the Congo proudly! »
The young hockey player is a fighter, works hard to jump every barrier that comes his way, and makes history in April 2022, to his delight. ” I know that I wrote a great page in history by becoming the first player of French-speaking African origin to set foot on the ice of the NHL, but I’m never satisfied with just that. I want to register for the long term, have the longest possible career and show young black and African people that every dream is possible. I represent the Congo proudly! he says.
Hampered at the start of the 2022-2023 season by injuries, Imama most often plays with the Coyotes’ minor league franchise, the Tucson Roadrunners, but makes stints in the NHL, like last week for two Coyotes meetings where he spent long minutes on the ice rink. ” I know that my path is not the easiest, but I believe in my talent and in my star. I make all possible sacrifices, I give everything to settle at the top level and live my dream for a long time “, he concludes.