” I was really in shock. I needed 10 minutes to myself after the phone call before I could start making my rounds of phone calls to family, friends. »
In shock, that’s understandable. The Montreal player was serving a six-game suspension with the Tuscon Roadrunners of the American League. He thought for a moment that the AHL had reduced his sentence, but no. It was for the big club.
In shock too, as the 25-year-old was completing his fifth season in the minors without receiving any recalls.
It was a big feeling of relief, says Imama. Year after year, when you get told no by National League teams.
The following evening, the attacker born in the Notre-Dame-de-Grâce district found himself on the ice of the Gila River Arena in Glendale for his baptism of fire. In just four minutes of play with the Coyotes, the
energy player was able to serve five hits.
Twenty-four hours later, a little more at ease, Bokondji Imama scored his very first NHL goal under the eyes of his family, who came to see him play for the first time, on a skilful pass from a certain Alex Galchenyuk.
If there was a moment of hesitation in his head at this precise moment, he quickly realized his achievement with the hug of his teammates.
” You can see when I get to the bench how emotional I was. I saw myself again at the Patricia Park skating rink, five seconds from my street in NDG. I saw myself when I was very young, when it was just a dream. »
Bokondji Imama was also happy to have been able to offer this
present to his parents who supported him in good and bad times.
Because the story of the player of Congolese origin is not rose water. The Tampa Bay Lightning’s 2015 6th-round pick was later traded to the Los Angeles Kings. He spent four seasons with the organization, with the AHL’s Ontario Reign in California.
Difficult professional beginnings, admits Imama, when he was relegated to the lower level, the ECHL, in his second season. In all, he had to adapt to three teams in the minors and, this season alone, he served 178 penalty minutes in 54 games.
Bokondji Imama is especially aware that he was only a bad presence from a decline in the hierarchy of the club.
” That’s why I call the American League the jungle. Everyone wants to take that call to the next level. Everyone is trying to survive. Everyone gives their best. It’s not really the place to be comfortable. You want to survive and win your war. »
If he saw several teammates receiving this call
from the top over his five seasons in the AHL, the forward swears he was never discouraged. With each reminder for others, his motivation increased, he insists.
Yes, I was frustrated several times that they didn’t give me my chance, says Bokondji Imama, but I always knew it was them who made the mistake. It was never me who doubted myself. Now that I have my chance, I will do everything in my power to seize it.
A role model for diversity
Bokondji Imama’s deeds and gestures do not go unnoticed. His recent successes have earned him several messages of support that have touched his heart.
It’s very very very touching to see how much the world has supported me, he says, how much the world wants to continue to see me persevere. How many people told me that I had inspired them. I would like to become a bigger role model, of course.
Anyone who has become a model knows that he leaves his mark on diversity. And some messages are more moving than others.
” We talk about racism in hockey, seeing families of young black players who are inspired by my story, for me, that means a lot. [Les gens] share their children’s stories, the things they face. It’s often situations similar to what I face. Despite this, there is still a path to success for everyone. »
More subtle racism
To add another layer to his resilience, Bokondji Imama also had to make his way to the NHL while enduring his share of racist incidents.
Twice in the last two seasons in the AHL, the Montrealer has been the target of infamous acts. The latest dates back to January when San Jose Barracuda forward Krystof Hrabik was suspended for 30 games.
[ Cette sanction ] was clearly an improvement, Imama acknowledges. It clearly sent a pretty harsh message.
” Me, I think that a person who wants to commit this kind of gesture there would not even deserve to play at all. »
The player had posted a hard-hitting message on social media, stating that he had experienced this kind of situation throughout his career and that it was disheartening and frustrating to see things continue in 2022.
If his message was carrying, estimates Imama, he also decided to create a t-shirt with the organization of the Roadrunners where he was registered:
Enough is enough. All this to raise funds for the Hockey Diversity Alliance.
According to the Quebec striker, things have not progressed. The racism is there. It’s just more insidious, he argues.
People know that it is not allowed to say certain things or do certain things, explains Imama. They know there can be consequences.
” But now, there are several subtle ways to make a gesture. When I come back to my incident last January, no, it wasn’t someone who came to tell me the n-word, but he knew very well what he was doing. It was subtle with his gesture mimicking a little monkey. By making chops. »
This is where we are. When we say: enough is enough. It’s zero tolerance.
If Bokondji Imama feels that hockey players are more and more aware, the problem is also found in the stands according to him, among the supporters. Racism, he says he still hears it.
Yes, I hear it on the penalty bench or when we go out between periods, relates the Quebec player. Even messages. There are people who will make false accounts and who will allow themselves to send all kinds of messages, full of nonsense. I do not believe it.
Of course he’s had enough, but Bokondji Imama intends to keep fighting to improve the lot of future generations. Everything starts with education.
In the meantime, he hopes to have had time to show the Arizona Coyotes that he does have a place in the NHL.
All minutes of play count for the player who becomes a free agent without compensation.
Boko is convinced of one thing: it is only once he returns home to Montreal, with his four sisters, his half-brother and his parents, that he will take the full measure of his achievement.