MACON, Ga. — The Macon Mayhem didn’t have to look very far to replace head coach Kevin Kerr, who departed Macon for the same role with the ECHL’s Greenville Swamp Rabbits.
In fact, their next head coach was on the same bench.
The team tapped Leo Thomas, an assistant with the Mayhem for the past two seasons, for the role of head coach as well as Director of Hockey Operations. Thomas has been an integral part of Macon’s operations since coming to Macon as not only an assistant but in the area of scouting and recruiting players to Macon as well.
Thomas was formally introduced at a press conference on Wednesday. In taking over as head coach, Thomas has the advantage of walking into a proven situation rather than a rebuild. With strong relationships built up with a good portion of the roster as well as front office staff, not to mention a group that won the Presidents Cup in 2017 and lost this past year in the semifinals, there’s little worry of how a period of transition will go.
“That’s one reason why it was so easy (to take the head coaching job), because of that, the relationship I have with the guys, the staff, the front office,” Thomas said. “Everything is kind of already in place. Now I’m able to come and bring in a few things. We’ll still have a good core returning, which is good.”
Another piece of familiarity to look for under the Thomas regime should be the on-ice product. The way that the Mayhem’s new coach sees it, there’s little reason to mess with a winning plan other than a few tweaks.
“We actually had the same kind of game,” Thomas says about his coaching philosophy compared to Kerr’s. “We’ll have a fast team, still. I kind of brought in a different kind of defensive style. Maybe, I’ll add a few things. We still want to be fast but maybe add some size.”
Few devices have been as busy as Thomas’ cell phone for the past day, full of calls and messages of congratulations.
“It all hit me (Wednesday), obviously with the press conference,” Thomas said. “All the people that have called and congratulated me… owners around the league and others. It’s just surreal.”
The hiring of Thomas is hardly without its historical significance. He’s not only the first black head coach in SPHL history. Thomas is the only current black head coach throughout North American professional hockey.
“It’s very humbling. From a kid playing this game and being colored and going through some of the stuff I went through as a kid… the game’s come a long way, you kind of see a few coaches sprinkled around here and there, but to actually be the head coach of a team and be colored, that’s a huge accomplishment. I’m just happy to be in this position and people that are younger, I hope that they see this and know that it can be done.” — Leo Thomas
Thomas follows in the footsteps of Dirk Graham and John Paris Jr. Paris, with the 1994 IHL Atlanta Knights, was the first black coach in professional hockey. Graham became the first black coach of an NHL team with the 1998-99 Chicago Blackhawks.
Oddly enough, Thomas is the third black head coach of a Macon hockey team. Paris coached the CHL Macon Whoopee from 1996 to 1999 and was succeeded by Jamaican-born Graeme Townshend from 1999 to 2001.
For now, Thomas has a full plate, that’ll include setting the team’s protected list before Quad Cities takes it round through the expansion draft.
He’s not only touching base with the Mayhem’s current players of which the team held exit meetings with just a few weeks ago following the season. He’s also transitioning to his new role with the Mayhem that’ll now include bringing aboard an assistant coach, a hire that Thomas aims to wrap up within the next week or so.
“I’m the kind of guy that was going to reach out, anyway. When I kind of knew was taking over, I reached out to the guys and kind of see where their heads are at,” Thomas said. “A lot of guys, we had exit meetings and knew what they were going to do, but I always like to keep touch with them in case things changed.”
From there, it’ll be on to the offseason and look for ways to fill current and potential holes on Macon’s roster. That’s where Thomas will lay out the sale pitch to play hockey in Macon.
“It’s always good when you make the playoffs on a consistent basis. The team has been around for three years. We’re in the South, so weather is amazing,” Thomas said. “It’s always good when you have won a championship. Macon’s awesome, you’re close to Atlanta.”