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Bokondji Imama, dreams of ice for history

Arizona Coyotes left winger Bokondji Imama during a game against the St. Louis Blues, Tuesday, March 7, 2023, in Tempe. AP - Ross D. Franklin

Text by: Michaël Oliveira Da Costa Follow

5 min

At 26 years old, 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 of the discipline.


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From our correspondent in New York,

Tempe, Phoenix, Arizona April 22, 2022. Mullett Arena, home of the NHL's Arizona Coyotes, is half full, but the 4,000 or so fans in attendance are witnessing 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 step on the ice of a game of the biggest league in the world of the discipline. To continue to make history, 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 road I have come since I first put skates on my feet. I was so proud, so happy, it remains one of the best days of my young life so far! " he smiled.

Born in Montreal in August 1996, and 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, basketball among others, and discovered ice hockey at the age of 9, in a region where this sport is established 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 grew very quickly in me, I felt that I had potential to develop and when I embark on something, I do it thoroughly.


"Boko," as people call him, is making his mark in the regional leagues and is quickly becoming a phenomenon, making headlines for his classy actions on the ice 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 scouts followed him closely, impressed by his game and imposing physique. "I realized at that moment that I could play at the highest level and I redoubled my efforts to get drafted [recruited] by a National Hockey League franchise. I spent a lot of hours in the gym, on the ice and I was finally able to open the doors to the most competitive league in the world," he recalls. On June 27, 2015, when he was only 18 years old, his name was called up by the Tampa Bay Lightnings, who selected him 180th overall (sixth round) of the NHL Draft. The first step of his ice dream comes true.

An athlete committed to fighting discrimination

As is customary for young prospects drafted, Bokondji Imama is sent to a minor league team to perfect his training and thus be better prepared for the big jump in the NHL. He was loaned by the Lightning to the Saint John Sea Dogs and scored goal after 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 to the Ontario Reigns, near Toronto. The winger continued his apprenticeship, but in the spring of 2019, during a game against the Bakersfield Condors, defenseman Brandon Manning hurled racist insults at him, which earned him five games of suspension. The player of Congolese origin continues on his way, but does not forget. He was 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 chains seasons of high flying in the minor leagues. But in January 2022, a new racist incident occurs. San Jose player Krystof Hrabik insults Imama, and the penalty falls for the Californian: 30 games of suspension.


It's scary to see that these kinds of incidents happen, again and again, and that since I was little, I have been subjected to racist insults quite frequently, laments "Boko", who adds, "my father always told me to stay strong and keep fighting to achieve my goals, but I can't be silent about a problem in the world of ice hockey: Black players are being insulted and I have to fight against that, to be a voice for the cause. Imama creates a foundation that helps minority players and sets up initiatives to create a platform to support players who have been victims of discrimination and racism.

« I represent 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 I made history by becoming the first player of French-speaking African descent to step on the NHL ice, but I am never satisfied with just that. I want to be a long-term one, have the longest career possible and show young black and African people that every dream is possible. I represent Congo proudly! " he says.

Hampered at the beginning of the 2022-2023 season by injuries, Imama plays most often with the Coyotes' minor league franchise, the Tucson Roadrunners, but makes stints in the NHL, such as last week for two Coyotes games where he spent long minutes on the ice. "I know my journey is not easy, but I believe in my talent and my star. I make all the possible sacrifices, I give everything to settle at the top level and live my dream for a long time, "he concludes.

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