NHL playoffs: Flyers’ Wayne Simmonds leaves doubters behind
Hockey has always had its can’t-miss kids. When Wayne Simmonds was growing up poor and black and hopeful in Scarborough, he was surrounded by signs he could never make it.
He’s an established NHL force these days, 23 years old and coming off a career-best 28-goal season. He and his teammates with the Philadelphia Flyers are currently engaged in a much-watched playoff series against Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Crosby, an Olympic-gold prodigy, has been doing interviews about his on-ice mastery since age 7. But Simmonds was nobody’s phenomenon. He played most of his minor hockey at the AA level with the Toronto Aces, was repeatedly cut from elite AAA squads who weren’t impressed with his gangly and late-blooming skill set. And while he eventually played AAA for the Toronto Junior Canadiens, he was never drafted into the OHL. Though Simmonds held fast to his belief that he’d one day land in the world’s best league, there was so shortage of doubters telling him otherwise.
“Growing up, everybody said to him, ‘It’s too late. You’re still in double-A. You don’t have a chance.’ But he wasn’t listening,” said Brandon Sinclair, one of Simmonds’ childhood friends, now a Toronto financial planner.
“He was so good at pushing away that negativity, not listening to people, and just doing what he felt was right. … It goes to show there’s no right way to get there. So many people were telling him he couldn’t make it. There was no support. Nobody’s on your side.”
Well, not exactly nobody. Navigating his way through his third trip to the Stanley Cup playoffs, Simmonds took time this week to reminisce about the community of friends who supported him from his earliest beginnings as a would-be pro. He was quick to praise his parents for all they’ve done. He’s the third of four sons of Wanda, who was a mother at age 16, and Cyril, who worked in construction. The family, Wanda has said, lived “paycheque to paycheque.”
“My parents always taught me I had to work twice as hard as the next person — it’s just something I’ve always lived by,” Wayne Simmonds said. “When you don’t come from much, you know you’ve got to work hard if you want to change your situation.”
Simmonds, who earned $1.5 million (U.S.) from the Flyers this season, also gave thanks to what he calls his “second family,” a group of friends with whom he played minor hockey for most of a decade. Prohibitively priced skates, escalating registration fees, car rides all over the GTA — hockey’s expenses can weigh heavy. Simmonds said he’s grateful to the coaches and parents of teammates who helped lighten the load when he was in need.
“He had it rough growing up,” said Mike Heron Jr., a Toronto home renovator whom Simmonds counts as a close friend. “To be helped out (financially) like that, I think it gave him even more of a push. Like, ‘If these people believe in me enough to help me, I don’t want to let them down.’ … He used that as fuel for his fire.”
Said Simmonds: “There’s a lot of great people in hockey, a lot of generous people.”
He is returning the generosity with an on-ice grittiness that is, for his supporters, fun to root for. His pals suggest he may have acquired his goalmouth ruthlessness during youthful adventures in the ravines that flank the Rouge River.
“We were just rough guys. Riding our bikes down hills with no helmets. Falling off, getting hurt, getting up, laughing about it. Falling out of trees,” Joe Sanito, a Toronto mason who played minor hockey and attended Birchmount Park Collegiate with Simmonds.
Said Sinclair: “As kids we were always fearless. Wayne was fearless. And it seems like he’s taken that to the ice.”
When the teenaged Simmonds eventually hit the scouts’ radar, things happened fast. He played a year of Junior A with the Brockville Braves, latched on with the OHL’s Owen Sound Attack and, a year later, was a second-round pick of the L.A. Kings. After three seasons in L.A., he was traded this past off-season to Philadelphia, where he has flourished.
“I don’t think it’s hard to believe. Hockey is all I’ve ever wanted to do. This is all I’ve ever had my mind on. I don’t think I’ve concentrated on anything else so hard in my life than to be a hockey player,” Simmonds said this week. “Sometimes you take a second and you look around and you’re like, ‘Wow. I’m in the NHL.’ … It’s really nice.”
It has its not-so-nice moments. In a pre-season game in London, Ont., a 26-year-old man threw a banana on the ice when Simmonds took his turn in a shootout. (Christopher Moorhouse was later fined $200.) It was neither the first nor the last time Simmonds has been confronted with such stupidity. Once, during a minor-hockey tournament an opponent told Simmonds to “stick to basketball.” Simmonds recalled that then-teammate Chris Stewart, another black NHLer who now plays for the St. Louis Blues, chased down the offender and “beat the living daylights out of him.”
Heron told of attending a Flyers-Leafs game at the Air Canada Centre earlier this season. When Simmonds participated in a shootout, he heard a fan a few rows away holler, “Where’s the banana?”
“I’m sure if we weren’t in the arena, something (physical) would have been done. But I definitely gave him a piece of my mind,” Heron said. “ … It’s not something to be tolerated.”
Simmonds said he was aware of the story, but hardly surprised.
“There’s still some things that I think people don’t realize that happen. I’m not the type of guy who’s going to say, ‘This happened, that happened.’ I’m not 10 years old anymore where it gets under my skin to that point. It’s just something I don’t want to think about. I’m playing a sport I love. … If you don’t think I should be playing the sport, I’d prefer you keep it to yourself.”
He loves the sport so much he spends part of his summer playing with old friends in Toronto’s York Central Ball Hockey League. Simmonds is a defenceman for the Arcturus Realty Stars, an NHL millionaire firing one-timers among the contractors and financial planners and masons. Nobody ever figured he’d play in that league, either.
“It’s all the guys I went to high school with, guys I played hockey with growing up,” he said. “We have such a close group of guys. We’re like family. I’m lucky to have so many great friends.”
Via The Toronto Star
By Dave Feschuk