Orange & Black

Can Wayne Simmonds change how we think about hockey?

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Flyers forward Wayne Simmonds was a part of the deal that sent Mike Richards to the Kings. (Yong Kim/Staff Photographer)

It's a Saturday night in October, and two middle-aged women - hips swaying, earrings dangling - are carefully negotiating their way down the back stairs inside the Wells Fargo Center, quietly sneaking away from the Flyers' long-awaited matchup with the Los Angeles Kings to head to Fan Gear, the Flyers' team store.

For some, the action on the ice is boring. Shopping isn't.

Leaving their husbands behind in a private suite on the arena's club level, the women swoop down to the northeast corner of the main concourse and get in line. They aren't there to get a Flyers-shaped soft pretzel, the latest Winter Classic gear or a Sergei Bobrovsky jersey. They are searching for something with a No. 17 on the back - and not for Jeff Carter.

They soon learn that they would have to look elsewhere. Anything having to do with the team's current No. 17, Wayne Simmonds - a 23-year old winger who joined the team this summer from the Kings - was sold out. In 3 months and fewer than a dozen games, the newcomer has become a fan favorite.

That wasn't the case in Los Angeles, where Simmonds played the first 3 years of his NHL career near the beach, but he's quickly learning that things are different here in one of the United States' hockey meccas. And he's hoping to do something with his newfound status. As one of only 20 full-time black players in a league of 700, Simmonds wants to deliver hockey to the same gritty Philadelphia neighborhoods that remind him of his hometown, a neighborhood in Toronto where life wasn't always so pretty.

Statistically, hockey fans have the most disposable income per capita of any fan base in major professional sports. But they are also the least diverse. Scan the crowd at your next Flyers game: other than arena employees, Simmonds might be the only black face in the building. And the popularity of his merchandise raises an interesting question not only in Philadelphia but across hockey: Is the Flyers' only black player simply a novelty, or a sign that we may need to start changing our notion of Flyers' fandom?

***

In early October 2008, during Simmonds' rookie year, he was approached by an older gentleman after a preseason game in Anaheim. The old man tapped Simmonds on the shoulder and introduced himself.

It was Willie O'Ree, hockey's Jackie Robinson, the man who broke the NHL's color barrier on Jan. 18, 1958. "We had a nice talk," says O'Ree, now 76. "He is a good, young, aggressive player. And his story is not all that different from mine. Anyone who gets to the NHL goes through their fair share of adversity. It just goes to show you that if you think you can do it, you can."

Little wonder why O'Ree took such interest in Simmonds. O'Ree's debut with the Boston Bruins did not usher in an era of diversity in professional hockey. In fact, for decades now, the NHL has consistently been the world's whitest major professional sports league. Between O'Ree's last NHL game in 1961 and the start of the 1974 season, not a single black player skated in the league. Since 1958, there have been only 49 black players in the league, a stat that the NHL cannot confirm because players are not required to disclose their race. Even today, of NHL's 43 full-time players who are minorities, just 20 are black.

The Flyers' history with black players is pretty typical. Since the team's formation in 1967, five black players have worn the team's uniform. Most fans remember Donald Brashear, who played in Philadelphia from 2002-06.

But Simmonds is different from his Flyers predecessors. He is not just an enforcer, a glorified mascot or a tough guy whose main job is to drop the gloves (although he can do that, too). He's a skill player whom the team is counting on as a core piece to its new-look offense. It's one reason O'Ree believes that Simmonds has an opportunity to be a game-changer for Philadelphia's nonexistent black hockey market, especially with the NBA on hiatus. "He will create a lot of interest, without a doubt," O'Ree said. "It's just a matter of getting him into the public spotlight. Once the black fans see him on TV, they will come out to see what he's all about."

Kevin Weekes, a former NHL goaltender who now works as a television analyst for the NHL Network and "Hockey Night in Canada," has known Simmonds since he was 8. They met when Weekes was a counselor for a traveling hockey school that rolled through Scarborough - the hard-knocks neighborhood in northwest Toronto where Simmonds grew up. Weekes understands why Simmonds has already appealed to the fan base. "His style of play brings everyone together," says Weekes, who became the NHL's first black commentator after retiring in 2009. "One person might love Wayne for the hard work he does on the boards. One person might buy his shirt because he can fight. One person might buy his jersey because he can make plays and score. Philly fans love aggressive players. He was born to be a Flyer."

***

It was simple. Cyril Simmonds wanted his boys to play hockey. So he and his wife, Wanda, hit upon an agreement: Cyril would find the money to pay for hockey if Wanda, who works in social services, would wrangle her schedule to get their boys to the rink.

Even with Cyril holding up his end of the bargain (his parents split up when he was a teenager), money was always tight. When Wayne was growing up, at the start of each season in September, Wanda would take him to the local city rink, Heron Park Arena, where they would sift through piles of used equipment that older players had donated. Sometimes she would take Wayne down to the local Hockey Guys store and spend a few extra dollars to buy "better quality" hand-me-downs. The only thing the Simmonds' bought new were neckguards - mostly because Wanda couldn't shake the horror stories she'd heard of throats being slashed by skate blades.

"I worked a full-time job. Everything went to hockey," says Wanda. "I can remember being so broke that Wayne would break a stick on the ice and my husband would be so upset because we couldn't afford to replace that hockey stick. And I'm not talking about those rich-kid sticks, the composites; I'm talking about the $25 wooden sticks."

When composite sticks, which can cost upward of $200, became popular, all of Wayne's teammates got them. But Wanda and Cyril couldn't afford such an expense, so Wanda had to convince Wayne, as a little kid, that the wooden ones were better.

It was a good thing Wayne was properly equipped. Even though he started skating at age 3, it took him a while to master a fundamental of hockey: stopping. "He could skate up a storm, but he was so fast that he couldn't stop," Wanda says. "He'd shoot the puck and he'd still keep skating. All you heard was 'ka-pow!' because he would hit the boards and everyone watching would cover their eyes. He'd fall and get right back up."

Despite being a top scorer at the youth level, Simmonds was so small that he was often overlooked by coaches. Even today, Simmonds is 6-2 but just 183 pounds. His legs are like string beans, rare for hockey players who gain power from their quads and thighs. In the Simmonds household, his nickname was "Peanut."

On the ice, Simmonds wasn't targeted only because of his size. Growing up, he was often the only black player on his team - sometimes even the only black player in his league. "There was once two black players on his team," Wanda said, "but they weren't good enough to continue to move through the ranks." Simmonds was the exception. And slurs, from opponents and their parents in the stands, were not uncommon. "They always used to call him nigger," Wanda says. "This one kid used to skate up to him and say, 'Nigger, go play basketball.' When that happened, I told him the best vengeance is to win."

And yet, not once, Wanda says, did Simmonds come home crying or upset about a racial epithet. That may explain his reaction to what, so far, has been the most notorious incident involving Simmonds as a Flyer. In just his second preseason game in a Flyers uniform, in London, Ontario, Simmonds was making a shoot-out attempt when a fan threw a banana onto the ice. Simmonds, who says he saw the banana being thrown, calmly skated down the ice and scored. Afterward, he brushed off the episode. "When you're a black man playing in a predominantly white man's sport, you've got to come to expect things like that," he said.

After learning how to shrug off racial abuse, the only thing that actually irked Simmonds on the ice was losing. In the car ride home after games, he says, "I'd snap and say some pretty ridiculous things. I'd get in trouble all the time. But it was a mind-set that I had, that losing was never an option."

That intensity can sometimes get him into trouble. Last month, less than a week after the banana incident, he was accused by Rangers pest Sean Avery of using a homophobic slur in an on-ice confrontation. Although there was video footage that seems to show Simmonds mouthing the words "f---ing faggot," the NHL did not find conclusive evidence and Simmonds was not fined. Still, it wasn't exactly the start Simmonds was looking for in a new city. "It wasn't how I wanted to introduce myself to the team," Simmonds said. "Coming from Los Angeles, I'm already noticing that everything is magnified that much more. You say a little thing here, do a little thing on the ice, everything is a big deal."

For a time, even playing hockey at the highest level in Toronto didn't look as if it would be an option for Simmonds. Because of his size, it took until he was 12 just to make it to AAA minor hockey, the top level for players that age. Most NHLers, by contrast, started playing at that level at age of 8 or 9.

One year, when he actually made the cut, his family couldn't afford the team dues, which can range from $3,000 to $6,000 per player, not including equipment and travel expenses. "I'll never forget telling him that," Wanda said. "Tears were brimming up in his eyes."

Occasionally, Wayne would receive a little help from friends or well-to-do members of the community. "For a few years, a guy by the name of Mike was Wayne's hockey coach," Wanda explains. "He would cut Wayne's dues in half - or let him play for next to nothing - just to have him on the team."

But the benevolence extended only as far as Wayne's ability to help the team win. "[The coach] was a generous guy, but only because Wayne was good," says Wanda. "He was vindictive, too. One year, when Wayne wanted to play for another team, he made my husband pay all of the dues back in full before we could leave."

Even when Wayne got to the top level, as his body was still filling out, he seemed like a long shot to have a pro career, let alone make the NHL as a 20-year-old. He was skipped over twice in the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) priority draft, the major junior league that is a direct feeder to the NHL.

It wasn't until he was a few years into a lower-level junior program in Brockville, Ontario, that Simmonds finally realized his potential. Wanda can remember the first time she thought her son might make a career of the sport. "We were at a tournament in Oshawa and they were taping it," she says, sobbing. "I'll never forget what one of the commentators said. He watched Wayne and said that every time he was on the ice, it was like Wayne was saying to his teammates, 'C'mon, boys, get on my back. I'll take you to the Promised Land.' "

Even then, the Promised Land wasn't the NHL. It was Ohio's Bowling Green State University, where Simmonds had verbally committed to play. That's when OHL teams finally started knocking on his door. Simmonds told them to not even bother, having already made up his mind to head to college.

Owen Sound Attack's general manager, Mike Futa, begged Simmonds to reconsider, asking for an hour to sit down with Wanda, Cyril and Wayne to explain the details. Simmonds was smitten by the OHL's fast track to the NHL and the increased visibility in a pro-like setting.

"I guess Mike was a pretty good talker," Simmonds says. "I really intended on going to Bowling Green. It was a tough call. My parents had always talked to me about staying in school, but they ultimately left it up to me. They left it in my hands. I just wanted to take the quickest route possible."

Still, no one, not even Simmonds himself, thought he would make it to "the Show" as quickly as he did. Just 2 years removed from being drafted by the OHL, Simmonds made his way onto the Los Angeles Kings' roster, initially impressing former Flyers coach Terry Murray not with his speed or stick-handling, but with his fists.

In fact, it wasn't Simmonds' fear of getting cut from the roster, but rather his fear of spending any time in the minor leagues that motivated him to drop the gloves and take his lumps at his first training camp. He just figured that he might be able to grab the attention of the coaching staff and break into the league faster if he took the path forged by most of his black predecessors - as an enforcer. "I went into my first training camp blind, kind of reckless," Simmonds says. "I just tried to fight as much as I could. I wanted to do anything possible to try and make the team."

Murray's fixation on toughness gave Simmonds an avenue to let his other skills shine. Along the way, he got a few tips from a couple of other black Scarborough kids who had made it to the NHL: brothers Anthony and Chris Stewart. Growing up, Simmonds idolized Anthony Stewart, now with the Carolina Hurricanes. Before Simmonds had made it to junior hockey, Stewart was captain of the OHL's Kingston Frontenacs and represented Canada at the World Junior Championships. To a young Simmonds, Stewart was proof that another black player could make it out of Scarborough.

Simmonds and Chris Stewart, who plays for St. Louis, were determined to be the next players to make Scarborough proud. "Aside from my parents, I owe a lot of my career to those guys," Simmonds said. "We would [play street hockey] every single day in the summer. We became really close. They taught me things, how to be a pro, before I was even a pro."

From the time he was drafted in 2007 until he played his first game in October 2008, Simmonds made just one promise to himself: He would do anything possible to avoid returning to the small-town, small-time life that he had in Scarborough and seen while playing juniors in Owen Sound. "I told myself that I was not going to play a single game in the AHL," Simmonds said. "I don't even know if I believed it. I didn't want any part of the minor-league life. I never wanted to spend my time on a bus, driving from city to city through the night. It's just something that I put in my head to make me work that much harder."

That attitude has paid off in a big way - for Simmonds and for his employers. "He is what I call an elevator player," Weekes says. "He can play any forward position on any line, moving up and down the lineup. We talk about smart GMs in the salary-capped NHL as the ones who realize value. Simmonds is a very valuable player in this league."

***

In late September, the Flyers visited Toronto for a preseason game against the Maple Leafs. Since the Kings didn't often make the trek east, it was only the third game Simmonds had played at the Air Canada Centre. He rounded up as many tickets as possible for friends and family, no small gesture - even for a preseason game - in hockey's most expensive arena.

Wanda skipped the game. She gave her ticket to another family member, figuring she'd now have the chance to see her son twice a season now that his new team plays in the same conference as the hometown Leafs.

At the game, Ann Heron, Simmonds' surrogate "hockey mother," who helped transport Wayne to and from games when Wanda couldn't get out of work, spotted a fan wearing a brand-new Flyers jersey with "Simmonds" emblazoned on the back. It was a rather surprising find, given that Simmonds had been traded from the Kings to the Flyers just 3 months before and had yet to play in a regular-season game with the team. Heron introduced herself to the fan, a black man about the same age as Simmonds, and asked if he wanted to meet Wayne. The fan was practically giddy for the opportunity.

Wanda still has a hard time wrapping her head around Wayne being famous. "It's hard for me to swallow, actually," she says. "To think that he has developed some kind of small, celebrity status, as pathetic as that is, blows my mind."

With that status, of course, comes a certain kind of danger. For someone who came from nearly nothing, it would be easy for Simmonds to distance himself from his roots, to leave all that behind. So far, at least, there seems to be little risk of that happening. Not much has changed in the Simmonds household. Wayne's current offseason home is no more than 2 miles from the starter rowhouse where he grew up - the home where Wayne and his brothers, Troy, C.J. and Cody, weren't allowed to play outside as kids because of "burglaries, rape and all kinds of trouble." Wanda has moved into a bigger house that Wayne purchased. All of the bills are paid, too. But her car, an old Pontiac Grand Prix, needs to be fixed. She doesn't own a cellphone. And she trudges through the rain and snow nearly a mile up the street to the bus stop to get to work - the same social-services job that she has held for more than 20 years.

Wanda still wants to help people. She says she taught Wayne "about loyalty and honesty and to be honest with himself. Most importantly, I raised him to think of others."

Thinking of others in your own quiet way and being a role model, the face of a franchise, are very different things. The question is whether Simmonds can persuade people in Philadelphia, especially black sports fans, to think of hockey - a sport dominated by middle-sized, middle-class white guys - in a different light. "Whatever I can do to help people get in the game, I will," Simmonds says. "I want to be an ambassador of the sport. I want some of the young people in Philadelphia to say, 'If Wayne can do it, I can do it.' Because it's true."

Weekes, for one, thinks that Philadelphia is the ideal place for Simmonds, that he may be the perfect pitchman for Ed Snider's youth-hockey foundation, which services more than 3,000 kids in free, learn-to-play clinics in after-school programs.

Snider, 78, has donated in excess of more than $12 million both to renovate three city rinks and to fund the program to give Philadelphia's kids a chance to reach the same Promised Land.

"I've seen more and more black players coming up out of Toronto, thanks to these programs," Wanda says. "I often wonder if they've been here the whole time and been overlooked?"

Wayne Simmonds would not allow himself to be overlooked. The adversity, the hand-me-downs, may seem ready-made for a TV movie, but they're also his story. And there is still a lot of work to be done. "Look around, the faces and colors of our human race and population are changing by the day," Weekes says. "Kids don't just buy a pair of Air Jordans anymore and join a basketball team. It's time for hockey to expand its footprint in the same way, to transcend the similar barriers. There's no better conduit than a guy like Wayne."