Flyers

Flyers

Wayne Simmonds had all the ingredients.

He had love. He had support make that a lot of support and he had dedication.

It was those ingredients that helped the 23 year old become what he is today: One of the few black players in the National Hockey League.

Ever since Simmonds was a three year old in Scarborough, Ontario, learning the basics of skating, his eyes were set on hockey. He played basketball, and even dabbled in volleyball. But hockey was always his true passion.

He fell in love with the game watching his older brother, Troy, skate when he was younger.

I remember going to watch him play, Simmonds said. Even when I was like, four or five years old, I still remember some moments. I kind of just wanted to play the same, not follow in his footsteps, but just play.

When he finally pursued the sport on his own, Simmonds said he never encountered anyone who didnt believe he could succeed because of his race.

No one really ever told me that, Simmonds said. I had my family with me every step of the way. They were always telling me that I could do it, that anything I put my mind to, its possible. So, I think that helped me out a lot.

In fact, Simmonds said that race-based negativity in hockey really doesnt happen in Canada. Thats pretty much the way it is.

If you can play the game, Simmonds said, you can play no matter your skin color.

 

Simmonds was drafted 61st overall by the L.A. Kings in the 2007 draft. He made the team in the 2008-09 season, playing in all 82 games and recording 23 points.

His first season was a thrill, but it was during his second season with the Kings that he had the biggest thrill of his young career.

At a Black History Month event, Simmonds was set to appear in a ceremonial faceoff with his idol, Calgary Flames star Jarome Iginla.

There was Simmonds, a young black player, locking hockey sticks with perhaps the most well-known black player in the league a former MVP. It was the first time he met Iginla, and Simmonds was not about to depart without getting some words of wisdom.

Just keep going. Youre doing well, Simmonds recalled Iginla telling him. He just encouraged me. Hes been a player Ive followed my whole career. I think he could possibly be one of the reasons Im playing in the NHL. I saw that he could do it, and I figured, Why not? Why cant I?

Sometimes the only black player on the ice, Simmonds credited his mother Wanda with giving him the strength to persevere.

I remember my mom saying to me, Youre always going to have to work harder than the next person, Simmonds said. And I kind of took that to heart. I followed that advice ever since I got on the ice, and I work as hard as I possibly can day in and day out.

It doesnt really matter whos beside me. I just try to outwork them.

To this day, that outwork-everyone-else attitude has been the primary component to Simmonds game. Its also what he considered the biggest challenge to being a black hockey player. In his eyes, either he works hard every time, or he gets the ax.

The moment you stop working hard, someone else is probably going to come take your spot, and youre going to get knocked back down so you have to work as hard as you can all the time. One hundred percent of the time, every single time youre out there.

And that could be one of the reasons why the Flyers had their eyes on Simmonds when they completed their summer housecleaning that sent Mike Richards to the Kings and Jeff Carter to the Columbus Blue Jackets.

I think I bring a certain level of physicality, Simmonds said. I like to finish my checks, go to the net, and Im not afraid to drop the gloves for my teammates, either.

In the Flyers locker room, the most common word used when talking about Simmonds was grit. Ian Laperriere used it. So did newly appointed team captain Chris Pronger, who was said to be a fan of Simmonds dating back to his own west coast days playing with Anaheim.

He plays with a physical edge, said Pronger. Thats something that I know they were looking for when they picked him up. Its a welcomed addition.

Coach Peter Laviolette concurred. Laviolette had dinner with Simmonds recently and told him that he hadnt seen him play due to the time zone difference (When 10:30 p.m. rolls around, Im pretty much asleep, said Laviolette), but what he has seen from Simmonds, he likes.

 

Youre talking about a big, strong forward, capable of offense, capable of physical play, and he brings a lot of speed and power to the game, said Laviolette. Were looking to get younger and bigger and stronger and faster. He brings all those elements to the game.

In a way, Simmonds has Flyers roots. He was mentored by former Flyer Michal Handzus for three seasons in L.A. At times, the two played on the same line, which Simmonds pointed out as key to his development.

Simmonds numbers improved after his first season, as he went from 23 points (nine goals, 14 assists), to 40 in 2009-10 (16 goals, 24 assists). Last season, Simmonds did see a decline in points (30), but his effort remained the same.

Laviolette said he wont get creative when using Simmonds, electing to stay with the role of power forward.

I know he can go up and down the wing. He skates well and hes physical, Laviolette said. You dont want to put people in situations that theyre not comfortable with, and I would say his comfort level is in the role of a power forward.

As one of the few black players in the NHL, Simmonds hopes he will be able to draw more black fans to the league. He said he wants to be a role model to those looking to follow the sport, and he will likely get involved in the Ed Snider Youth Hockey Foundation, which reaches out to black youth looking to learn and play hockey.

Hopefully it brings a lot more African-Americans to watch the game of hockey, he said of his arrival to the Flyers, adding that the sport has grown in the diversity department.

In cities like Harlem and Toronto, where he played junior hockey, Simmonds said he has seen an increase in blacks playing the game.

Anything I can do to help spread this game, it will be an honor.
E-mail Jabari Young at jyoung@comcastsportsnet.com