Wayne Simmonds is standing next to Zayde Wisdom, a smile flashing across his face.
It’s September and the two men are in front of a small media contingent at the Ford Performance Centre in Toronto where Simmonds is presenting Wisdom with the E.J. McGuire Award of Excellence. The award, presented annually by NHL Central Scouting, goes to a draft prospect who “best exemplifies commitment to excellence through strength of character, competitiveness and athleticism.”
As soon as the cameras and microphones were put away, Simmonds’ face grows serious. The 13-year NHL veteran wanted an update from his 18-year-old protégé.
“He wanted to make sure I was still working out every day and still putting everything I could into chasing my dreams,” Wisdom explained.
That dream is a career in the NHL. Wisdom — a Toronto-born 2020 fourth-round pick of the Philadelphia Flyers — took a big step in that direction earlier this month when he played his first professional game for the AHL’s Lehigh Valley Phantoms.
The reality is that Wisdom might not be where he is today without Simmonds’ “pay it forward” philosophy and mentorship.
“My mom made me make a promise when I was younger,” Simmonds said. “That if I ever made it to the NHL, I’d give back to the community that gave so much to me.”
Kirk Brooks remembers the first time Simmonds’ mother Wanda brought her skinny seven-year-old son to a Scarborough arena. Expectations were not high.
“He wasn’t very good, but he thought he was good,” chuckled Brooks, the founder of Skillz Hockey, a development program for young players from diverse backgrounds. “But he was passionate.”
After a few skates, Brooks sought to foster that passion.
“We realized his leadership capabilities because we easily put him on the ice with older kids,” said Brooks.
According to former NHL forward and current Sportsnet analyst Anthony Stewart, mentors for young Black hockey players in Toronto were few and far between 20 years ago. Brooks believed not only in Simmonds’ future, but in Simmonds’ ability to influence others. Wanda was skeptical, but Brooks thought if he empowered Simmonds with some responsibility, he’d feel more confident on the ice.
When Simmonds was 13, he was assigned to look after and mentor younger players, including during a group outing to Centre Island, where he would be responsible for a group of six-year-olds on his own.
Entering his OHL draft season in 2003-04, Simmonds had developed into a goal scorer known for fearless physical play. But at the OHL Draft that May, his name was never called.
“Wayne never got any love coming up,” explained Brooks. “Nobody thought he was going to go to The Show.”
When Simmonds was 16, Brooks came across the nervous-looking teen sitting alone at the Pickering Community Centre. Simmonds wondered if his hockey career was over. Simmonds needed some reassuring words.
“Wayne, you can play this game,” Brooks told him. “Don’t let them stop you.”
By “them,” he meant both the talent evaluating doubters who saw him as too skinny — and anyone else who puts up barriers for Black hockey players.
Brooks’ efforts paid off. After scoring 24 goals in 48 games with the CJHL’s Brockville Braves, Simmonds was selected by the Owen Sound Attack in the sixth round of the 2006 OHL Priority Selection. He was nearly two years older than most players taken.
But the following season he was drafted in the second round of the NHL draft by the Los Angeles Kings.
“Wayne just had that fire in his belly,” said Mike Heron, a longtime close friend of Simmonds. “No matter where he was playing, he gave it his all.”
Almost immediately upon arriving in the NHL, Simmonds began following through on the promise he made to his mother. He’d benefitted from the generosity of others, including Stewart, who had paid for his brother Chris, and Simmonds, to travel to California to work out with other NHL players and professional trainers.
Even long after Simmonds became an established NHL player, he rarely missed Skillz camps and would confer with Brooks about which young Skillz players would benefit from additional guidance. He also created Wayne’s Road Hockey Warriors, an annual fundraising ball hockey tournament for underprivileged youth.
“If I can make it, there’s no reason you guys can’t make it,” Heron, who served as tournament emcee, remembers hearing Simmonds tell participants.
Wisdom was one of the young players listening. He scored a goal the first time he attended the tournament when he was seven years old after Simmonds had entered the game on his team.
“Zayde’s face just lit up when they’d pass the ball back and forth,” said Heron.
Wisdom soon approached his idol and asked how he had been able to be so effective close to the net in the NHL. At the end of the conversation, Simmonds gave Wisdom’s family his phone number with a simple message: Call any time you need to.
“Especially in Toronto, that’s how you make it: You have to be around people that have been there and that have your best interests at hand,” said Stewart.
“Knowing that I could call him any time and knowing someone like that believes in you and knows you can make it all the way, it was enough for me to keep pushing,” said Wisdom.
As he continued moving up the ranks of Toronto minor hockey, Wisdom endured the same racist taunts Simmonds had years earlier. Simmonds’ advice was simple: “Don’t let them stop you.”
“Hearing stories about what he went through in minor hockey and knowing that I’m not the only one going through that is a massive confidence boost,” said Wisdom.
The conversation would often stretch beyond hockey, too, as Wisdom — who was raised by a single mother — would go to Simmonds for dating advice as well.
“I learned when I was young that the community really raises a child,” said Simmonds.
“We have a relationship that’s bigger than hockey,” said Wisdom.
Like Simmonds, Wisdom was an outsider to the hockey world. Simmonds asked him to embrace that mentality.
“(Simmonds) always drilled that into my head: You’re always going to have to make that extra step over the kid who’s just as good as you because you’re a young, Black athlete in a white-dominated sport,” said Wisdom.
After concerns about his weight led, in part, to him falling to the fourth round of the 2018 OHL draft, Wisdom lost 15 pounds in the summer ahead of his OHL debut. Entering his draft season, Wisdom wasn’t on the NHL’s Central Scouting names to watch list, but Simmonds kept pushing him to stay on the ice after practice and spend more time in the gym.
By the time they stood together in Toronto in September ahead of the 2020 NHL Draft, Wisdom was ranked 54th among North American skaters in Central Scouting’s final rankings, up from 90th in the midterm rankings. Coaches around the OHL noted his improvement.
“He makes you notice him in games because he utilizes his skills and competes every shift with an energy and passion that is infectious and generates results,” NHL Central Scouting director Dan Marr said.
“He’s got that ‘It’ factor,” Simmonds said. “He’s gone through a lot as a young kid. You could tell in his demeanor.”
As detailed in Scott Wheeler’s 2020 profile, Wisdom endured serious financial hardship while growing up. He often relied on others, including his teammates, to provide him with clothes and equipment to help keep him in hockey.
He relied on Simmonds, too.
“Knowing that a guy like that is going to always be there for you, and always have your back, especially a guy who’s been through it and who’s had to fight through it as bad as he did,” said Wisdom, “he’s been nothing but motivation my entire life.”
Ahead of his first professional season, Wisdom conducted his on- and off-ice workouts at the Paramount Ice Plex in north Toronto. When he’d take a breather, he’d look up at photos of Simmonds on the wall. He would then recall the advice Simmonds gave him in a phone call “immediately” after he was drafted.
“Remember: Your job is far from finished,” Simmonds told Wisdom. “The journey is just starting.”
“It’s about paying it forward,” explained Simmonds. “Hopefully all the kids who learn something from me, and have a desire to follow my career, hopefully, they can have that same attitude.”
With Simmonds now playing in his hometown, his profile and reach among the next generation of Toronto’s Black hockey players can only grow.
“Wayne Simmonds has had more impact on the young brothers playing this game in this marketplace than any other player,” said Brooks, who added the true impact of Simmonds’ efforts might not be fully realized for years to come.
“The next generation of kids who are spawned by Wayne Simmonds,” said Brooks, “are just starting to arrive at the doorstep now.”
(Top Photo: Mark Blinch / NHLI via Getty Images)