Wayne Simmonds is in stealth mode. It’s just past 9 a.m. on this early September day and he’s a few minutes late. Wearing a black Air Jordan shirt, black face mask and a baseball cap with a floral design on it, Simmonds quietly sneaks into the Penalty Box Bar & Grill inside North York’s Scotiabank Pond and takes a seat in the corner of the room, managing to remain unseen.

A group of 11 elite Black hockey players is gathered at a table in the front of the restaurant listening to former NHLer Anthony Stewart deliver the opening address of the inaugural Hockey Equality Mentorship Summit. Stewart is running the event to provide opportunities that could help these promising teenagers reach the next level in their hockey journeys. It’s the type of program that didn’t exist when he was growing up and the 36-year-old feels it’s his duty to change that for the next generation.

Simmonds, whose friendship with Stewart spans decades, also carries that same passion. That’s why when he received a text message just two days ago from his friend asking if he could show up, his response was immediate: “Absolutely. I’m coming.” His schedule is tight and he’s got to be at a Toronto Maple Leafs skate this morning, but the 33-year-old power forward is here and ready to contribute.

Stewart surprises Simmonds by calling him up to the podium to give an impromptu speech. As he stands and strolls to the microphone, the young players become aware of the special guest who wasn’t listed on the program’s agenda. A few minutes later, after Simmonds’s motivational words, there’s an intermission that allows for some mingling. As four boys huddle around him, Simmonds daps each one, then offers a one-handed hug before launching into conversation. While his audience swells to five, six, then seven teens, Simmonds fields a flurry of questions — What’s it like playing in front of Toronto fans? What’s your pregame routine? What do you do to stay consistent? — before discussing his circuitous route to the OHL, where each of these boys hopes to play, some as early as next season.

Simmonds is clearly in his element. His mask hides his mouth, so you can’t tell if he’s smiling, but it’s clear from watching him engage with the youth that this is something he enjoys. Community has always been front of mind for him, dating back to the early stages of his career. And now that the Scarborough, Ont., native is playing for his hometown NHL team, giving back has taken on an even deeper meaning. Twenty years ago, Simmonds could have been any one of these kids. And he knows that with the right support, 20 years from now any one of them could be him.

“He’s been doing this before it’s been popular,” Stewart says. “Wayne’s been very active in the community with charity [endeavours]. And he doesn’t really promote it. He’s one of those guys who lives it. He doesn’t just talk it, he lives it.”

Simmonds was drafted by the Los Angeles Kings in the second round (61st overall) in 2007, and cemented his place in the league in seven-and-a-half seasons with the Flyers. On the ice, he earned a reputation as a tough and gritty winger who could find the net and throw fists, but away from it he carried himself differently, with a lot less sandpaper. Simmonds grew to become one of the more committed community activists in hockey — he was a board member for a youth hockey organization in Philadelphia, a finalist for the 2016–17 NHL Foundation Player Award and, in 2019, earned the Mark Messier NHL Leadership Award, which is given to the player “who exemplifies great leadership qualities on and off the ice and who plays a leading role in his community growing the game of hockey.”

Since joining the Maple Leafs as a free agent in October 2020, he’s been just as active, even though traditional community engagement is complicated by the pandemic. Earlier this year, Simmonds met virtually with GTA students as part of a bullying prevention program to discuss his experiences with bullying and racism. He also participated in a virtual visit to a children’s hospital and was involved in the Willie O’Ree Bauer Hockey skates initiative.

Up until a few seasons ago, he hosted Wayne’s Road Hockey Warriors, an annual GTA charity road hockey tournament that he’s since paused for a variety of reasons, according to the Maple Leafs, including COVID-19. The tourney allowed Simmonds to interact with youth in a meaningful way that involved more than just handshakes and pictures, to offer young Black players a kind of connection to an NHL role model he never had when he was their age.

He met nine-year-old Nathaniel Adams at the 2015 iteration. It was a brief encounter, but Simmonds managed to leave a lasting imprint on the defenceman. “I remember one thing he said: ‘You gotta just keep pushing for it. Don’t stop. It doesn’t matter what so and so says,’” recalls Adams, who currently plays for the Toronto Marlboros minor bantam AAA squad and was in attendance at the September mentorship summit. “He said, ‘I’ve had people in the past say I can’t do it. The game’s not for you. But look where I am now. I pushed through the barrier and I made the NHL.’”

Shortly after that heart-to-heart with Simmonds, Adams was called the N-word on the ice for the first time. It happened during a tournament in Oshawa, Ont., and at the time, Adams was furious. He lashed out at the opposing team and was sent to the penalty box. In the days that followed, though, he began to ruminate on the advice Simmonds shared: Just keep pushing for it. Don’t stop. Adams eventually concluded that if this ever happened again, he would simply brush it off. “I started learning that I just gotta ignore it and block it out of my head because it’s what they want,” he says. “They want me to retaliate and go in the box.”

When he was called that word again during a game a few weeks later, Adams maintained his resolve and didn’t react. “I listened to Wayne’s advice and I just ignored it,” he says.

Simmonds had a similar impact on 15-year-old Amari Sellars, who he met through Stewart this past August. After finishing a training session that day, Simmonds chatted with Sellars for close to half an hour. “He’s such a down-to-earth guy,” says Sellars, a forward for the AAA Toronto Red Wings. “It’s just like having a regular conversation. We were talking about his journey in hockey and putting in the work. The one thing that really stuck out to me that he said is how you have to work twice as hard for the same opportunity as some other guys.”

That was the first time Sellars had ever spoken to an active NHL player. As soon as he arrived home that night, he wrote down what Simmonds told him, so that he could always have it with him.

Ty Henry had a similar reaction after conversing with Simmonds at Scotiabank Pond. Henry asked him if he considered giving up hockey as a teenager when he lingered in AA, unable to break through to the next level. “He told me, ‘I just kept on working on my game. I didn’t really care what other people said,’” Henry says. “‘And you shouldn’t worry about what other people say. Just always work your hardest and something good will come up.’”

The topic of mental toughness is important to Henry, 15, because he feels it’s an area he needs to work on. Originally from Montreal, he now plays at Blyth Academy in North York and says that a few years ago he was criticized for being too small, too slow and lacking strength. He internalized the comments he heard and began to put himself down.

“I didn’t react well at all,” he says. “I was young, so I was crying. My dad had to really toughen me up. He really had to teach me things like, ‘Just let those guys talk and just prove them wrong.’

“Simmonds ended up saying that, too,” he adds. “I’m hearing a professional athlete tell me that, too. I know that it’s true and so I need to keep working on that for myself. When people say bad stuff about me, it needs to make me hungrier to prove them wrong.”

Simmonds is a private person. According to those close to him, he’s got a tough shell and is hard to win over. To be considered part of his circle, one must earn his trust and respect. But once that happens, they say, an extremely appreciative and loyal man is revealed. He is a similar blend of reserved and generous in his charitable work — willing to go the extra mile for the causes he supports, but quiet about those efforts. He simply doesn’t like the publicity. His Twitter posts are sparse and, unlike the vast majority of NHL players, he doesn’t appear to have an Instagram account.

“There’s a lot of things that Wayne has done that were not on social media,” says Matt Nichol, who has trained Simmonds for the past 10 years. “Things that didn’t have a publicist or a PR agent there to capture it. He’s done those things forever. I just think now, some of those things may come to light more because he is a player for the Leafs and people are forced to pay attention because of the media market that we have here. But he’s always been that guy.”

Nichol is arguably the most acclaimed performance coach in Canada, boasting a client list brimming with superstar hockey players. That, coupled with his time as head strength and conditioning coach for the Maple Leafs from 2002 to 2009, has provided a firsthand look at the community involvement of many athletes. “I have seen some players that will do those things, but begrudgingly sometimes, or will do it when asked, or when prompted,” he says. “But I really saw a genuine, honest, sincere, enthusiasm with Wayne when he got here about not just how great it is to play for the Leafs, but how great this will be for all the other people he can help.”

Nichol remembers a specific conversation with Simmonds that took place after his signing. As the veteran warmed up for a workout, he relayed to Nichol what playing in Toronto meant for him. “He said, ‘I just love that kids who look like me could see me achieve things,’” recalls Nichol. “‘And that’s not any more true now than when I was in Philadelphia, but I want kids in Scarborough, where I grew up, in my same neighborhood, to not just hear a story about some guy that played back in the day or some guy in a faraway place. Here’s a guy from right here in your backyard playing for the Toronto Maple Leafs.’”

As Simmonds steps to the podium, the 11 boys at the table in the front perk up. A few even manage to stave off the shock of this unexpected visit and whip out notebooks, ready to jot down every word that booms out in Simmonds’ deep, gruff voice:

“Anthony asked me a couple of days ago — he had a bunch of young, Black athletes who were striving to get to the next level,” he begins. “So, I thought it would only be right, especially because I live right around the corner, for me to drop in and say ‘Hi,’ to you guys.”

He introduces himself as a member of the Toronto Maple Leafs and adds that he’s entering his 14th year in the league — a humble gesture, considering the teens he’s addressing are very familiar with his stats and accomplishments.

“We play in a predominantly white sport and for us to get ahead, you usually have to do a lot extra and that was the case for me,” he says. “I played single-A for a long time, played double-A for the rest of my career, probably until about the age of 16. But in doing that, I thought I was better than a lot of the kids around me. And I always worked my butt off as hard as I possibly could, to try to make it to the next level. And sometimes those opportunities weren’t there. But I never let anybody take it away from me. I always kept it in my mind. And I always strive to prove people wrong. To prove that I had a right to be in this game and to play at the highest level. So, for me, yeah, I think it was a struggle. You try not to let things get you down like racism and things like that. And obviously, we all know there’s a lot of [unconscious] racism, there’s a lot of racism that’s straight in your face. And you got to find a way as a young man to be able to handle that.”

Simmonds emphasizes the importance of finding support in one’s community and relays the impact that the Stewart brothers, Anthony and Chris, played in his life. Then comes the haymaker.

“Guys, stick together. Always stick together because your other teammates definitely don’t know what you guys are going through and the situations that we face to even get to where you are,” he says. “So, I guess my last statement here is you work your butts off. Don’t let anybody ever take your dream from you, because whatever you guys strive to do, you guys are great. You guys can do anything you want.”

After the speech, as Simmonds is surrounded by eager teens seeking advice, Stewart tries to disperse the crowd. He’s aware his friend has to rush to Leafs practice, and this mentorship summit needs to resume as well, with several guest speakers still lined up. However, the boys just don’t want to leave Simmonds’s side.

Stewart grins and calls out to his friend. He raises his left hand high in the air and mimes a chattering mouth, as if to intimate that Simmonds is a real talker. When the discussion finally wraps, Simmonds heads to the front of the room with the players to take a group photo.

It’s 10 a.m. now and he’s managed to squeeze exactly an hour of impact into his schedule — 60 minutes that, until a few days ago, were allotted to other commitments. Before rushing out of the arena, Simmonds hugs Stewart and leans his head toward his old friend. “Man, I wish we had this when we were younger,” Simmonds says.

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