It was before Wayne Simmonds grew into a 6-foot-2, 183-pound forward for the Philadelphia Flyers; before he was a second-round pick (No. 61) by the Los Angeles Kings in the 2007 NHL Draft; even before he was a budding star in the Ontario Hockey League.
It was when Simmonds was an unknown minor player, one of many skating in regional leagues across Canada.
"I said to him, 'There's two things I want to you to do if you ever make it to the NHL,'" she told NHL.com. "'I want you to give back [to your community] and I want you to give to your church.'"
Obedient son that he is, Wayne Simmonds followed his mother's wishes. And the next generation of hockey hopefuls from the Scarborough, Ontario region has benefitted from Simmonds keeping his word.
In 2012, Simmonds and a friend created Wayne's Road Hockey Warriors. A summer ball hockey tournament at Scarborough Gardens Arena -- the same place Simmonds and his friends played their minor hockey – is the pinnacle of the fundraising efforts which help children in the area get the same opportunity Simmonds did to play hockey.
But there's more to the event than Simmonds and friends playing hockey with young people in the same place his hockey dreams were formed. It is about living up to that promise he made his mother.
"We got help from the community growing up to play hockey and it was only right to give back," Wayne Simmonds said.
Cyril and Wanda Simmonds did the best they could to keep their house full of children happy. Cyril worked in construction and Wanda worked for the city of Toronto.
The blended family had six children living in the home; Wayne was the second youngest. All were athletic and active. But sports are expensive, and money was always tight.
"In the summer I would always try to get a little job," Wayne Simmonds said. "One summer I sold chocolates. Obviously you don't make the most money, but at least I could afford to buy my own clothes and not worry if my parents had the money or not. One summer I actually worked construction with my father, and that was probably the toughest thing I've ever done. But I got up every morning at 5 o'clock and went to work with him and helped pay for my hockey. So it was really gratifying at the end of the day."
The work taught Simmonds that playing hockey was a lot more fun than what his parents were doing. But hockey isn't cheap, and a summer job isn't going to pay for registration, sticks, skates and other gear, especially when the player is a rapidly growing young man.
Simmonds was a player with potential. The coaches in the community league where he played saw it right away.
"As time went on, everybody around the kid thought that if somebody they knew was going to make it, it was going to be him," said Mike Herron, who was an assistant coach with the Toronto Aces program. "It wasn't so much a talent thing; he was a talented kid. But it was heart. He wanted it more than everybody else. He wanted to win. He wanted the puck. He was a competitor; even as a little kid he didn't like losing."
Having natural talent and drive is one thing; supporting it is another. That's where the Simmonds family was supported by others.
"[Toronto Aces] coach Mike Hutton, he made deals with my husband," Wanda Simmonds said. "He would lower the rate and exempt us from the tryout fees and stuff like that because we had three other boys we were taking care of as well. He would help out that way. And there's Ann and Mike Herron … they would come pick Wayne up. I would call Ann from work and say, 'I can't make it, can you grab Wayne from school and take him to the tournament and I'll meet you there later?' Some of my nephews that were older than Wayne, and my brothers and sisters, they would take Wayne to hockey if I wasn't able to because I worked full-time and went to school full-time, and my husband worked construction. We had a lot of people, a lot of good friends, who would be there when we couldn't be or until we got there. We depended a lot on Wayne's teammates' parents and they were great with us.
"As far as equipment was concerned, we went to a lot of my husband's family and they would help out with used equipment that their son used to use when he was younger, they would hand it down. We had things covered as far as skates and sticks were concerned. It was the expensive stuff. It was having to replace the knee pads as he grew, the elbow pads, getting new jock straps. The other stuff was quite expensive. We used to go and take his older skates and trade them in at the stores we had around the neighborhood, and I'd add a few extra dollars so we could get new skates. Christmas would come and those would be his main gifts he would get for Christmas, the hockey equipment."
The time and money spent on Wayne's hockey, however, meant less money for the other children in the family. But there never was any animosity or jealousy.
"Not at all," Wayne said. "I always thank my family because they sacrificed for me. For me to do really well, it's important. Just to show them that they didn't sacrifice for nothing."
|Courtesy: Simmonds Family |
The first big payoff came late in the 2004-05 season. Wayne was going to play for the Toronto Jr. Canadiens Midget AAA team, but the registration fee had Cyril Simmonds pondering alternative ideas for Wayne's winter activities.
Wanda wouldn't hear of it.
"My husband wanted to take him out of hockey," Wanda said. "I was sitting in the garage and I said to my husband, 'We're not going to take him out.' He said, 'We can't afford this one,' it was over $5,000. I said, 'We'll get sponsors; I'll campaign, you campaign.' My husband worked for a construction company and he was quite close to the owner. 'You go to him and ask him if he'll sponsor Wayne,' and we had a plaque that was made for him because he was sponsoring Wayne. I got some people from work to help out and I was going hard at it so that we could get the money together to get Wayne in there. Eventually we got it all together."
Wayne had 32 goals and 72 points in 67 games, which helped him and his team earn an invitation to the 2005 Triple A Midget Regional Hockey Championship, an event Wanda Simmonds convinced the Jr. Canadiens to host. The Brockville Braves of the Central Junior Hockey League were watching Wayne and drafted him.
"I knew that Wayne was a good player," Wanda said. "And I had spent so much of my kids' lives taking Wayne here, there and everywhere for him to play hockey and that was the only time I could see a way for the scouts to be able to see him. ... So we sponsored [the tournament], we ran it, and the Brockville Braves were there and they drafted Wayne. I was in my glory. It paid off."
One year later, the Owen Sound Attack of the Ontario Hockey League picked Wayne in the sixth round of the 2006 OHL Draft. The following summer it was the Kings, who selected Simmonds with the final pick of the second round of the 2007 NHL Draft.
Wayne Simmonds made his NHL debut on Oct. 11, 2008, playing 15 shifts totaling 12:02 of ice time at Staples Center against the San Jose Sharks.
He got his first shot on goal in his third game, and it found the back of the net against Anaheim Ducks goaltender Jean-Sebastien Giguere. Three years later, he was one of the players traded to the Philadelphia Flyers for Mike Richards.
It was after Simmonds' first season in Philadelphia, when he scored 28 goals in 82 games, that he felt like an established NHL player. It also signaled it was time for him to figure out a way to make good on that promise he made.
It wasn't enough for Wayne to do something just because he was a good son fulfilling an oath sworn to his mother. Now a 26-year-old in the NHL, Wayne had all the gifts of a professional athlete in the prime of his career. But he also knew that reaching the top of that mountain wasn't a solo climb.
"Without the community, we wouldn't have been in the position that we were in," Wayne said. "My mom always told me that if you ever make it, the first thing you have to do is give back to the community because the community gives so much to you. That's how it all started off. ...
"Buying gear, registration for teams; hockey is one of the most expensive sports besides golf. It takes a toll on families, and I have a big family: four brothers and a sister. So for me to play hockey was a huge strain on my family and family funds. We needed help and we got help from the right people. The hockey community is unbelievable. There's all these people that are trying to help people out."
Simmonds wanted to go from receiving help to providing it, but had to figure out how. His first call was to one of his closest friends, Brandon Sinclair.
Sinclair and Simmonds were youth hockey teammates, and Sinclair knew what it was like to need help from others to keep his hockey dreams alive.
"My parents were hard-working parents and they did their absolute best to work during the day and to also try and support and be there for us during hockey periods," Sinclair said. "We were middle-class. The biggest challenge came when my dad had a major heart attack when I was about 8 or 9 years old. That's when we as a family felt the pressure and felt the crunch. ... The only reason we were able to maintain hockey and still play was through the support of our team members.
"Wayne and I growing up played with a core group of people. We had the same coaches for five or six years going through the ranks, so we built a family unit in terms of hockey. When we were going through the hard times it was through the support of those people that I was able to stay in hockey. I was a goalie and goalie equipment is very expensive. Whatever I could get I would use: used pads, used helmet, used glove and blocker. The only reason we had gifts that year at Christmas, because my dad had his heart attack in October, was because everyone pitched in and raised money for my family."
Sinclair also was looking to start a community project. Simmonds thought the idea of a hockey camp was something that would be fun. Simmonds, like other young Canadian hopefuls, had been to summer skills camps run by NHL players. Those camps inspired Simmonds not only to hold on to his NHL dream, but to strive to be the mentor for the generation who followed him.
"I always go back to when I was younger and Kevin Weekes had a hockey camp and I went to that for three years," Simmonds said. "I remember it was the first time I met NHL players; it was Kevin Weekes, Anson Carter and Brad Richards. ... I met those three guys and I remember asking them, 'Can you just give me a skate lace,' anything.'"
Instead, what those NHL players gave him was far more important; they gave Simmonds inspiration. Simmonds and Sinclair were ready to set out to pay that forward.
They got help from a number of friends, Simmonds' NHL peers and ones Simmonds and Sinclair knew from their school days. Among them was Richia Bissoondath, a friend from high school with experiences in public relations, project management and volunteer work. She was named president of the new group, Wayne's Road Hockey Warriors, and oversaw the project while Simmonds was in Philadelphia.
"The first two years it was going from business to business trying to get sponsorships personally, calling people, me and my buddy Brandon," Simmonds said. "We're visiting people, going from bar to bar to bar trying to get sponsorships. That's how we did it, grass-roots, from the ground up. I put the money in and we went from there."
The first two events, held in the summer of 2012 and 2013, raised about $31,000 for the community.
In 2012, a portion of the money was used to send two children to hockey camp in Minnesota. Other funds were given to Jump Start, a program run by Canadian Tire that helps subsidize minor-hockey registration fees.
For the 2014 event, Sport Chek, the largest sporting goods chain in Canada, signed on as a sponsor.
Wayne Simmonds followed his mother's wishes, and the next generation of hockey hopefuls from the Scarborough, Ontario region has benefitted from him keeping his word. (Courtesy: Wayne Simmonds)
"It completely changed the ballgame for us," Bissoondath said. "Having Sport Chek be a part of the organization this year really allowed us to expand what we could provide to the kids and the opportunities we were able to give them. They brought publicity and their friends and their own personal sponsors and people who really cared about the organization and allowed us to be able to give the kids more than we would have been able to with just our community fund."
The additional might of Sport Chek, and support from the NHL Players' Association Goals and Dreams fund, allowed an all-time high of 80 children ages 8-12 to take part. With a portion of the money raised, Simmonds took four children to the NHLPA warehouse to outfit each player in equipment for the 2014-15 season. Wayne's Road Hockey Warriors also paid for their registration for the season.
"We had a good year this year," Simmonds said.
The good has kept coming for Simmonds.
He's in the first season of a six-year, $23.85 million contract, he's an alternate captain with the Flyers, and he's continued to blossom into one of the top net-front power-play specialists in the League. His 15 power-play goals were third in the NHL last season, and with four extra-man goals in 14 games this season he's again among the League leaders and on pace to top last season's total.
But that's only part of Wayne Simmonds' story. As much as he does for the Flyers, he's just as devoted to doing for young hockey players in the Scarborough region. He's making his community proud, and in the process he's done everything his mother asked of him at the start of this journey.
"He's giving back to the neighborhood and all those kids that are out there that have the rough time that we did to make it through to the NHL," Wanda Simmonds said. "He's done exactly what I asked him to do and I'm so proud of my son."