For Zayde Wisdom, a forward who plays for Kingston of the Ontario Hockey League, getting a boost of confidence or some NHL straight talk is only a phone call away.
With the 2020 NHL Draft approaching, Wisdom said he's fortunate to have several players of color past and present who are paying it forward as mentors to him and his younger brother, Zaccharya.
Buffalo Sabres forward Wayne Simmonds keeps in touch. Anthony Stewart, a retired NHL forward who is a hockey analyst for Sportsnet, and his younger brother, Chris Stewart, a veteran forward in the Philadelphia Flyers organization, have also reached out.
Los Angeles Kings forward prospect Akil Thomas talks with Zaccharya, a 16-year-old who was selected by Niagara, Thomas' former OHL team, in the sixth round (No. 102) of the 2020 OHL draft in April.
"Having veteran guys like that, especially veteran players in the League like Wayne Simmonds talking to me, giving me tips, motivating me has been a help," Zayde Wisdom said. "Him telling me that I'm good is a huge confidence boost, and that confidence plays a role in how I play."
The 18-year-old has become one of the fascinating stories of the 2020 draft. He's No. 54 in NHL Central Scouting's final ranking of North American skaters, up from No. 90 in the midterm ranking in January after he finished with 59 points (29 goals, 30 assists) in 62 games for Kingston. The 5-foot-10, 195-pound right wing from Toronto had 10 points (three goals, seven assists) in 60 games for Kingston in 2018-19.
NHL Central Scouting director Dan Marr called Wisdom one of his personal favorites as a potential diamond in the rough in the 2020 draft class.
"What I like about him is he's a guy that can play the physical game, can play the down-and-dirty game, play in the dirty areas," Marr said on the NHL Draft Class podcast. "But he's shown he's got skill and talent. There are some players who can't play with the best players in the game. They don't know how to get open, they don't know where to go, where to be on the ice, they don't have the same synchronization or timing. Zayde has shown that."
Marr said that several NHL teams are hoping to be able to grab Wisdom in the third round but cautioned that he might not be there that late.
Simmonds said he first noticed something about Wisdom nearly a decade ago when he started attending Simmonds' annual Road Warriors ball hockey tournament in Scarborough, Ontario, an event that helps expose the game to kids whose families may not have the financial resources for them to play.
Zayde and Zaccharya were raised mostly by their mother, Mairri McConnell, and grandmother, Kitty McConnell, in a home where money was tight and paying to put two boys through organized hockey was a challenge.
"I just think he's got that 'It' factor," Simmonds said of Zayde. "He's gone through a lot as a young kid -- you could tell in his demeanor. He came to my ball hockey tournaments and you could tell he had that drive. He had all the skills in the world, he just loved to play the game, he had that passion for it -- and you see that now as he's going through Kingston."
Simmonds and Anthony Stewart said they and others are mentoring the Wisdom brothers just as they were mentored as they rose through the hockey ranks.
Simmonds was chosen in the second round (No. 61) by the Los Angeles Kings in the 2007 NHL Draft and blossomed into one of the top power forwards in the NHL with 499 points (251 goals, 248 assists) in 909 games with the Kings, Flyers, Nashville Predators, New Jersey Devils and Sabres.
"When I go back to when I was younger, I had Kevin Weekes as a mentor. He had a hockey camp and he would bring in other guys like Anson Carter," the 31-year-old said. "I looked up to Anson Carter for a long time. I met guys more my age, Anthony Stewart and Chris Stewart, and we started grinding together. Guys like us, we've always had positive mentors, and to pay it forward to guys like Akil (Thomas) and Zayde is important.
"I think when you have other people who have been in the situation before and you know they're willing to do what they can do to help you, that's huge. If he (Wisdom) ever wants to talk to me or he needs to pick my brain, I'm just a phone call away. You keep paying it forward in hopes of getting that guy to the next level."
Anthony Stewart, who was selected in the first round (No. 25) by the Florida Panthers in the 2003 NHL Draft, agreed.
"The one thing you can say about him (Wisdom) is to go from a fourth-round OHL draft pick to a potentially top two (rounds) NHL draft pick, it's more than luck," said Stewart who had 71 points (27 goals,44 assists) in 262 games for the Panthers, Atlanta Thrashers and Carolina Hurricanes from 2005-12. "I think with him, he's got a good support group in his training staff with Derrell Levy, and I think the leadership starts with Eustace King, his agent."
King, one of the few black agents in professional hockey, represented Anthony Stewart. His firm's current clients include Simmonds, Chris Stewart and Washington Capitals forward T.J. Oshie.
"Eustace has been a leader in mentoring and that's trickled down to all his clients," Anthony Stewart said.
And the message from Wisdom's mentors, from King to Simmonds, is the same: The draft is just the beginning.
"It doesn't matter where you're projected in Central Scouting," Simmonds said. "When you get drafted, you've got to put more of the work in. I think Zayde knows that."
Mairri McConnell said that sort of mentoring support has meant a lot to her household as Zayde prepares for his draft and Zaccharya gets ready for his OHL career.
"Those are all huge connections that have enabled the boys to stay focused and keep their eyes on the prize," she said. "Hockey is such a world of alumni, friends, lifetime friends, people I know that these boys can go to."
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