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Right wing trio adds to the NHL's expanding diversity

by John McGourty
Three right wings from Toronto, two of them teenage friends, are making an impact with NHL teams and beyond this season. On the ice, they have earned their share of shifts. Plus, as black players, they are adding diversity to the NHL, boosting the number of minority players in the League to 31. Additionally, 17 minority players who have appeared on NHL rosters at one time currently are playing in the American Hockey League or ECHL.

The players who hail from Toronto -- the Los Angeles Kings' Wayne Simmonds, the Colorado Avalanche's Chris Stewart and the Nashville Predators' Joel Ward -- are enjoying their first full seasons in the NHL.

Ward played 11 games with the Minnesota Wild last season before signing as a free agent with Nashville during the summer. Ward technically is not a rookie because he is 28 years old, two years older than the limit to be eligible for the Calder Memorial Trophy that goes to the NHL rookie of the year.

In a good-natured way, Ward, who made the nightly highlight reel with his sixth goal this season Jan. 28 in the Predators' 5-3 victory at Vancouver, indicated he doesn't like that rule.

"I still have to do the rookie stuff and duties around here," he said. 

Stewart, the younger brother of Florida Panthers forward Anthony Stewart, and Simmonds, both rookies, grew up together in the Scarborough and Port Union sections of Toronto and played in the same youth-hockey organization.

All three have interesting histories and one thing in common -- they all believed they had NHL talent even if, in some cases, others didn't.

Simmonds' determination is off the charts. He played only two years of junior hockey and jumped straight to the NHL.

Last November, Glenn Anderson said it was his fear of losing that made him such a clutch performer and a Hockey Hall of Famer. For Simmonds, it was a loathing of minor-league hockey that motivated him to keep after his NHL dream.

"My parents, Wanda and Cyril, are honest, hard-working, salt-of-the-earth type people who instilled a strong work ethic in me while I was growing up," Simmonds said. "I understood early that I would have to work for everything, twice as hard as the next guy. They're still on my back about how I have to work hard.

"After finishing my second year of juniors at (OHL) Sault Ste. Marie last spring, I came here to Los Angeles to work out and I came to camp with the right mindset. There was no way I was going down to the AHL. I proved myself in preseason games and I've stuck with the team all year. So far, it's going well."

Simmonds' childhood friendship with Stewart proved to be a career-builder, too.

"Chris played for the North York Junior Canadiens and I played for them a year later after Chris told the coach, Phil David, about me," said Simmonds. "Then I played Junior A in Brockville, had a good year with 43 points in 49 games, and the OHL Owen Sound Attack drafted me, two years after my original draft year.

Simmonds identified his greatest weakness and attacked it last summer. He's 6-foot-2, but just 181 pounds, and has had trouble adding weight.

"At the beginning of summer I was 173 pounds and I added 10 pounds," he said. "I'm sticking right around there halfway through the season. I'm not the type that bulks up right away, but I'm looking to get to 195 to 200 pounds. Apparently my metabolism is working against me."

Nonetheless, Simmonds is a fluid skater with great stamina who has enjoyed chemistry with big center Michal Handzus.

"He teaches me a lot, especially defensive play and what to do without the puck," Simmonds said of Handzus. "We like to take advantage of his size and work down low. It's hard to get the puck away from him. He's always ready to go, he doesn't ever get down, keeps an even keel and whatever advice he has for me, I take it and build on it."

For his part, Stewart had no issues bulking up. He had quit hockey to play football and trained enough to reach 260 pounds. But after his brother talked him back into hockey, Chris lost weight and cut a pretty straight path to the NHL, starring for the OHL's Kingston Frontenacs and becoming the Avalanche's first pick (No. 18) in the 2006 Entry Draft. He played a full season for the AHL Lake Erie Monsters and has split this season between Lake Erie and Denver, posting 6 goals and 5 assists in 23 NHL games.

The Stewart family struggled at times, and both Chris and Anthony lived with family friends, the Ziemendorfs.

"That helped my family get back on its feet," Stewart told when he was drafted. "... We had chores to do and school work. It was strict, but I look back and I'm thankful for that."

Anthony was captain of the Frontenacs and convinced his coach to get Chris, and the two played together for a season. Chris had 18 goals and 30 points his first season, 37 goals and 87 points his second, and 36 goals and 82 points in his third.

Stewart has been playing quite well lately. He has 3 goals and 6 points in his last six games while playing on a line centered by fellow rookie T.J. Hensick and Marek Svatos. That line has accounted for 11 points in the last four games. He also has five fighting majors this season and in a recent game against the Kings had a "Gordie Howe hat trick" -- a goal, an assist and a fight.

Ward appears to be in a perfect situation playing for coach Barry Trotz. Both men followed an unusual route, going through Canadian college hockey to get to the NHL. They also have similar compact builds. Trotz played Canadian juniors, then came up through the Manitoba minor-hockey coaching ranks and later coached the University of Manitoba. He spent five years coaching in the AHL, winning the Calder Cup with Portland in 1994, when he was named coach of the year. He has the second-longest tenure among current NHL coaches.

"My parents, Wanda and Cyril, are honest, hard-working, salt-of-the-earth type people who instilled a strong work ethic in me while I was growing up"
-- Wayne Simmonds

Ward played four years with Owen Sound and then went to the University of Prince Edward Island for four years. He then spent three seasons with the Houston Aeros, getting a brief promotion last season to the Wild.

"I went the university route but I still had the dream," Ward said. "I didn't want to go straight to the ECHL. I believed in myself and took a longer road, knowing that someday, somehow, I'd get a chance to play in the NHL. I always wanted to go to college and I'm very happy with my decision. I graduated with a B.A. in sociology and I'm very proud of that."

Trotz has used Ward in almost every situation -- checking line, scoring line, penalty killing and power play. He has 6 goals, 14 points and 23 penalty minutes in 44 games.

"Coach is easy to talk to and great to me. I can always go talk to him," Ward said. "He just wants me to pay attention to details, work hard and execute. I stick to the game plan and pick up any pointers he gives me."

Ward ranks fifth among NHL forwards with 42 blocked shots. It's a skill that generates respect among teammates, especially goalies.

"Kevin Constantine, my coach last year in Houston, taught me the technique," Ward said. "As a defensive player and penalty killer, I have to block a few shots. I practiced it quite a bit last year and implemented it into my game. Any time you can get in the way of the puck and block one for the team, it's a positive thing."

Ward, Simmonds and Stewart are the latest additions to the NHL's growing minority population. Of the 48 current or recent NHL minority players, 29 are black, seven aboriginal, seven Asian, three Hispanic, one Inuit and one South Asian. Thirty-eight blacks have played NHL hockey since Willie O'Ree became the first in 1958.

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