After a fantastic performance at the 2017 Honda NHL All Star Game on Sunday, Philadelphia Flyers’ forward Wayne Simmonds was named the NHL’s first star of the week for the week ending January 29. In two contests last week against the New York Rangers and Toronto Maple Leafs, Simmonds notched a goal against each. His goal against the Rangers wound up being the game-winner.
Wayne Simmonds’ career went full circle this past weekend as he made his All-Star debut in Los Angeles, the very city where he originally began his NHL career. The 28-year old Scarborough, Ontario-native was drafted by the Los Angeles Kings 61st-overall at the 2007 NHL Draft. Ahead of the 2011 NHL Draft, Simmonds was dealt to Philadelphia along with Brayden Schenn in exchange for Mike Richards and Rob Bordson. In three seasons with the LA Kings, Simmonds recorded a respectable 93 points.
This season, Wayne Simmonds is good for 21 goals (tied for ninth in the NHL) and 17 assists in 51 contests. Out of 38 points, which ranks him third on the Flyers, 18 came on the man-advantage. His outstanding play thus far this season earned him his first All-Star Game appearance.
On Sunday, Simmonds netted two goals in the first Metropolitan Division matchup, a 10-6 victory over the Atlantic Division. In the finals against the Pacific Division, Simmonds scored the game-winning goal, his third of the day, as the Metro prevailed 4-3. His performance Sunday afternoon earned him MVP honors.
In light of the NHL celebrating 100 years of rich history, I would be remiss if I didn’t take a walk down memory lane. Wayne Simmonds accomplishments on Sunday, this season, and throughout his career, transcend the game of hockey itself. How fitting it is that Simmonds was named All-Star Game MVP, just days before the start of Black History Month. Simmonds isn’t the first black player to be named All-Star MVP, as that feat belongs to goaltender Grant Fuhr in 1986. However, Simmonds is the first black player to be named MVP since then.
At a post-All-Star Game press conference, Simmonds was asked to comment on diversity in the NHL today. Wayne was happy to respond, mentioning that we’re seeing more than just black and white players, but players from all different backgrounds and that spreading the game is the ultimate goal. Simmonds added, “Hockey is for everybody, so it’s a great sport. I’m just trying to be a good ambassador…” While hailing from Ontario doesn’t exactly make him a unique hockey player, Simmonds’ cultural background could help market the game to different demographics and it is clear that he is happy to oblige.
Wayne Simmonds’ success means so much more in the bigger picture. The day before the All-Star Game, the NHL held a series of press conferences to announce, among other things, the NHL’s launching of Learn to Play in conjunction with the NHLPA. The Commissioner, Gary Bettman, explained that in 1981, when the Kings first hosted the All-Star Game, 3,400 players were registered in the State of California. In 2002, that number grew to 17,000. And as of this past weekend, LA’s third time as host of the mid-year classic, California boasted over 28,000 registered hockey players state-wide. Bettman credited the expansion teams – LA Kings, San Jose Sharks, and Anaheim Ducks – for helping to grow the game within a previously untapped market. That means any player that ever played professional hockey in the state of California had some sort of an impact on the growth of the game – Wayne Simmonds, especially.
Over the summer, I pointed out the significance of Auston Matthews being drafted first-overall at the 2016 NHL Draft. Matthews’ mother is of Mexican descent, making Matthews the first player of Hispanic descent to be drafted first-overall, as well as the first player from the American southwest to be drafted in his position. In Matthews’ case, the relocation of the original Winnipeg Jets’ franchise to Phoenix, Arizona was absolutely necessary in gaining Matthews’ interest in the game of hockey. It is abundantly clear, then, that expansion and existence of NHL teams in untraditional, untapped markets is pivotal in growing the game.
But the NHL isn’t just content at expanding into untapped markets, such as Las Vegas. The Learn to Play initiative seeks to get youth hockey fans onto the ice and learning the game, rather than merely watching as spectators. For first-time players, the program provides full equipment, head-to-toe. Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly explained that while various clubs had already implemented similar programs of their own, the NHL will be extending the program to every market. The initiative focuses on children ages four-to-eight, providing age-appropriate instruction for six-to-eight weeks, and sessions to last 60 minutes. 11,000 participants were recorded in the early stages of the program last year. Daly expected that number to increase to 20,000 by the end of this year. The goal, however, is 30,000 new participants every year.
Hockey is continually one of the most expensive activities for families in terms of equipment, enrollment in leagues, travel costs associated with weekend tournaments, etc. The program aims to make the sport more affordable for first time participants to ease the burden of supporting the expensive, yet infinitely rewarding hobby.
In the grand scheme of things, Wayne Simmonds being named NHL’s first star of the week isn’t just wonderful for him personally, his family, or for the Flyers’ organization and its fans. His achievements mean everything to every fan of the game, everywhere in the world. Simmonds receiving All-Star MVP honors and first star honors shows that any kid from any background can learn to play the game of hockey, work hard, and perhaps even participate in the NHL All-Star Game one day. And for many kids who grow up loving the game of hockey, all it takes is the first step onto the ice.
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