This season's Kings have been a mixed bag. The definite surprises would include the emergence of Quick and two second round 2007 draft picks making the team: Oscar Moller and Wayne Simmonds. On Wednesday, I interviewed Wayne. Amongst other things, while the Kings organization and fans may be surprised, I feel confident saying he was not.
After all, some may have read the Times’ Helene Elliot article where he explained he told his mother he would be an NHL player. What was not said in that same interview was that he made that pronouncement to his mother when he was only seven, yes, seven years old. Now, that is confidence!
Simmonds’ NHL Dream Near a Reality
Simmonds’ hockey beginnings started young but not as young as some. He explained his love of the game:
"I think ever since I first started playing hockey when I was 7. I remember telling my mom, 'I am going to play in the NHL.' I don't know if she really believed it but it has worked all along. I came into the training camp this year and just put my best - my best foot forward and it worked out."
When I first became a hockey fan, I near immediately noticed that the NHL was short on minority players. At first, I believed it to be in large part a race thing. What did not occur to me was that it was also a money thing. Willie O’Ree is hockey’s Jackie Robinson. One of the individuals he opened the door for was Kevin Weekes. The latter appreciated the need to open doors for others. He created the charity, ‘Skillz Hockey’. This is a program he helps fund that provides apparel and equipment for starters to those would not otherwise have an opportunity to play hockey. The Kings’ own Wayne Simmonds spent two summers benefiting from that program.
I asked Wayne what it meant to him to play against Kevin Weekes who was in net for the New Jersey Devils this year:
"Oh, it was pretty special. I remember when I was younger, I would just walk into the rink and I would just look at him in awe. This guy plays for the NHL and just playing against him was pretty cool. He actually has the same agent as me as well. I don't know if it is a coincidence or not but my agent said to me, he says 'We got Kevin Weekes too.' And I said oh, 'that is pretty cool.'"
It turns out that the individual who most helped Simmonds achieve his NHL dream was someone else -- a far less known individual -- Mike Hutton. He worked with Wayne for ten (10) years. Simmonds shared Hutton’s effect on his game and his life:
"He was always on me - because when I was younger - I just wanted the puck pretty much. I didn't want anything to do without the puck so he would always be on my back about how I had to get better defensively. If I wasn't, I'd go nowhere. So he really helped me a lot. He passed away last February so I always keep him in my heart and my mind when I go on the ice and I think he would be very proud."
When it comes to his hockey heroes and role models, Simmonds discussed other NHLers beyond Weekes who made an impression:
"Jarome Iginla, was always my favorite player and just recently Mike Richards. I like Shane Doan as well. I think, (as to Iginla) just the way that he plays - the heart and soul type of guy. He has been the leader of the Calgary Flames for quite some time. I just think I would like to be a part of it like him some day."
Simmonds now is stepping into becoming a role model personally. Wayne discussed his take on being a role model himself:
"I am just getting used to it. It wasn't like last year. I was walking around rinks and little kids asked me for an autograph. It is something I have accepted now. I am glad that I am a role model. I am glad that kids look up to me and I just hope that I can - that whatever players looked up to me that I can be that (role model) to them."
It is fair to say that the Kings’ Mike Futa made a life changing difference in Simmonds life and not just because he helped the Kings draft him in the second round. What many may not know is that Mike Futa first convinced him that his game was best suited for the OHL. At the time, Futa was a GM for the OHL team, Owen Sound. Simmonds had just signed a letter of intent to go the college route with Bowling Green State University under a full scholarship. Simmonds discussed Futa and their relationship:
"He was the GM of the Owen Sound of the OHL at the time. He drafted me. I told him I wasn't coming. There was no point. He drafted me anyway. He came to my house a couple of times and eventually I gave in. Hey, things worked out for the best. (Simmonds explained why it took two trips.) I think it was what he said that this will be the best way for you to go, to play pro hockey. And the last time he said it, my eyes lit up and that is what I want to do and so that is what happened."
The rapport and relationship between Simmonds and Futa continues to this day. Simmonds explained more:
”It is really good. Me and him text back and forth. We keep in touch on a regular basis. (Simmonds then discussed the most common topic of their texts.) The most common is just how I'm playing and just things that he thinks could be better, (that being) my puck possession skills and becoming better defensively. He tells me about those kinds of things, sometimes we just talk about life in general.”
Simmonds’ Ties to Futa
Simmonds and I laughed at the irony that he has had Mike Hutton and Mike Futa both discuss his need to play stronger defensively and stronger without the puck. Simultaneously, he made the team as a defensive forward. (It thus begs the question whether one agrees or disagrees with the handling of Boyle, where Boyle would be playing on a regular basis if he adjusted his game to what the Kings asked. Simmonds did and he is with the big club. Boyle has not done this to the team’s satisfaction and he is not.)
Simmonds then discussed the role Handzus has played with his game this year:
” He has been huge for me. Zeus is a veteran in this game and he always lets me know if I am doing stuff right and if I am doing stuff wrong. He will give me little tips. He is obviously really good defensively and they have put me in this role with him where I can play and he has helped me out.
(On Handzus’ tips). . . He has pretty much taught me stick positioning which is used in the game. If you take other players time and space away with your stick… (then) they obviously don't have time to make a play. He has taught me a lot with that.”
In preparing for the interview with Simmonds, I came across an article where Lombardi discussed Simmonds:
Simmonds' dogged determination and sheer persistence hasn't gone unnoticed by Lombardi, who said the youngster has been one the team's "biggest surprises" this season. "He came right into training camp from Day One [full of energy] … usually with rookies and young player you're waiting for them to hit the wall but he still hasn't stopped," Lombardi continued. "He's played really well. He's playing smart and within himself. He's got really good hands and the guys love him. He brings some extra juice into the locker-room, and the veterans and older players really respect him."
Lombardi on Simmonds
Simmonds had this response when I asked him to elaborate on his locker-room presence:
”I am just a happy go lucky guy and I come into the room all smiles. I joke with the guys, you know, keep everything loose. (Simmonds on whether he is a practical joke kind of teammate) No. I am still the new guy. I haven't bothered any of the older guys yet. I am not ready for that.”
A point of curiosity for some is whether Brown rewarded his campaign manager who (in theory and jest) helped make him an All-Star. Simmonds had this to say:
” Nothing actually. I should ask him that tomorrow. I will ask him what are you going to give me. I got to get him for that. I wasn't expecting anything. Now that you have said that, I'm going to go ask him if he has anything for me. (Wayne ended with) I am not that type of guy so…”I asked Simmonds to discuss his best and worst NHL moments to date:
” My best is obviously my first goal. That would be my best and most memorable. My worst probably . . . I remember taking a penalty late in the game and I think that was Anaheim as well. I was getting out of the box. It was overtime and I just stepped and Chris Farmer scored and so that is probably the worst.”
Simmonds on His First Goal
Some may not know that Jarret Stoll is Simmonds’ road roommate. Wayne discussed what he has learned from Stoll so far:
"Just how to be a professional - professional hockey player and all. He has been playing this game for quite a few years now and I think it is a good thing it is rubbing off on me."
His actual roommates are Kings’ teammates Quincey and Moller. This inquiring mind wanted to know how household duties are divided. Quincey is the chief cook. When asked the chef’s best and worst meals, Simmonds explained that the ‘go to’ meal was steak and yams. Simmonds and Moller keep things tidy.
Finally, it is worth ending with learning that Simmonds does stop by letsgokings.com. He likes to “check it out every once in a while just so I know how the fans are doing and what they are thinking about. (On whether anything in particular catches his eye) I just try to look at the pictures and just stuff like that.” It sounds like Michael Zampelli has a fan with Simmonds. Who knew?!!