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SIMMONS: Wayne Simmonds’ remarkable and unlikely journey to 1,000 NHL games

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The Los Angeles Kings had just concluded their pre-draft meeting in 2007, when first-year general manager Dean Lombardi turned to his newly hired chief scout, Mike Futa, and asked him about the list he was just presented with.

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“You’re missing Wayne Simmonds,” said Futa, who had been the GM of Owen Sound and drafted Simmonds into the Ontario Hockey League. “He’s not on your list.”
Some of the scouting staff, hearing this, many of whom would wind up being replaced in the coming months, gave Futa the evil eye. Like why are you doing this?

But Lombardi, forever curious and uncertain about the scouts he inherited, wanted to hear more.

“Where do you rank him in the OHL?” Lombardi asked Futa directly.

“Second behind Sam Gagner,” said Futa, leaving out Patrick Kane who was obviously going first in that draft to Chicago.

“Put him on the list,” Lombardi ordered. He didn’t say where.

Futa listed him as the ninth or 10th pick on the Kings draft board, he doesn’t exactly remember where.

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“I couldn’t tell Simmer about this,” he said. “I couldn’t tell him that we had him rated that high. When he asked me if he should go to the draft, I told him to stay home. I told Dean, nobody really called me on this guy, scouts aren’t paying attention to him. I didn’t want him at the draft with people noticing he’s around asking why he’s around.”

And on the second day of the 2007 NHL draft in Columbus, Lombardi slid the draft table microphone over to his new hire, Futa, and said: ‘You did all this work on him and you don’t have the cojones to pick him now?’

A few seconds later, Futa was announcing that with the 61st overall pick, the last one in the second round, the Los Angeles Kings were thrilled to select Wayne Simmonds from his former team, the Owen Sound Attack. There was a slight murmur on the draft floor. There was some shuffling of papers. Nobody, it seemed, had Simmonds ranked anywhere near a second-round pick.

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Standing on guard: London Knights goalie Steve Mason has to contend with Owen Sound’s Wayne Simmonds in front of the net during their game last night at the John Labatt Centre. (Postmedia files)
Standing on guard: London Knights goalie Steve Mason has to contend with Owen Sound’s Wayne Simmonds in front of the net during their game last night at the John Labatt Centre. (Postmedia files)

When it happened, Simmonds’ agent Eustace King, called his client and told him he had been drafted.

“I was so excited I nearly drove off the road,” said Simmonds at the time.

“Later, some guys would say they had him rated as a third- or fourth-round pick,” said Futa, “but based on the conversations I had with scouts, I’m not sure that’s true. I think that became the story afterward. A lot of the scouts I’d talked to during the season didn’t think he’d play a game in the NHL.”

He played a game and then some. Wayne Simmonds will play his 1,000th NHL game on Saturday night against the Vancouver Canucks. One thousand straight in the NHL, a remarkable number, first in Los Angeles, then in Philadelphia, with short stops in Nashville, New Jersey, and Buffalo, before landing with his hometown Maple Leafs two seasons ago.

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“He’s a great story,” said Lombardi, now working with GM Chuck Fletcher in Philadelphia. “If you want a role model about being the best you can be every single day in whatever walk of life you’re talking about, he’s your role model. He’s wasn’t naturally gifted. He certainly wasn’t naturally built — have you seen his skinny legs? His legs don’t look like hockey player legs.

“He’s a classic case of the meaning of character. There’s a difference between players and winners, between talent and attitude. Wayne Simmonds is a winner.”

When Lombardi was running the Kings, he looked out the window of his office one morning in the summer and he saw Simmonds walking through the parking lot at their practice facility and he wondered what he was doing there. This was after he had been drafted but before he played his first NHL game. Those were the days before teams were encouraging on-site training in the off-season.

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UNIONDALE, NY – OCTOBER 12: Wayne Simmonds of the Los Angeles Kings stretches during warm-up prior to their NHL game against the New York Islanders at the Nassau Coliseum on October 12, 2009 in Uniondale, New York. The Kings defeated the Islanders 2-1. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
UNIONDALE, NY – OCTOBER 12: Wayne Simmonds of the Los Angeles Kings stretches during warm-up prior to their NHL game against the New York Islanders at the Nassau Coliseum on October 12, 2009 in Uniondale, New York. The Kings defeated the Islanders 2-1. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

“I see this guy walking through the parking lot gate and I’m thinking: ‘Is that Simmonds? Where is he coming from?’

“I go down to see him and I asked him: ‘How are you getting here?’ Turns out he was sleeping on a friend’s couch in Los Angeles. And he was hitching a ride to get here. I had already decided, even if it was against the rules, I was going to get him some per diem money and I’m going to give him my car to drive. I told my wife (Wanda) about this and she said: ‘You’re damn right you’re giving him that car. She goes in and says to him: ‘This is yours. Just don’t hit anything, just be responsible.’ He got to use the car that summer.

“Years later, Philly comes to L.A. to play and the bus is parked where our people park. I’m walking by and I see Simmer and (Brayden) Schenn. Simmer sees my wife and he goes over and hugs her and says something. When I got home that night, my wife was bawling telling me the story.

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“Mrs. Lombardi,” he said, “I haven’t forgotten you for giving me that car.’ None of us have ever forgotten.”

Lombardi made a short list of players he wanted to acquire in Los Angeles to take the Kings from semi-contender to champion. Mike Richards was on that list. The cost at the time was expensive. Lombardi sent a high draft pick to Philadelphia, along with Simmonds and Schenn to acquire Richards. The Kings went on win two Stanley Cups. Simmonds went on to become one the leading power forwards in hockey, averaging 29 goals a season for five straight years, playing in a town that appreciated his style and panache.

“We’re trading your son,” Lombardi told Futa as negotiations for the deal was being made in 2011. Futa, the pure hockey man, understood. The personal part? That was hard.

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Simmonds didn’t grow up with much in Scarborough. His family was so challenged economically that it could afford for only one son to play hockey or one son to play football, but not for both to play. Simmonds had agreed to take a hockey scholarship to Bowling Green University, where he would get his education paid for. There was no thought prior to his junior hockey days of him playing so much as a game of professional hockey.

“I went into the house and convinced his father that he had a future in hockey,” said Futa. “I told him his best chance was to come with us (in Owen Sound), that we’d work with him, and it forged a life-long relationship between my family and the Simmonds family. To this day, my mom doesn’t collect a whole lot of hockey jerseys, but she has her own personal collection of Wayne Simmonds jerseys. That’s the kind of relationship we have. I’m so proud of everything he’s accomplished in his career.”

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Joey Mullen’s job with the Philadelphia Flyers coaching staff was working with the power play. The understated Hall of Famer spent parts of eight seasons around Simmonds and never felt like he had to coach, or coax, him in any way, just talk to him.

“He had that natural drive in him,” said Mullen. “He was focussed on playing in the league and made the best of everything he had. He’s a tough kid who had a knack around the net, especially standing in front of the net. That’s not an easy thing to do but that was his bread and butter.

“He wasn’t low maintenance for me, he was no maintenance. I gave him a job to do and he did it. He stuck up for his teammates. He was great on the power play. We could move him up and down the lineup, wherever needed. And he had an understanding of the game he had to play to be successful

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“Some guys are just built like hockey players, with big legs and big butts and big arms. It was amazing how skinny his legs were. And he wasn’t much more than 180 pounds and he’s taking everybody on. He could recover pucks. He could be physical. He knew where to go on the ice. He was a pleasure to have around.”

NEW YORK, NY – NOVEMBER 26: Wayne Simmonds of the Philadelphia Flyers and Brandon Prust #8 of the New York Rangers fight during the first period at Madison Square Garden on November 26, 2011 in New York City. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY – NOVEMBER 26: Wayne Simmonds of the Philadelphia Flyers and Brandon Prust #8 of the New York Rangers fight during the first period at Madison Square Garden on November 26, 2011 in New York City. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

We used to call him Spiderman,” Mike Futa said, “the way he skated, with his arms and legs going in all directions. It was almost like he was running on skates. It wasn’t pretty to watch, but it worked for him.”

“If Wayne Simmonds was just average competitively and with average character, he doesn’t have this career,” said Lombardi, who rarely does interviews, but agreed to talk because of the subject matter. “Pound for pound, I haven’t known many like him. His hands are so quick and his fists, when it used to matter more than today, were so quick. It reminded me of the guy in the bar with big muscles who gets beat up by the leaner, quicker, smaller guy. That’s where he would surprise people. He had something nobody saw coming.”

The Maple Leafs saw him coming late in his career when through his agent he approached the club with free agency on the way.

He wanted to come home, stay home, play for the Leafs. He enthusiastically sold GM Kyle Dubas and coach Sheldon Keefe on everything he could do for the Leafs in a meeting in Keefe’s office.

Wayne Simmonds’ passion hasn’t waned. His enthusiasm is infectious. From Game 1 to Game 1,000 on Saturday night, that hasn’t changed: This remarkable journey continues.

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