by Noah Trister
DETROIT (AP)—Wayne Simmonds should have been able to talk about what a fine first impression he’s made on his new team.
After scoring in the final minute of Philadelphia’s game in London, Ontario, on Thursday night, Simmonds found the net again in a shootout—but it was what happened while he was in the process of scoring that second goal that stole all the headlines.
|MOVING ON—Philadelphia Flyers’ Wayne Simmonds heads back to the bench after scoring on Detroit Red Wings goalie Jordan Pearce during the shootout of a preseason NHL hockey game in London, Ontario, Sept. 22. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Dave Chidley)
A banana was thrown from the stands as Simmonds skated toward Detroit goalie Jordan Pearce, marring the end of an exhibition game that was played about 120 miles from Simmonds’ birthplace of Scarborough, Ontario. Simmonds, who is Black, issued a statement Friday, before the Flyers and Red Wings played again in Detroit.
“It was unfortunate that this incident happened, but I am above this sort of stuff,” he said. “This is something that is obviously out of my control. Moving forward, this incident is something that I will no longer comment on so I can just focus on playing for the Philadelphia Flyers.”
Simmonds made the trip with the Flyers to Detroit, but sat out Philadelphia’s 3-1 win over the Red Wings on Friday night, as both teams tried to use players who hadn’t been in the lineup the previous day. Simmonds was in press row toward the end of the game, and although he declined further comment, he did send a few autograph-seeking fans home happy.
“I’m Black, and I’m a real big hockey fan,” said 29-year-old Latoya Pugh, who was at the game with her kids. “It’s a sport you want to get more Americans into.”
Pugh and her kids approached Simmonds for an autograph during the third period. She was well aware of what happened the previous night.
“It’s hard when you’re Black and you love the game,” Pugh said. “You want to support the people, support the players, the teams, but you have people like that, who are ignorant.”
The 23-year-old Simmonds was acquired from Los Angeles in a June trade that sent Mike Richards to the Kings. Simmonds is eager to move on from Thursday’s incident, and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman strongly condemned the person responsible.
“We have millions of great fans who show tremendous respect for our players and for the game,” Bettman said in a statement Friday. “The obviously stupid and ignorant action by one individual is in no way representative of our fans or the people of London, Ontario.”
Scott Hartnell, Simmonds’ teammate with the Flyers, says he’s hopeful what happened to Simmonds was an isolated incident.
“You never want to see those kinds of actions,” Hartnell said. “He took it in stride. We hopefully won’t ever see that again. Simmer’s a character guy, and he just laughed it off.”
In European soccer, Black players have had to contend with bananas being thrown at them, although such displays largely have been eradicated from the game in Western Europe. The most recent high-profile instances have come in Russia, involving the Brazilian star Roberto Carlos.
The rare NHL game at the 9,090-capacity John Labatt Centre drew a crowd of 7,427. The arena is operated by Global Spectrum, a subsidiary of the Flyers’ parent company Comcast-Spectacor.
London Mayor Joe Fontana apologized to Simmonds and the Flyers on Friday on behalf of his city.
“It was a stupid and mindless act by a single individual,” he said in a statement. “However, it reflects badly on our entire community. London is a diverse and welcoming city and we like it that way.”
Hockey has faced racial problems in the past. The NHL includes players of many different nationalities, but Simmonds is one of only a handful of Blacks.
Kevin Weekes, a former NHL goaltender and current CBC color commentator who is Black, had a banana thrown at him during the 2002 playoffs in Montreal while he played for Carolina.
“We have some people that still have their heads in the sand and some people that don’t necessarily want to evolve and aren’t necessarily all that comfortable with the fact that the game is evolving,” Weekes said. “I understand that firsthand—I’m the first Black national broadcaster in NHL history, the first Black broadcaster on ‘Hockey Night in Canada.’
“The reality is that there’s still some people that aren’t very comfortable with that. Sometimes I’ll get examples of it on Twitter.”
Peter Luukko, president and chief operating officer of Comcast-Spectacor, said it’s unfortunate the offending spectator wasn’t identified. He hopes the incident won’t stain hockey’s reputation going forward.
“Hockey is very diverse, in its ethnicity as well as its cultural background. At the end of the day, this doesn’t affect anything. It’s just one idiot,” Luukko said. “It’s just unfortunate, and we’re going to put it behind us.”
Eustace King of 02 Sports Agency, who represents Simmonds, told The Canadian Press he believes the NHL should draft a code of conduct for fans that could be printed on the back of tickets.
“The game doesn’t necessarily have very many racial problems—I don’t want to say there are none, but it’s very limited,” he said. “But I think the challenges become with people in society, there’s a great problem that’s out there that is still being addressed. Just because we’re playing sports doesn’t mean it’s going to change.”
King, who is Black, once played NCAA hockey. He also represents Black players Chris Stewart and Anthony Stewart. King said this is a distraction Simmonds doesn’t need right now.
“He’s in the middle of training camp, he was traded to a new team and all he’s trying to do is showcase his ability for his new management,” King said. “This is just another thing that I will say other players don’t necessarily have to think about. When Wayne goes on the ice, he’s got this in the back of his head, that he’s got to go out and perform but he’s going to be questioned about something that has nothing to do with him.”
Norton Sports, a California sports management group that does not manage Simmonds, offered a $500 reward for the identity of the banana thrower. The Twitter offer quickly drew others promising to add to the reward. As of Friday morning, Simmonds was a trending topic on the social network.
San Jose Sharks forward Logan Couture, who grew up near London, posted: “Wayne Simmonds is a good friend of mine. To hear what happened tonight to him in my hometown is awful. No need for this in sports, or life.”