Eleven years ago yesterday, the Phillies’ longtime play by play announcer made a statement that still floats around the city today. After Chase Utley completed a heads-up play to score from second on an infield ground-out, Harry Kalas exclaimed, “Chase Utley, you are the man!”
As I have been so privileged to watch Wayne Simmonds grow in a Flyers uniform over the past six seasons, I often find myself swapping his name with Utley’s while reciting Kalas. How can you not? Everything Wayne does embodies the city of Philadelphia, kind of like Chase. Although just about the only thing in common between each of their respective professions is that they require gloves, their style of play cannot be denied – only embraced – by the Philadelphia fan.
Upon Simmonds’ arrival in Philly during the 2011 summer, it was a bit of an awkward situation as the Flyers had shipped their captain to Los Angeles in exchange for him and, at the time, young prospect Brayden Schenn. When asked about the trade, Wayne responded, “It hurts, you take offense to that. You think you are no longer good enough to be on that team.”
What makes Simmonds such an admirable player is that he continues to play with that same chip on his shoulder each and every time he steps on the ice. Having the most goals on the team just does not cut it for Wayne. If there is a puck in the corner, you can bet that if he is not there first, the guy who is will be greeted with all 185 pounds of the “Wayne Train.”
Similarly to Simmonds, being the best hitter on the team was not enough for Utley. In addition to leading the team in hits in 2008, we loved Chase because of his hustle on the plays where he might not have reached base safely. Every routine ground ball or pop up was followed by number 26 sprinting up the first base line.
Simmonds’ fearlessness and willingness to drop the gloves with anybody is a trait that not all hockey players have, especially not 30- goal scorers. It is known throughout the entire arena that if there is an issue on the ice, Wayne will be there to solve it. Just like when Utley is beamed with a pitch on the right elbow, we know he will be back crowding the plate during his next at bat.
For a Flyers team that gave a lackluster effort for all but 10 straight games in December last season, Wayne looked to be in playoff form every night. While it was sad to watch a team that looked like they did not care when it mattered most, it was refreshing to see Simmonds consistently play two-way hockey.
Although scoring is a statistic the rest of our Flyers need to improve, it is more important they start mirroring Simmonds’ other attributes and intangibles: diving in front of pucks, throwing bodies in the corners, causing mayhem in front of the opponent’s net, sticking up for teammates, and most importantly, playing with heart.
The athletes that play hard through the tough times are the ones that stick out in this city. Because when times are tough for the team, they are even tougher for the fans. Most players will never care as much as the fans do, which is why the ones that prove they care – even by doing the “little things” – are beloved.
I cannot give Wayne Simmonds the official title of “The Man” in Philadelphia because he has not helped bring a championship to Philadelphia like Utley did. But when you watch him play this season and listen to what he has to say after the game, try telling yourself he’s not the man.