An inspiring volume of stories about Canada’s most beloved sport—hockey—and the everyday heroes who embody the spirit of the game and help shape its future, from the pros who compete in NHL arenas to the dreamers and fans who play on backyard rinks.
What does hockey look like today in Canada? Who is changing the game? Canadian broadcasters Bob McKenzie and Jim Lang bring together players, from youth hockey to the NHL, and the people who support them to show us what hockey means to them.
Meet Philadelphia Flyer Wayne Simmonds and Paralympian gold medalist Greg Westlake, who wouldn’t be at the top of their sport without the never-ending support of their families and communities. See how they’re giving back to show young hockey hopefuls that anything is possible. Read about players like Ben Fanelli, who overcame catastrophic injury to keep playing the game he loved and is using his story as a platform to help others, or the renowned Canadian neurosurgeon Dr. Charles Tator, who is leading the charge to protect athletes from the dangers of brain trauma and concussion. From hockey commentators Andi Petrillo and Harnarayan Singh, who broke down barriers to be on air, to Karina Potvin, the youth hockey coach welcoming Syrian boys and girls to Canada by introducing them to our national pastime, these are the stories of everyday hockey heroes—those who defy the odds, advocate for inclusion, and champion the next generation of hockey.
From small-town rinks to big city arenas across the country, this collection celebrates everyone who loves our great game. Heartwarming and entertaining, Everyday Hockey Heroes is a must-read for every hockey fan.
Everyday Hockey Heroes Wayne’s Road Hockey Warriors Wayne Simmonds
There’s an old saying that it takes a village to raise a child. Scarborough definitely raised me as a hockey player, and I’m so proud that I get to be a part of that community.
Some of my earliest memories are of my dad taking me skating at our local outdoor rink in Scarborough, Ontario. Every Saturday morning, without fail, my dad would knock on my bedroom door.
“Wayne, let’s get going! We’re going skating.”
“It’s freezing out there, Dad,” I’d say, covering myself in a warm blanket. “I don’t want to go.”
“You’ll have fun once you get out there and get moving. And we can get some hot chocolate afterward, okay?”
Yes, hot chocolate, the magic words. Somehow the thought of it would always get me out of bed, into the car, and onto the rink. And my dad was right. Even though it was so cold I could see my breath in front of me, once I’d laced up my skates and done a few laps, I was the happiest kid on the ice. It was there on that little outdoor rink with my dad that my love of hockey began.
But playing the game wasn’t always easy. My family is African Nova Scotian, and I often wondered if I fit in the world of hockey, which was, and still is, a very white sport. On Saturday nights, our family would crowd around the TV to watch the hockey game, and I’d wonder if guys who looked like me could play in the NHL. There weren’t many, but when I saw what Jarome Iginla or Mike Grier could do on the ice, I started to believe it was possible.
And the tipping point came when I attended a hockey camp in Scarborough run by Kevin Weekes, who at that time was playing for the Tampa Bay Lightning. I always looked up to Kevin. He was a black guy who grew up in Scarborough, just like me. Meeting guys like Kevin and Anson Carter, another black NHLer from Toronto, was incredible—these were professional hockey players and they were talking to me! That day, I started thinking about my future, and I allowed myself to believe that the colour of my skin wasn’t a barrier and if I gave the game my all, I could play in the NHL, too.
I had been playing AA hockey for five years when I went to try out for the Wexford Raiders, an AAA team in the elite Greater Toronto Hockey League (GTHL). I remember walking into the dressing room and seeing that all the other kids there had brand-new equipment, including these sweet composite sticks. I knew I was a good player and that I had talent, but I couldn’t help but notice that all my gear, from my skates to my wooden stick, was secondhand. I’m from a big family of seven, and my parents, Cyril and Wanda, are some of the hardest-working people I know. My dad was in construction and my mom worked for the city of Toronto and went to school full-time. They did the best they could for us, but by the time the bills were paid, there wasn’t a lot of money left over for things like new skates and sticks, so I was used to wearing hand-me-downs.
As much as I wanted a new composite stick like the other guys, playing hockey with my buddies was more important, and I had to focus on the tryout if I wanted to move up with them in the league. I took a deep breath, pushed the image of all that flashy new gear out of my mind, and skated my heart out. And I made it! I made a team, and a really good one at that. My dream of playing for the NHL was that much closer.
As I came out of that rink, one of my friends, and now a fellow Raider, told me that our coach had asked to see me. I walked up to our car, where my mom was waiting, and started putting my equipment into the trunk.
“Hey Mom, I gotta go back up. Coach wants to see me.”
“Okay, but before we go in, I need to talk to you about something.”
“This sounds serious,” I said, hopping in the front seat.
“It is.” She looked down at her hands. “Honey, we are so proud of you and your accomplishments, but AAA is a lot of money and your father and I aren’t sure we’ll be able to afford it this year.”
“Oh.” It was all I could say.
My mom explained some of the realities of our family’s finances, how the cost to register to play AAA was so much higher than AA, how even then my coaches were helping my parents out by lowering rates and my teammates’ parents were helping with rides to tournaments. Even with all that support, we didn’t have the money for AAA.
“Do you still want to go and talk to the coach?”
“No, I don’t think so,” I said. She started the car and we drove home in silence.
As disappointed as I was in that moment, I was determined to make it to AAA someday. I worked every job I could to save the money. I even sold chocolates one summer, but it still wasn’t enough. Five years went by. When I turned sixteen, I was asked to try out for the Toronto Junior Canadiens, which is one of the best AAA teams in the GTHL. I went to my parents to have a heart-to-heart.
“Mom, Dad, I need to talk about the tryouts next spring.”
They exchanged a look. This had been on their minds, too. I plowed on.
“I know we haven’t been able to pay for AAA in the past, but is there any way we can make it work this year? I feel like this is my last shot to get noticed by scouts from the juniors. And if I got drafted to a junior team, you wouldn’t have to pay for any more fees.”
Back then, once you were in Junior A, the league offered sponsorships.
My dad let out a sigh. “We’ve discussed this before, Wayne. It’s a lot of money.”
“What if I can pay half the fees? I can work construction with you, Dad, to make the money. I know if I get into AAA, I’ll get to the juniors.” And one step closer to the NHL, I thought.
My mom put a hand on my dad’s arm. “Cyril, maybe we can make this work. Maybe we can get sponsors. Every time we’ve asked for help, people come through. That’s what this community is all about.”
“All right.” My dad smiled. “Let’s do it.”
“Yes!” I cheered. “Thank you so much! I won’t let you down.” I turned to leave, but my mom’s voice stopped me.
“Wayne, we know you want to play in the NHL. If you do make it, there are two things I want you to do.”
“I want you to give back to your community, and I want you to give to your church.”
“Yes, Mom. Of course. When I make it to the NHL, I’ll give back.”
The NHL was still a ways off, but it meant so much that my parents believed in me.
I was busy, to say the least. I was waking up at five a.m. to go to work with my dad. In between high school classes and hockey practice, I was squeezing in extra construction shifts whenever I could. I saved every dollar, and when I tried out for the Junior Canadiens that spring, I not only made the team, but I had my half of the money—$3,000—to pay the fees. The manual labour had the added bonus of getting me in great shape, and I had a strong season—nobody pushed me off the puck that year!
Here I am with the Toronto Aces celebrating our city championship win against the Vaughan Panthers. This was the year before I moved up to the AAA level.
Our hard work paid off, too. At our all-Ontario playoffs, Mike McCourt, the head coach for the Brockville Braves, saw me play and asked me to come to Brockville for a tryout. After I did, he offered me a spot on his team. I was in the juniors! My parents were thrilled that we’d made it this far together.
It all felt a little surreal. I remember walking into the dressing room for the first time and seeing my sweater hanging on my stall. We had new equipment, too—all the composite sticks a guy could want!
From there, things started happening for me. In 2006, I was drafted by the Owen Sound Attack, a really good team in the Ontario Hockey League (OHL). Even when I was playing in the OHL, I couldn’t forget about Scarborough, though. My buddies were part of a summer league ball hockey team, and it looked like so much fun that I joined them. In the off-seasons, I’d stay fit by chasing a ball inside a local rink on a hot and humid day—the opposite of those freezing-cold mornings with my dad when I was a kid.
It was on one such summer Saturday in 2007 that I received a phone call that changed my life. It was from Mike Futa, the former GM of the Owen Sound Attack and the current head of amateur scouting for the LA Kings.
“They want you, Wayne. You can score goals and skate fast. And you’re tough enough to stand up for your teammates.”
“This is a dream come true, Mike! Thank you.”
It took a moment to sink in that I had made the LA Kings as a twenty-year-old rookie and that I was being paid to play hockey.
As soon as I heard the news that I had been drafted, I called my parents.
“I have big news! I got into the NHL! The LA Kings want me.”
All I could hear was a big sob on the other line. “Oh, Wayne,” my mom started. “I’m so proud of you.”
There was a cough, then my dad spoke. “Way to go. I knew you could do it.” His voice was eerily calm.
Was he trying not to cry? I wondered. “Just think, a few years earlier we couldn’t afford AAA. Now I’m in the NHL,” I said. “I couldn’t have done this without all your support, guys. You sacrificed so much for me.”
“You worked hard, Wayne. You earned this,” my mom said.
I couldn’t stop smiling. Anything was truly possible.
I had so much to thank my parents for, but if it wasn’t for the help from those in our hockey community in Scarborough, I would never have made it to the NHL. They gave me the chance to play the game I love. I knew I had to honour my promise to my mom to give back, but at first, I didn’t know what I could do.
After my fourth year in the NHL, I was traded from the LA Kings to the Philadelphia Flyers. By then, I was an established professional athlete making a good living. I got in touch with Brandon Sinclair, a friend of mine from my minor-league hockey days in Scarborough. Both of our families struggled to put us through hockey, and it was the support of the community that allowed us to continue to play. The costs have only risen since then.
We got to talking about how great the hockey camps we went to as kids were, how seeing the NHLers motivated us, and we decided that we should do something similar to grow the game and support the next generation of Canadian hockey players. We wanted to make a difference in the lives of underprivileged kids and give them the opportunity to learn and play hockey.
I was also inspired by Willie O’Ree, the first black player in the NHL and the head of the league’s diversity program, so one of my personal goals for a hockey camp was to get other NHL players who look like me involved in the camp and show the kids from visible minorities that hockey is an option for them, that hockey is for everyone. Inclusivity will only make the sport itself better.
Together Brandon and I started Wayne’s Road Hockey Warriors, a charity ball hockey tournament for Scarborough kids to meet and play with NHL stars. The summer of 2012, we launched our first event. I’ll never forget that day.
I walked into the Scarborough Gardens Arena—where years earlier I had played—nervous about how the day was going to go, but excited to meet the kids and the parents who were huddled in little groups around the arena. I went over to one.
Posing with the winning team at the fifth annual tournament.
“Hey, guys, I’m Wayne. How are you all doing today?” I held out my hand to fist-bump one of the boys who looked to be about eight or nine. He shyly nudged my hand back.
The rest of the group exchanged furtive looks and whispers until one of the moms behind the kids stepped forward.
“Sorry, I think they’re a little starstruck.”
“Oh.” I was shocked. To me, it didn’t feel that long ago that I was their age and at a hockey camp.
“It’s okay. I’m sure they’ll loosen up,” she continued. “Wayne, we’re all just so thrilled about what you’re doing here. Thank you!”
“It’s my pleasure. This community has always taken care of me, so it’s important to me to give back.” I looked down at the kids. “Okay, are you guys ready to play some hockey?”
“Yeah!” they cheered.
After we introduced the kids to Drew Doughty and Chris and Anthony Stewart, we gave them new gloves, helmets, sticks, jerseys, and a good bag. Then we divided them up into groups to play hockey. In no time, the arena was filled with the sound of sticks slapping the floor, and man, did we have fun. It was so rewarding to see the smiles on their faces when they mastered a stickhandling move or scored a goal. The best moment was awarding the Wayne’s Road Hockey Warriors’ trophy to the winning team.
Throughout the day we hosted raffles for equipment and other prizes, signed autographs, and took lots of pictures. Everything went off without a hitch, and we’ve never looked back since. We’ve now hosted six tournaments and raised approximately $100,000. We’ve been able to sponsor over forty kids so they can play hockey without worrying about equipment or registration fees. And with all the donations from the NHL Players’ Association, Bauer, and Warrior Sports, we’ve given over 550 kids free equipment.
I’ve invited Tyler Seguin, Darnell Nurse, Jordan Subban, Joel Ward, Devante Smith-Pelly, and many other guys from all over the NHL to come to our tournament, and they always say yes. They want to give back, too. As do the kids. A lot of them come back to work as counsellors. The cycle of hockey is like the cycle of life. As you gain more experience, you try to pass that knowledge on to others.
This candid photo was taken during the celebrity game finale at the second annual Wayne’s Road Hockey Warriors tournament. I had just scored a goal and was celebrating my victory.
Whenever parents tell me how much they appreciate the camp, I think of how these parents belong to the same community that stepped in to help me when I was growing up, donating used equipment, taking me to games and practices. Hockey is so much about the togetherness of a community. It was through them and through hockey that I learned I could do anything if I put my heart and soul into it. And that’s the real goal of the camp: to show the kids that they can do whatever they put their mind to.
I was able to keep my promise to my mom and give back to the community that helped me achieve my dream. Now my new dream is to see someone from the camp make it to the NHL. Someday I hope one of the kids skates by me during an NHL game and says, “Do you remember me? I went to one of your camps.” And then gives me a big cross-check in the back.
There’s an old saying that it takes a village to raise a child. Scarborough definitely raised me as a hockey player, and I’m so proud that I get to be a part of that community.
Wayne Simmonds is an alternate captain for the Philadelphia Flyers. He’s affectionately known by his teammates and fans as “Wayne Train.” He played for Team Canada at the 2008 Ice Hockey World Junior Championships, where they won gold. In 2012, he started Wayne’s Road Hockey Warriors. To find out more about Wayne and his charity, follow him on Twitter at @Simmonds17.
Bob McKenzie is a Canadian broadcaster, journalist and author. Known as the TSN Hockey Insider, Bob has covered Canada’s favorite sport for forty years. He is the former editor-in-chief of The Hockey News, hockey columnist for the Toronto Star, and the author of two national bestsellers, Hockey Dad and Hockey Confidential. He lives outside Toronto. Follow him on Twitter @TSNBobMcKenzie.
Jim Lang is a Canadian sportscaster, journalist, and the co-author of Shift Work and Bleeding Blue, two bestselling memoirs by Tie Domi and Wendel Clark. He hosts The Jim Lang Show. He lives outside Toronto with his wife and kids. Follow him on Twitter @JimLangSports.
“You can never truly know a country until you know the game that defines the people. The U.S. has football, Brazil soccer, India cricket. If you want to know Canada, or if you’re Canadian and want to know yourself, Everyday Hockey Heroes is for you. In these moving, inspirational, and entertaining stories, Bob McKenzie, the ‘Mr. Hockey’ of insight and analysis, and sportscaster extraordinaire Jim Lang have found the pulse of Canada—and the beat is as strong and healthy as ever.”
– Roy MacGregor, bestselling author of Wayne Gretzky’s Ghost and The Home Team
“Compelling accounts of personal strength and the power of hope. Everyday Hockey Heroes gives a spotlight to important issues that people are dealing with and exhibits their ability to not only overcome these obstacles but, more important, to try to make positive change in the wake of them.”
– Sheldon Kennedy, former NHL player and founder of the Sheldon Kennedy Child Advocacy Centre
“The Humboldt tragedy showed us just how much hockey is part of the Canadian community. Because, just as we share the joy hockey so often brings, that terrible moment in Saskatchewan taught us that together as a nation we comfort each other when the game, as it occasionally does, brings us pain. My friends Bob McKenzie and Jim Lang have a lifetime of stories from covering the great game, and these pages are wonderful evidence of what they’ve collected over the years. You’ll laugh at times, you’ll be inspired at times, and you may even cry as well, but through it all you’ll know that Canada is hockey and hockey is Canada. It really is our game.”
– Peter Mansbridge
“Inspiring. Truly hard to put down. Bob’s great storytelling abilities prove that hockey is so much more than just a game. Loved it!”
– David Chilton, bestselling author of The Wealthy Barber
“Hockey never ceases to amaze me with the quality of the people in the game. This book is full of hockey champions who will inspire you and show you the true depth of the people in and around this game.”
– Brian Burke, former NHL executive
“These heartwarming stories illustrate the power hockey has to unite us and inspire us to be the best we can be.”
– James Duthie, TSN Hockey host
“Bob and Jim shed some fantastic light on a coast to coast truth: there are hockey heroes in every rink in Canada. Names like Westlake, St. Denis, Singh, Potvin, and Cunningham are what drives the success and our love of the game. Everyday Hockey Heroes reminds us that you don’t need to make a million to be a real hockey hero.”
– Ken Reid, Sportsnet Central anchor and author of Hockey Card Stories 2
“By seeing hockey at the margins, Bob McKenzie’s and Jim Lang’s work shines with a kind of log cabin storytelling, illuminating the sport’s humanity and showing that every path is crooked no matter where you end up in the game.”
– Dave Bidini, author of Keon and Me and member of Rheostatics