VOORHEES, N.J. - Wayne Simmonds has been to the Hockey Hall of Fame so many times he can no longer count.
The Toronto-based museum is a slap shot distance away from Simmonds' hometown of Scarborough, Ontario, and his mother would take him and his younger brother when they were kids quite often. He knows where all the cool memorabilia is located and he can take you straight to the room where the Stanley Cup is showcased.
"I think that was one of my favorite places to go for sure," Simmonds said Friday.
The next time Simmonds walks those hallowed halls will be a little more memorable as the Hockey Hall of Fame will induct six more legends of the game Monday night. It's an enshrinement Simmonds believes is long overdue. Willie O'Ree, the NHL's version of Jackie Robinson, will be added to the likes of Wayne Gretzky, Gordie Howe and a handful of Flyers legends.
Thankfully, the voting committee did the right thing before it was too late. O'Ree, who grew up in Fredericton, New Brunswick, will turn 84 next Thursday. Despite playing just 45 NHL games and scoring just four goals in his brief career, O'Ree opened the door 60 years ago for guys like Simmonds and other black hockey players.
"This is something that especially for the black community it's huge," Simmonds said. "To have Willie inducted into the Hall of Fame, he set the table for all of us to be able to play in the NHL and for us to obtain our goals as black hockey players."
Ideally, Simmonds would love to be in attendance when O'Ree stands and delivers his enshrinement speech, but with the Flyers playing a game at the Wells Fargo Center on Tuesday, logistically, it's just not feasible. However, Simmonds will be watching from his TV and he may get a little emotional holding back tears.
"I don't think I'll look at it differently," Simmonds said. "I think you got another great, great human being going into the Hall of Fame who deserves to be there. For me, it's about time. I think he should have been in there a long, long time ago. He's finally getting his due and I'm ecstatic."
O'Ree was a popular subject for Simmonds' book reports and other assignments. It was easy to write about a sport and a player he deeply admired and one story about O'Ree's life stands out more to Simmonds than the others.
"Everybody knows this now, but he was blind in one eye," Simmonds said. "I think that was the biggest thing. I remember being younger and doing studies on him and stuff like that at school and doing projects on him. I think back in that time period that not only being the first black person to play in the NHL, but to do it while being blind in one eye, I thought that was incredible. He hid it from so many people. I think his sister was the only one that knew. That was crazy."
I can remember in 1998, O'Ree helped introduce NHL hockey to Nashville, Tennessee, and the Predators along with the city held a carnival in a parking lot on the site of the old Dollywood amusement park.
At that time, I had no idea who he was, but after spending 30 minutes with O'Ree, he was easily one of the friendliest, most endearing professional athletes you will ever meet. I would put him in a category that also includes Billie Jean King and Arnold Palmer. Athletes so personable and down-to-earth that you quickly forget just how transcendent they were in their respective sport.
"He's unbelievable. The smile on his face, just his attitude toward everyone. He's a very pleasant human being," Simmonds said as we exchanged our personal encounters with O'Ree. "I can't even count how many times I've met with him. I've had a cup of coffee with him and just sat down and chat. He's a huge inspiration to me obviously."
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