LOS ANGELES – The NHL’s all-star weekend became Wayne’s World.
Wayne, as in Gretzky, the man who originally put hockey on the radar in Los Angeles and served as the unofficial host of the event. And Wayne, as in Simmonds, a first-time all-star who seemed to soak up every single second of the experience.
He’s heading back to Philadelphia with a brand-new Honda Ridgeline truck after scoring the winning goal and being named MVP of the all-star game.
“It’s all pretty surreal,” said Simmonds. “I don’t even know if I realize what’s going on right now.”
The 28-year-old was simply thrilled to get an exclusive invitation to the event after scoring 21 goals in 50 games this season for the Flyers. Growing up in Scarborough, Ont., a moment like this would have been beyond his wildest dreams.
Simmonds is the third of four sons – born two weeks after Gretzky was traded from Edmonton to Los Angeles in August 1988 – and was named after an uncle rather than the most famous man in hockey.
He had to scratch and claw his way up the ranks as a kid, finally reaching the Ontario Hockey League at age 18 and playing well enough to become a second-round pick by the Kings.
The Flyers acquired him in a 2011 trade but you never would have known it by the reception he received at Staples Center. The fans cheered him on as though he were still one of their own.
“It meant a lot,” said Simmonds. “When you leave a place, you don’t expect to come back and get all the cheers as I did today but I must have done something right when I was here. I know I had a lot of die-hard fans here and I really appreciate those people.
“I just appreciate everything. It made me feel good today.”
It was a day — and a weekend — to feel good about the sport that brought all of these people together.
Gretzky was feted here on Friday night as part of the NHL’s 100 greatest players list. He then stepped behind the bench as coach of the Metropolitan Division team that won Sunday’s 3-on-3 tournament – filling in for John Tortorella, who is attending to a family matter.
The Great One had the pleasure of putting Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin on the same line. He also called a successful offside review that overturned a goal in the championship final against the Pacific Division.
When everything was said and done – after Crosby and Ovechkin had traded sticks in the winning dressing room – Crosby said the highlight of his weekend was getting to know Gretzky better.
“I think that that was unique,” he said. “I’d had the opportunity to meet him at different points but didn’t really get a chance to spend much time with him. Just having him in and around the group and being able to be around him a little bit more, yeah, I think I appreciated that opportunity.”
There was symbolism to be found all over the place here.
When the Atlantic Division faced off against the Metro, coach Michel Therrien threw Auston Matthews over the boards every time Crosby was on the ice. He didn’t do it for competitive reasons. He simply thought it was the right thing to do.
“I had the last change so I wanted to give him the challenge of playing against Crosby,” said Therrien. “I found it was good for the league as well and a good experience for the kid. That’s why we saw them go head-to-head most of the time.”
Connor McDavid found a way to leave his mark, scoring a gif-worthy goal in the final and flashing his blazing speed at every turn.
He is The Next One and his time is now. But he seemed like a kid in a candy store while surrounded by the most accomplished of his peers.
“It was so cool,” said McDavid. “Having the top 100 greatest players of all time here makes it even better and obviously this all-star game was stacked with talent. It was so much fun to be around it and be a part of it.”
Having everyone on the same sheet of ice before Sunday’s tournament – with the current all-stars bumping the fists of the men named to the NHL 100 – was a fantastic touch.
The atmosphere was enough to melt even the most bitter of rivalries, with Crosby able to smile about Simmonds’ success despite all of the heated Penguins-Flyers games they’ve been through over the years.
“Just for a quick moment,” said Crosby. “A brief moment. It’s funny, it’s going to be a quick turnaround here and we’ll be playing against him and it’ll be heated. We’ll be in scrums in a few days. I think we all share in the way we love playing the game, we love being a part of this, it was great to see him do well.
“Things will kind of go back to normal I’m sure here in a few days.”