“I can play the game, but at the same time I can punch your head off.” —Wayne Simmonds, on his first day as a Maple Leaf
TORONTO – In an alternate (read: safer) universe, the fans might have blown the roof off the barn when he dropped the gloves.
Wayne Simmonds, that proud son of Scarborough, waited all of one period during life as a Toronto Maple Leaf to fling the mitts, roll up his sleeves and start ripping rights at the head of a Montreal Canadien.
It would be a stretch to say Simmonds punched Ben Chiarot’s head off, but he chucked ’em hard enough to smack a sponsor decal off his helmet.
Simmonds’ fourth swing of the fist caught nothing but air because Chiarot already lost his footing.
The tussle itself was short-lived, but its impact was still resonating, even after it helped ignite the home side from a 1-3 deficit to a 5-4 overtime win over their Canadian division rival.
“It was awesome,” beamed Morgan Rielly, moments after depositing the winner, his own nose bloodied by Round 1 of the rivalry. “What Wayne brings to this group, he’s been doing that in his career for a long time. It's incredibly valuable.”
William Nylander called Simmonds’ fight “a turning point in the game.” Even though it was Nylander who scored on the subsequent power play — while Simmonds was punching, Alexander Kerfoot was drawing a minor penalty behind the Habs’ net — and later set up linemate Jimmy Vesey’s game-tying goal.
“He got the boys going,” Nylander said. “We were a little soft and slow in the beginning, and after that, we got fired up and got going, which was huge.”
Confirmed Joe Thornton: “Pretty much changed the whole game.”
Some will argue that Simmonds’ bit of barbarism had little to nothing to do with the Leafs’ ability to rally on the strangest of opening nights, but those voices won’t be on the bench.
We’re not saying Simmonds punched the Leafs to a 5-on-3 strike or gave a dominant-looking Auston Matthews 14 shot attempts or created John Tavares’s buttery feed to Rielly in sudden death.
This team will soar or sink on its talented top end, to be sure.
But we are saying that the two most recent Maple Leafs comeback victories inside fan-free Scotiabank Arena just happened to coincide with old guys fighting (see: Spezza, Jason).
The Maple Leafs have wielded a swagger driving into the opposition’s end or zipping the puck around on the power play for a while now. But they’ve lacked a swagger in other areas, particularly smack in front of the crease, Simmonds’ happy place.
“That's my first real game action in like 10 months, 28 days, and I can probably tell you to the second. It felt really good, and I thought the boys needed a little bit of a spark there,” Simmonds said.
“I know my role on this team.”
At once, there is both an honour and a defiance with which Simmonds, 32, is battling through the home stretch of a gruelling pro grind that leaves him as just one of three active NHLers with 250-plus goals and 1,000-plus penalty minutes.
As Simmonds and Chiarot caught their breath in their respective penalty boxes, the Leaf made a point of looking over the timekeeper and giving the Canadien a thumbs up.
“I didn't think he wanted to go at first, but then he dropped the gloves before me, so it was green light,” Simmonds said. “I'm happy he gave me that one and helped turn the tide for our team.”
One half screw you. One half thank you.
Simmonds took less money to come home and represent Toronto this season ($1.5 million) than Montreal offered.
The winger reminded reporters Wednesday that this is his fifth team in three years, that he’s comfortable being the new guy.
During an accelerated training camp, Simmonds dropped dead-serious quotables like: “I've been a leader on every team I've been on.” And: “I skated by the glass again today. Still look good in blue and white.”
On the day of free agency, when signed his contract, Simmonds said: “It’s not like I’m coming here to fight the whole world, but at the same time I’m not afraid to fight the whole world.”
On any other fourth-liner, these statements would hang arrogant.
Not so with Wayne Simmonds, who has no delusions of regaining his status as a 30-goal man or All-Star Game MVP. He’s as real as a punch in the head.
He is in town to alter the energy, puff some chests and throw some checks. Despite seeing just 10:25 in ice time, Simmonds led all Leafs with five hits.
“He's incredibly valuable to this team, and we're very, very lucky to have him. He's hard to play against, so it's nice to have him on our side for once,” Rielly said. “Tonight was the perfect example of him taking it upon himself to get the team going — and that's exactly what happened.”
Before Simmonds walked out of the rink with a win and another checkmark on the fight card, he was asked to think about the prospect of throwing down nine more games against Montreal this season.
“Can’t wait,” he said.