LIBEREC, Czech Republic – The morning after, Wayne Simmonds still had no idea. He opened his laptop in his apartment, and he logged onto Twitter. The first post he saw was from a Czech apologizing for what happened.
"What is this guy talking about?" he thought.
He scrolled and saw another post, and another, and another, and another. His roommate and close friend, Chris Stewart, walked in and asked why he hadn't told him. Stewart had already seen the video.
"What video?" Simmonds asked.
Then Simmonds saw it for himself. He was playing Sunday for Liberec of the Czech Extraliga – Stewart was out sick – when a scrum broke out. Simmonds was a small part of it. Still, some fans in Chomutov singled him out. They chanted in Czech.
"Opice! Opice! Opice!"
The word means "monkey." Simmonds is black.
At the time, Simmonds was oblivious. He doesn't speak Czech, and European fans chant all the time. When other fans booed and whistled down the chants, it was just noise to him. How would he know this was anything out of the ordinary?
[Slideshow: #NickInEurope photo diary from Moscow and Prague]
Ladislav Smid knew, all too well. As a Czech, a teammate and a fellow locked-out NHLer, he said he felt sick to his stomach for Simmonds. He said it was disgusting. He said he told the referee to do something – to get on a microphone and announce this was unacceptable.
But no one said anything, not even to Simmonds, not even after the game.
"We were thinking we didn't really want to make him feel uncomfortable here," Smid said. "We didn't really want to make him think that we were all like that bunch of idiots. But he found out through the Internet."
Simmonds' first response: "[Bleep]. Again?" This had happened to him at home a little more than a year ago, when someone threw a banana on the ice as the Philadelphia Flyers played an exhibition in London, Ont., about 2-1/2 hours from where he grew up in Scarborough.
His second response: "Well, whatever." Who cares? He didn't understand what those fans chanted. They didn't hurt him. They didn't affect him – and they weren't about to affect him now.
[Nick Cotsonika: Sergei Fedorov's incredible hockey journey comes full circle]
Smid said Simmonds approached him.
"Why didn't you tell me?" Simmonds asked.
"I'm sorry," Smid said. "I felt ashamed for that city or for us Czech people. That's not what we are about."
"You should have told me."
"Yeah. Sorry, man."
Simmonds’ third response: He kept quiet about the incident, and he scored two goals in Liberec's next game, a 3-2 victory.
"I think," Stewart said, "that's the best way to silence ignorance."
* * * * *
There is a delicate line with incidents like these.
You don't want to talk too much about them, because you don't want give the idiots an audience. Why dignify them with a response? Why encourage them? This is the 21st century. Simmonds really doesn't want to discuss this.
At the same time, you don't want to make too little of them, because you don't want to shrug off the fact that this garbage still goes on, wherever it goes on. You want to hold the idiots accountable. This is the 21st century. Chomutov wrote a letter of apology to Simmonds. The league fined Chomutov about $1,500. So far, five fans have been identified and banned from the rink for life.
As Simmonds and Stewart spoke Friday in the team lounge, a Czech sports newspaper sat on the table in front of them. It had a picture of Simmonds, the offensive word in the headline and a list of the banned fans' names.
There is an added dimension here. The NHL lockout has brought more North Americans to European leagues – and more attention. North Americans have fears about what they will encounter; Europeans have fears about how they will be perceived.
Simmonds and Stewart did not come to Europe blindly. Stewart's brother, Anthony, once heard the N-word while playing for Team Canada at a tournament in Slovakia. Simmonds said he didn't expect something like that to happen to him, but he wasn't shocked, either.
[Also: Why it's OK the NHL canceled 2013 Winter Classic]
"Obviously being black athletes – Wayne obviously full, and me only half – you're going to have to expect it," Stewart said. "You know there's going to be ignorant people."
But they also have the perspective to know that there are ignorant people in lots of places, and while those people represent a persistent problem, they don’t necessarily represent those places. Did that jerk in London represent London, or Ontario, or Canada?
"I've been through stuff like that," Simmonds said. "I just let stuff like that roll off my back. I'm at a point now where I don't really care. It is what it is. It's not a reflection of the whole Czech community. It's just a group of ignorant people."
"Just followers," Stewart said.
"Exactly," Simmonds said. "I've enjoyed myself since I've been in Europe, and I intend to keep enjoying myself, and that's definitely not going to keep me down. I can tell you that."
* * * * *
That's the larger story here – that despite what happened, despite the damn NHL lockout, two close friends are finally getting the chance to play together and have had some unique life experiences along the way.
Simmonds and Stewart have known each other since they were teenagers. Both grew up in Scarborough. Both played for the Junior Canadiens in midget, though Simmonds, now 24, was one year behind Stewart, 25. They played shinny together growing up, and they trained together and lived together in the off-seasons coming up in the NHL.
When the lockout began in September, their leases were expiring on their places in downtown Toronto. Simmonds wasn't heading to Philly. Stewart wasn't heading to the St. Louis Blues. They didn't want to just practice; they wanted to play. So they looked for a place they could play together. They could lean on each other in a foreign land, league and locker room.
They ended up in Crimmitschau, Germany, a town of only 20,000 people with a team in the German league's second division. They signed one-month contracts, hoping to find a higher level of competition later. They made no money. Though the team covered hotel rooms, hotel meals and cars, their salaries covered only the insurance on their NHL contracts.
Off the ice, it was quiet. Everything closed at 8 p.m. and stayed closed on the weekends, so they bought a TV and an Xbox to entertain themselves. On the ice, it was an adjustment. The NHL is so structured that Simmonds said "it's almost like you're programmed a certain way." This league was so unstructured that Simmonds didn't know where to be. He'd go to check his point man, and all five guys would be down low.
"I had to completely change my game," Simmonds said. "You can't do that, or else you're not going to be a good player in European hockey. You've kind of got to go with the flow of things."
But some of those things, they'll never forget. One end of their home arena was open to the air. You could see the woods. It could be cold. "If it was warm outside, you'd have the fog roll in," Simmonds said. It was packed with about 6,000 fans, who would go nuts and throw things on the ice, like cups and a chicken.
[Nick Cotsonika: Evgeni Malkin having time of his life at home in Russia]
Yes, a chicken. Ready to cook.
"A [bleeping] chicken?" Stewart said with a laugh. "I was like, 'Whoa. Don't piss these fans off, man. They're throwing a chicken on the ice in Crimmitschau, they're no joke.' "
One game, Stewart scored two goals, and Simmonds assisted on both. In the NHL, they announce the three stars, and the guys take a little twirl, raise their sticks and disappear. In Crimmitschau, the fans would chant the players' names. The players would come out and dance.
Yes, dance. On the ice.
"They called him out first," Simmonds said. "The whole team is in a semicircle. He goes and does a dance, and then I had to go do a dance in front of the fans."
"Then literally you skate around the ice," Stewart said. "It's like a Stanley Cup party. I'm like, 'Is this every game?' "
That is the stuff Simmonds will remember most.
"The fan situation in Germany," he said, "that was probably the best part I think of my trip so far."
* * * * *
After their one-month contracts ran out in Crimmitschau, Simmonds and Stewart signed in Liberec, a city of about 100,000 people in the north of the Czech Republic. They are making a little money, and now they have an apartment instead of hotel rooms, while still receiving hotel meals and cars. The arena is new and modern, with first-class amenities, like a top-notch North American junior facility.
[Related: Alex Ovechkin's star power trumps KHL game]
It has been another adjustment on the ice. Their first game was against Sparta on the larger European sheet in Prague, and Simmonds said: "It was a disaster. The ice is, like, twice as big as normal ice. It was just like – boom. Circle. Circle. Circle. Circle. I was like, 'Get me out of here.' "
But while the Czech league is less physical than the NHL, it's more physical than, say, the Kontinental Hockey League. And while the ice sheets are larger, the one in Liberec's home arena happens to be the smallest in the Czech Republic – and it has a large neutral zone and small end zones.
That creates a North American type of game – "perfect," Liberec coach Marian Jelinek said, for Simmonds and Stewart. Simmonds is a net-front presence. Stewart is strong along the wall.
"You can see the defense on the other team has big trouble handling them," Smid said. "That's their game. Last game, Wayne scored two goals in front of the net, and Chris was really strong on the puck. They were cycling very well. They are huge help for us."
[More: Paul Maurice goes from veteran NHL coach to raw Russian rookie]
Smid said he felt awful about what happened in Chomutov. Jelinek said that though it had happened before in soccer in the Czech Republic, it had never happened in hockey. He said Chomutov's letter of apology was "very important" and he hopes it never happens again.
"It's over with now," he said. "I'm just here to play hockey. It's behind me now."
"In a year from now, when he thinks back on this experience, I doubt he'll even remember," Stewart said. "He'll remember it, but I don't think it's going to be the focal point. I don't think you can let it bother you. If you did, I think you let … you let …"
Simmonds and Stewart finished the sentence together.
"Then they'd win."
- Sports & Recreation
- Ice Hockey
- Czech Republic