Less than two weeks ago, I sat with Wayne Simmonds and Chris Stewart at the rink in Liberec, Czech Republic. We talked about the racist taunts directed at Simmonds. We talked about what it was like to play in Europe – not only as a North American, but as a black North American. We talked about how one incident and a few idiots would not ruin everything.
"I've enjoyed myself since I've been in Europe, and I intend to keep enjoying myself," Simmonds said then. "And that's definitely not going to keep me down. I can tell you that."
Now Simmonds and Stewart have left Liberec, at the same time eight fans have been "charged with misdemeanor disorderly conduct and defamation of nation, race and other ethnic groups," according to idnes.cz.
Simmonds has returned to the Toronto area. Stewart has returned to Crimmitschau, Germany, where both of them played and had fun before joining Liberec. The team was surprised and is upset, especially with Stewart.
The racist incident was part of it, but once again, only part of it. Simmonds had a legitimate family issue at home and hasn't ruled out returning to Liberec. Stewart had concerns about his role and how it would prepare him for the NHL. Liberec was struggling and changing coaches.
The whole story illustrates another negative of the NHL lockout: Players end up in places they don't know. European teams sign players they don't know – while not knowing their level of commitment and how long they will stick around. It doesn't always work out for either side.
"Liberec was a first-class organization," said Eustace King, the agent for Simmonds and Stewart. "But we believe we just caught them at an awkward time. They were going through a coaching change, there was an incident on the ice, and then when we took in all these factors, it was in the best interest for the players to leave."
[Related: Eight fans face jail for racist chant directed at Wayne Simmonds]
I could not reach Simmonds or Stewart for this column. But I can tell you what I heard and saw when I was in Liberec.
Simmonds actually seemed less concerned about the incident itself than with the context. He had experienced racism at the rink before. It had happened a little more than a year ago, when someone threw a banana on the ice as the Philadelphia Flyers played an exhibition game in London, Ont., about 2-1/2 hours from where he grew up in Scarborough. But this was different.
When those fans in Chomutov chanted "monkey," all Simmonds heard was "opice." He does not speak Czech, so he didn't know what the word meant. That was bad enough, but what's worse, no one told him about it during the game or even after the game. He learned about it on the Internet. He said when the Chomutov club wrote him a letter of apology, he learned about that on the Internet, too.
The Czechs were embarrassed. Let's give them the benefit of the doubt and say they had the absolute best intentions. As defenseman Ladislav Smid said then, they didn't want to make Simmonds feel uncomfortable. But their silence might have made him feel more uncomfortable. Simmonds later told Smid he should have told him.
Think about it. If you didn't speak the language, didn't know when people were mocking your race and didn't learn about it from the people who were supposed to have your back, how would you feel?
"We're in the eastern bloc of Europe," Simmonds told me then. "Obviously there's not a lot of black people floating around here."
And if you're Simmonds, no matter what you say, wouldn't you just be sick and tired of this by now?
Then there is the hockey. Right after I filed my piece on Simmonds and Stewart that day, I watched Liberec play Plzen – and lose, 8-1. The team looked awful. The coach resigned after the game.
When Simmonds and Stewart left Crimmitschau, the thought was that they would be playing at a higher level, at a top-notch facility and in a place that suited their physical styles. Liberec has a new, modern arena. It is also the smallest rink in the Czech Republic, which should encourage a more North American game.
[Nick Cotsonika: Simmonds rises above racist incident in Czech League game]
But in came a new coach, and a meeting with Stewart, and a communication breakdown – perhaps partly because of the language barrier. The coach said one thing; Stewart felt his message wasn't getting through. Stewart wants to be an offensive force whenever he plays for the St. Louis Blues again, not just a physical force. While Simmonds had four goals and six points in six games for Liberec, Stewart had only one assist in five games. He wasn't recapturing his form.
Simmonds and Stewart are longtime friends, and they came to Europe together for a reason. "The race factor I don't think had any drive in that," Simmonds said Nov. 2. "It was just that we weren't going to be used to our surroundings, and obviously we weren't going to know the language. … I think that was a big driving factor in us coming over together, just to keep each other company and be comfortable."
Well, now Simmonds had a family issue on top of everything else, and he decided to go home. With his buddy leaving on top of everything else, Stewart decided to go back to Crimmitschau, where he felt more comfortable and he could also play with another locked-out NHLer – Clarke MacArthur.
In a translated statement on the Liberec team website, general manager Ctibor Jech called Simmonds' and Stewart's actions "very substandard." He said there was "no negotiation or consultation," just a phone call from King. Though Simmonds still has a contract with Liberec and has left open the possibility of returning, he said that "does not seem too likely."
Liberec feels the NHLers did not show respect, that they never would have done this to a North American club, that this was unfair. Maybe that is true. But so, unfortunately, is this: When you try something new, sometimes there are great adventures. Other times, there are unhappy endings.