When Zayde Wisdom was born at home in 2002, there was panic in his family’s Toronto residence. The umbilical cord was wrapped around the neck of the recent Flyers draft selection, and the midwife was having a difficult time getting him to breathe. The baby had turned blue because of a lack of oxygen.
In the middle of all this drama, the baby’s grandmother called 911 and ordered an ambulance.
A short time later, the midwife was able to get Zayde (rhymes with paid) to breathe, and his color became normal. The ambulance workers arrived at the house but weren’t needed. Tears of joy filled the room.
“After everything settled down, the midwife said, ‘He is just destined for greatness,’” recalled Mairri McConnell, Zayde’s mother. “She said that in some countries, the cord wrapped around the neck is good luck. But when it happened, and he was struggling to breathe, it was horrifying.”
She added: “He just kept fighting.”
Wisdom, 18, a power forward who refuses to get outworked, has been fighting ever since.
Fighting to overcome obstacles like growing up in poverty – sometimes, his mother didn’t have enough money to put gas in the car to take Zayde to hockey practice – and not knowing his father for most of his childhood.
Fighting to become the best hockey player he can be, developing into a promising right winger, and becoming the Flyers’ fourth-round pick in the NHL draft last month.
Fighting to reach the NHL as a tribute to his mother, who at times worked three jobs simultaneously so her two sons could afford hockey equipment and ice time.
Growing up in western Toronto with his mother, grandmother, and his younger brother, Zacch, there were days when Wisdom and his family didn’t have electricity because they couldn’t pay the bill. At the time, Wisdom’s mother told him the power was out in the entire neighborhood because she didn’t want Zayde feeling bad about their predicament.
Years later, when Wisdom was 13 or 14 and his mother told him the truth, “it was a life-changing moment for me,” he said in a phone interview last week. “That’s when I really started to understand the pain and struggle that my family went through when I was younger. It just opened my eyes to how much my mom actually struggled.”
As a youngster, Wisdom worried about his next meal, worried if there was enough gas in the car to get to a hockey practice. His mother worked several low-paying jobs simultaneously – attending her sons’ games whenever she had a break – as she tried to keep the family afloat.
One of her jobs was driving a tow truck late at night and in the wee hours of the morning.
“I remember her waking me and my brother up super early, around 3:30 or 4 in the morning, and putting on my school uniform hopping into the truck and going back to sleep while my mom worked until 7:30 or 8ish, and then she’d drop us off at school and go back to work,” Wisdom said. “She definitely made crazy sacrifices. … Watching her made me realize how lucky I was to have her.”
At other times, when his mother had an assignment late at night – for a while, she worked on a movie set in Toronto and had to tow away firetrucks and police cars or whatever vehicles were part of the scene – McConnell would put her boys in their pajamas and let them sleep in the backseat, oblivious to movie stars like Bruce Willis, Mary-Louise Parker, Morgan Freeman, and Helen Mirren as they worked in front of them.
Still, there were lots of times they struggled to pay for groceries for dinner.
“I kind of used it as motivation, and still do,” Wisdom said of the difficult childhood he and Zacch, 16, who is also a budding hockey player, had to endure. “It gives me an extra boost that most kids don’t experience. I had to grow up a lot younger than most kids my age. I had to take care of my little brother. I had to make sure my mom was OK, even though she was making sure we were always OK. It was definitely an experience that made me grow up a lot faster and gave me maturity that helped me out a ton.”
The hardship, Wisdom said, made him push harder in hockey, made him transfer his maturity onto the ice.
“I go extra hard in the corners and work for every puck battle. I work for my positioning in front of the net. I work for everything, just like I have in my normal life,” he said. “I definitely transferred a bunch of my life skills into my hockey skills, for sure.”
His mother, he said, is also his motivation to reach the NHL.
Wisdom said he watched his mother, now 47, “cry way too much for me not to be great.”
Brent Flahr, a Flyers assistant general manager and the organization’s draft guru, selected Wisdom because of his talent, work ethic, and the “heavy game” he plays. Flahr was well aware of Wisdom’s upbringing and said the winger’s makeup also made him an attractive choice.
“It’s a testament to his character and drive for what his family had to go through and he had to go through to grow up and be able to play,” Flahr said. “I think he’s extremely driven to be a player and hopefully make a living in this game. He plays with an edge. You never go to a game and say, ‘Jeez, he didn’t give an effort.’ He comes to play.”
Wisdom’s mother said there were times she didn’t pay some house bills because her kids needed a hockey stick or skates.
But she downplayed her struggles and worked several jobs, which sometimes caused her to sleep in the car after dropping her boys off to practice and waiting for them to finish during her hectic days.
“You do what you have to do,” she said.
Now a merchandiser for three Toronto companies, McConnell said “it was tough but worth it” in regard to helping her boys. “Even then, just knowing the boys were in a good space. They were busy. They were doing well. They were engaged. So it never really seemed hard for me but just something that was always done,” said McConnell, adding she got lots of help from her mother, Kitty, who cooked and shuttled the boys to numerous hockey practices.
Wisdom plays with unbridled passion and relentlessness. If there’s a pursuit for a loose puck, more times than not it’s Wisdom who comes out with it on his stick.
He finishes checks, plays without fear, and owns a powerful shot that some scouts think is NHL-ready.
“He’s not a big guy in height, but he’s big in stature, and he’s all business,” his mother said. “I think that [hockey] keeps him focused. But when he laughs, he has this awesome belly-laugh, and you know it’s real.”
She said her two sons’ names begin with “Z” because “I had heard the further along in the alphabet the name, the stronger the personality. So I thought why not go to the end.”
Getting drafted by the Flyers on Oct. 7 “still feels surreal,” said the 5-foot-10½, 195-pound Wisdom, who at the time received a congratulatory text from Flyers captain Claude Giroux. “I can’t shake the feeling out. I wake up happy every morning.”
The Flyers had considered drafting Wisdom in the second round but instead opted for defenseman Emil Andrae. They did not have a third-round pick, and they traded their 116th and 147th overall picks to Tampa Bay to move up in the draft and nab Wisdom with the first selection in the fourth round (No. 94 overall).
“It’s still an unbelievable feeling,” Wisdom said. “You get butterflies in your stomach. It’s something you work your whole life for, and finally it comes true. And it’s such a good organization to go to.”
“Flyers nation is going to have a new fan favorite!!!!!!!” former Flyer Wayne Simmonds tweeted after Wisdom was drafted.
Wisdom has heard lots of good things about the Flyers, the city, and the fans from Simmonds, who played for the team from 2011-12 to 2018-19. Simmonds, a Toronto-area native who is now on the Maple Leafs, has been a friend and mentor to Wisdom for many years.
Simmonds was the ultimate power forward in his eight seasons with the Flyers. That’s a role Wisdom would like to have in the future.
“Wayner’s been an older brother to me like forever,” Wisdom said. “I’ve known Wayner since I was like 10 years old and going to his first ball-hockey tournaments back in Scarborough. I consider Wayner an older brother to me, someone I can call at any time, and not just about hockey but about life. If I’m having girl problems, he would answer the phone and help me through them.”
Trainer Derrell Levy and Duncan Dalmao, now an assistant with the Brampton Beast in the ECHL, are others who have served as mentors to Wisdom. Dalmao was his first triple-A coach, and McConnell calls him the “unsung hero” who instilled great life values in her son and helped his on-ice development. “He was always there for both my boys,” she said.
Wisdom is eager to start playing his third season with Kingston in the Ontario Hockey League. Because of the pandemic, the season, which usually starts in late September, isn’t scheduled to begin until Feb. 4.
So Wisdom, who is coming off a breakthrough season in Kingston (29 goals, 59 points in 62 games), is in the weight room Monday through Friday, and skating three times a week. The league has said it won’t allow checking this season because of coronavirus concerns.
That would take away a big part of Wisdom’s game because he is known for his physical play.
If checking isn’t allowed, Wisdom said, it would be a difficult adjustment. “If there’s no hitting, what’s the point of playing hockey?” he said.
That said, he will adapt.
“I’ll just have to bring out more of the skill part of my game than the physical part to help my team out,” he said. “Even though it’s just a 40-game season [shortened from 68], hopefully this will be the first time since I’ve played there where we have a team good enough to make the playoffs, and hopefully go far with it. It’s something I can take away from the season.”
Wisdom has been working out with his trainer, Levy, for as long as he can remember.
“I’ve known him since I was 4,” Wisdom said.
Like Simmonds, Wisdom considers Levy an older-brother figure. Like Wisdom, Levy had a rough childhood. He grew up in a rundown Toronto neighborhood known as the Jungle. So the two can relate.
“He understood where my mom was coming from when she went to him looking for help for me,” Wisdom said. “He motivates me to work harder.”
Wisdom is putting in countless hours trying to improve his speed.
“I definitely have to get faster because as you move up each level, it always gets that much faster,” he said. “I just have to keep working on my skating and also my strengths – getting into the corner and using my body to get positioning on players and working the net, kind of like Wayner, a guy who can do it all.”
When the OHL season starts, Wisdom will be on a high-profile line, the Kingston Trio, with center Shane Wright and winger Martin Chromiak, who was drafted by Los Angeles in the fifth round last month. Wright is considered to be one of the top prospects for the 2022 draft, and some experts project he will be the No. 1 overall pick.
The line excelled last year and should be better this season as the players mature.
Wisdom had high praise for Wright.
“He’s just insanely good at everything,” said Wisdom, whose style of play opens space and gives Wright lots of skating room. “It’s not just his hands that stand out. It’s his hands, skating, shot, [hockey] IQ. I don’t think there are many players in the world smarter than that kid. Having somebody like that obviously helps a huge amount. He makes few mistakes, and he can always find you on the ice. If I’m open, he’ll find me.”
Wisdom’s life has never been better. Besides now having a clear (but long) path to the NHL, his family situation has improved dramatically in recent years. His father, Anief Wisdom, who parted from the family when Zayde was 5 but re-entered his life four-plus years ago, now talks with Zayde about once a week. And his parents have become good friends.
“I didn’t know my dad, and I didn’t want that for my boys,” McConnell said. “Although it was a difficult decision to separate, I hoped it would eventually sort itself out, and it did.”
On Oct. 12, five days after he was drafted, Wisdom signed a three-year, entry-level deal with the Flyers, and he recently received a $92,500 check for his signing bonus. He plans to buy his mother and grandmother gifts. More could come down the road if he becomes a Flyer and starts earning a big salary.
No longer will he and his family be worried about their next meal. No longer will the electricity be turned off. No longer will they have to worry about having enough money to put gas in their car.
“I’m going to get them both something very nice,” Wisdom said, “and, hopefully, it’s not the last [of the gifts].”
His dream, he said, is to buy them a house when he reaches the NHL.
“That’s the plan, for sure,” he said.