LONDON, Ontario - Often as the only black player on his team, growing up in Scarborough, Ontario, Flyers forward Wayne Simmonds dealt with his fair share of racial slurs on the ice as he climbed the hockey ladder.
Few experiences could have prepared him for what happened on Thursday night, as a fan in the John Labatt Centre threw a banana peel at Simmonds as he skated in alone on a shootout attempt during a 4-3 loss to the Detroit Red Wings.
"I caught it from the side of my eye," Simmonds said. "It was a banana. Hopefully, that wasn't directed towards me being black.
"Because if it was, that's just somebody being ignorant."
The banana peel, thrown from the upper deck, landed directly in Simmonds path toward Red Wings goalie Jordan Pearce during the shootout.
After the game, some of Simmonds' teammates quietly whispered inside the locker room, shaking their heads in disgust.
"I would have went and kicked that fan's ass myself," one teammate said, asking to remain nameless. "That's just not right."
After the banana was tossed onto the ice at the 9,000-seat Comcast-Spectacor-managed building, an announcement was made to have fans refrain from throwing things. The spectator who threw the banana was not caught, with the incident happening so late in the game.
"Unfortunately, we weren't able to identify the individual," Comcast-Spectacor president and COO Peter Luukko said in a statement. "We certainly don't condone such a foolish act [like this] as a player could potentially be seriously injured. This is ninth time we have played here in London and the fans have always been wonderful to us. The Flyers consider this our 'home away from home' and that's because this city, the fans and this spectacular arena have been so supportive of the Philadelphia Flyers." Comcast-Spectacor did not acknowledge that the action was racially motivated.
On Friday, Commissioner Gary Bettman released the following statement: "We have millions of great fans who show tremendous respect for our players and for the game. The obviously stupid and ignorant action by one individual is in no way representative of our fans or the people of London, Ontario."
According to a fan on Twitter at the game, it was not the only time Simmonds was targeted with a banana peel during the game. Another peel was thrown, presumably by the same person, when Simmonds scored with 52 seconds remaining in the third period to tie the game but the toss did not clear the boards to make it onto the ice.
Sadly, Simmonds said he has come to expect things like that - even in 2011.
"When you're a black man playing in a predominantly white man's sport, you've got to come to expect things like that," Simmonds said. "Over the past 23 years of my life, I've come to expect some things like that. But I'm older and more mature now, I kind of just left things roll off [my back]. I try not to think about stuff like that."
It's also not new for the sport of hockey. In 2002, Carolina Hurricanes goaltender Kevin Weekes, also black, had a banana thrown at him in Montreal during a playoff series. Former Florida Panthers forward Peter Worrell had also experienced the same racial threats.
Weekes, now a commentator for CBC's Hockey Night in Canada and the NHL Network, responded via Twitter.
"For those that asked: I'm extremely disappointed with what happened to Wayne Simmonds tonight in London, Ont.," Weekes (@KevinWeekes) said. "We've taken huge steps to grow the game ... There's no place for this in sports, since sport connects us, not divides us. Much love to all of the true and classy NHL fans."
Ironically, Weekes tweeted that from Washington, D.C., where he was with Willie O'Ree, the first hockey player to break the NHL color barrier in 1958, as hockey's first-ever delegates at this week's Black Congressional Caucus.
Weekes was far from the only one to lash out after Simmonds' incident. Players and fans from around the league chimed in through social media with universal support. The phrase "Wayne Simmonds" was trending worldwide on Twitter shortly before 1 o'clock in the morning.
"Wayne Simmonds is a good friend of mine," Sharks forward Logan Couture (@LoganCouture) tweeted. "To hear what happened to him in my hometown is awful. No need for this in sports or life."
"Wayne Simmonds dealt with some awful stuff tonight in London," Coyotes forward Paul Bissonnette (@BizNasty2Point0), the game's most popular player on Twitter with 135,000-plus followers, tweeted.
And two of Simmonds' closest friends from his hometown in Scarborough, brothers Anthony and Chris Stewart reached out.
"Didn't know London, Ont. was a stop on the Mario Kart tour," the Hurricanes' Anthony Stewart (@EhStew13) wrote.
"The incident that happened in London tonight involving my best friend Wayne Simmonds was simply disgusting," said the Blues' Chris Stewart (@CStewSTL25), who lives with Simmonds in the summers, wrote. "It's 2011, ppl [sic] need to grow up."
But the support for Simmonds wasn't just emotional. Prominent NHL agent Scott Norton immediately offered to donate $500 as a reward leading to the perpetrator. Fans on Twitter have responded to Norton to chip in with their own money, pushing the reward well over $1,000 as of 1 o'clock in the morning on Friday.
It remains unclear as to whether criminal charges could possibly be filed, if the guilty party indeed is sought out.
If anything, Thursday's incident was a sobering reminder that sports are not immune to the same racial struggles that still happen on a daily basis.
"It goes to show you have far we have not come," Simmonds' agent, Eustace King, said in a text message to the Daily News. "It's unreal. Just because we are playing sports does not mean the issues of our society are invisible."
King, a former NHL executive, is a former black hockey player himself at Miami (Ohio) University and represents a large majority of the game's black players.
For the record, Simmonds scored on the attempt, without even as much as a hiccup - a potent message that no form of discrimination will keep him down.
"You can't stop playing just because something is being thrown at you," Simmonds said. "Besides, my initial reaction was that I would get to shoot again if I didn't score. I didn't even need that."