by Zack Fisch | AHL On The Beat
New Hershey forward Wayne Simpson will have to forgive Bears fans if they’re still slightly bitter.
After all, it was just five months ago that, as a member of the Providence Bruins, Simpson scored three times versus the Bears in the Atlantic Division semifinals, sending the Bears — and the Giant Center faithful — home unhappy as the season came to a close.
It might take a few games, but Bears fans will certainly warm up to Simpson, a Boxford, Massachusetts, native who is one of the intriguing new facets of Hershey’s lineup in the club’s 80th anniversary season.
Coming off a career-best 49-point season with Providence, Simpson figures to be a key cog in Hershey’s offensive game plan in 2017-18.
Over the past few seasons, Hershey head coach Troy Mann has seen plenty of Simpson during his tenures in Portland and Providence. It was the 2016-17 campaign, and the lengthy playoff series that followed, that solidified Mann’s interest in adding the winger into the fold. Over the summer, Mann and his staff submitted a list of players they were interested in to members of the Washington Capitals hockey operations department. It was no surprise: Simpson was one the list’s headliners.
“From a coaching side of things, Wayne Simpson was one of the top guys we were interested in,” said Mann. “When you play a team six times, then seven times in the playoffs, that’s 13 opportunities to see him play. He was highly recommend from our end. I think he is going to be a great fit for us. We’re expecting big things from him.”
While Mann has seen Simpson play plenty of times, it doesn’t yet compare to the relationship that Ryan Warsofsky, the head coach of Hershey’s ECHL affiliate in South Carolina, has with the 27-year-old Union College product.
“I’ve known Wayne since we played against each other in high school, and then I had the chance to be his assistant coach in South Carolina,” said Warsofsky. “As a player, he’s extremely smart and uses his body very well. He plays the game with pace and speed, and has deceptiveness in his speed and shot.”
Warsofsky, a fellow Boston area product and brother of AHL All-Star defender David Warsofsky, recruited Simpson to join the Stingrays on an ECHL deal for the 2013-14 season. The move paid off for South Carolina, as Simpson finished second on the team in goals (22) and points (41) as a rookie.
“Wayne had a pretty good rookie season for us in South Carolina and worked really hard in the summer heading into year two with us,” said Warsofsky. “However, he got off to a really slow start in 2014-15. As coaches, we were surprised, and wondered how he’d overcome it and put it all together. In the second half, he caught fire, and just kept getting better. In the playoffs, he set records and led us to the finals. I’ve always said, even back when he was a rookie, that Wayne was a guy that I thought would be in the NHL some day, but that stretch of hockey made it clear.”
Simpson finished the regular season with 55 points, just one shy of South Carolina’s team lead. He tied for first on the club with 39 helpers, and even earned his first AHL call-up with Providence in January. However, it was in the ECHL playoffs where Simpson caught the eyes of the hockey world. In 27 postseason games, Simpson struck for 38 points including 13 goals. Despite a heartbreaking loss to Allen in Game 7 of the Kelly Cup Finals, Simpson’s 38 points stands as an league record for a single postseason, and the performance earned him a chance to move up to the AHL full-time with Portland in 2015-16.
Despite his ECHL success and a 35-point effort with Portland two years ago, Simpson entered 2016-17 without a contract. The Providence Bruins took a chance, signing him to a professional tryout. He stuck, and went on to lead the P-Bruins to the Eastern Conference Finals. A summer later, Simpson’s persistence paid off and he signed his first NHL deal, inking a one-year, two-way contract with the Washington Capitals on July 11.
“To sign that NHL contract means a lot,” said Simpson. “The Capitals and Bears showed a lot of interest. I had contact with Troy Mann, and he told me the style of play in Hershey and Washington would be good for my game. Playing in Hershey on the road and seeing the atmosphere, I think it was the right fit. I already feel at home.”
For the Bears, they’ll rely on Simpson to help boost an offense that has some question marks. Gone from last year are 20-plus goal scorers Paul Carey, Christian Thomas, and Stanislav Galiev. Hershey is hoping Simpson, who scored 14 points in 17 playoff contests with Providence last year, picks up right where he left off.
“The way Hershey and Washington play is fast and aggressive up the ice,” said Warsofsky. “Wayne is responsible in his own zone, but the more time he’s in the offensive zone, the more dangerous he is. I think Hershey and Washington’s style suits his game perfectly, and he’s going to be playing with some really good players and prospects that will help him. To top it off, he’s humble and comes in and works his tail off every day. He’s been like that since day one. That’s just him. He’s a guy you want on your team.”
While the memories may not have yet faded, and it might take some time, Bears fans are ready to embrace Simpson as one of their own. After all, he’s not the first player, and certainly won’t be the last, to break fans hearts before sporting the Chocolate and White.
As for his new teammates, they’re warming up to Simpson too, despite a little playful razzing about what transpired last postseason.
“It wasn’t just me who knocked Hershey out, it was a team effort,” said Simpson, showing his humbleness. “The guys and I talked about the playoffs and joked about that a bit, but they’ve had a lot of success over the years here too. I think we’re going to have a good team here this year, and I’m excited to make a run in Hershey this time around.”