Zayde Wisdom is Already Showing why he’s Going to be a Fan Favorite For the Flyers

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If the sports world were normal, and we hadn’t spent the last 12 months in the Upside Down of Stranger Things, Zayde Wisdom would be playing hockey for the Kingston Frontenacs of the Ontario Hockey League.

He’d probably be about 45 games into their season, and the Philadelphia Flyers would have their player development guys checking in on him from time-to-time, but for the most part, the 18-year-old, fourth-round draft pick would be living the Junior Hockey life – playing games with teenagers, living with a billet family, and working on his game with the hopes of making it to the professional ranks in a couple years.

But, as you know, this isn’t a normal sports world. And right now, there is no hockey being played in Kingston, or anywhere else in the Ontario Hockey League, as the province has refused to ease health restrictions to allow junior hockey to resume.

There is some belief, finally, that the OHL will be able to put together a severely shortened season, starting some time next month, and that should make the fans of the OHL and most of it’s players happy.

Just don’t count Wisdom among them.

“I wouldn’t say that it would suck if it started back up at this point, but I definitely wouldn’t be that sad if it didn’t,” Wisdom told me.

That’s because he’s doing what no 18-year-old, fourth-round pick has ever done – and that’s take his AHL team by storm.

Because of the pandemic and the shut down of junior hockey across Canada, NHL teams were allowed to assign their junior prospects to their AHL affiliates until the junior leagues got under way.

The NHL and the CHL – which comprises the three major junior leagues in Canada, the OHL, The QMJHL and the WHL – has a transfer agreement that requires all junior players play in junior hockey until they turn 20-years-old, unless the NHL team wants to carry that player on their NHL roster.

That means there are hardly ever 18-year-olds playing in the AHL, unless their junior season has completed and they’re getting in a handful of games at the end of the season on an amateur tryout contract.

But this year has been unlike every other year. And players like Wisdom have been able to take advantage of the opportunity to start their professional career a little sooner than expected.

As such, a fourth round pick usually needs time to develop before they turn pro. Then, once they are pro, it often takes a couple seasons at least in the AHL before they are even considered for the NHL.

So, a player like Wisdom would get drafted, spend the next two seasons in juniors and then probably two or three years in the AHL before the NHL team considers them for a role with the big club.

Not Wisdom. Nope. He’s the type of kid who sees an opportunity, and he takes it:

The Phantoms’ season has been uneven so far. Lots of games have been postponed for varying reasons. They had to postpone a game when the Flyers had their COVID-19 outbreak because the Phantoms didn’t have enough players to field a team.

Now, the last few Phantoms games have been postponed because of COVID-19 issues either with their opponent or with themselves.

The Phantoms have played just 12 games thus far.

Yet, it’s still pretty remarkable to look at the top of their scoring list and seeing a kid who isn’t even supposed to be on the roster, leading the team.

Wisdom has six goals and four assists for 10 points, best on the Phantoms in both goals and points. Two of his goals have come on the power play, also best on the team:

This is the youngest player in franchise history doing this. And pending another pandemic or a collapse of the long-standing transfer agreement between the NHL and CHL, he’ll always be the youngest Phantom to ever play.

“The first few weeks were tough and scary,” Wisdom said. “But as the days and weeks went by, it’s been nothing but a great time.”

And his fast start has garnered a lot of attention from fans and media alike. After all, the fact that he’s even playing hockey is such an amazing story.

Wisdom was from a low-income neighborhood in Toronto. His family struggled so much financially growing up that they had their power turned off for an inability to pay the electric bill. His mom would tell him it was out in the whole neighborhood so he wouldn’t feel bad about her working three jobs just so he and his younger brother Zacch could play hockey. Heck, there were times she couldn’t even afford to put gas in the car to drive him to practice.

It was tough for Wisdom, but he’s always been a fighter. He was born inside his family’s home and that was a harrowing experience as the umbilical cord was wrapped around his neck.

But he fought, even as an infant, for an opportunity, and when he got it – in that case, the chance to breathe – he hasn’t stopped.

It’s the same way he approaches playing hockey, and although no one should be surprised by the way he plays, or anything he does, he’s even caught some important folks by surprise.

“Yes, for sure,” Phantoms coach and former Flyers interim coach Scott Gordon told me. “We have 20-year-olds who come in as a first-year pro who struggle. Not that everything is seamless for Zayde, but his strength is ahead of a lot of 20-year-olds, his ability to battle and compete is ahead of a lot of 20-year-olds, he’s got a great shot, he has a decent level of skill. The hardest part for him was playing the game with more movement and not standing around. It took him about two weeks to get that out of his system and he’s finding the game easier to play now because he is moving his feet and the game is quicker for him.”

Wisdom agreed with Gordon’s assessment. He said there were a lot of little things that you can get away with at the junior level that you can’t get away with in the AHL. He talked about the skating, but also mentioned having your stick on the ice in preparation of receiving a pass, or looking to pass the puck sooner or shoot sooner, and finding lanes to do both.

But he also admitted that his biggest adjustment in the early weeks of his pro career came off the ice and not on it.

After all, he was being asked to live on his own for the first time in his life. Not only that, he had no idea how long this was going to go on.  The Flyers didn’t tell him he was going to be part of training camp until the day after Christmas. He had to pack his bags and fly to Philly that night.

He didn’t know if it was going to be just for two weeks of camp and then go back to the AHL, or what. Instead, he ended up in the AHL and although the QMJHL and the WHL have returned to play, he doesn’t want to go back to the OHL. At least not yet.

“It would be great to see my junior buddies again, maybe have some fun, continue to get better and get ready to come back up here,” he said. “But I definitely don’t want to leave here. It’s a great time here. I’m having nothing but fun.”

Wisdom chalks that up to great leadership by Phantoms veterans like Cal O’Reilly and Garrett Wilson. Specifically O’Reilly, who has taken Wisdom under his wing off ice as much as on it.

“Cal lives in the same building as me so we’re always close together.,” he said. “He’s always making sure I’m part of the group, playing cards with me, there’s a lot of card games at the pro level I have no clue how to play, so he’s always teaching me.

“Just little things like that, making me feel comfortable, not just on the ice, but off the ice as well, has been a massive help. It’s allowed me to just play hockey. You can’t live uncomfortably and play hockey comfortably, so they’ve been great guys in all aspects.”

And he’s flourished. He’s still got things to learn, parts of his game that need improving, and he’s not likely to see the light of day on a Flyers roster until at least the 2022-23 season, if not a little later.

But it could turn out that the Flyers got a real steal in the draft, selecting him as late as they did.

Former Flyer Wayne Simmonds has served as a bit of a mentor for Wisdom and has been saying all along that he will not only make it as a pro, but that he will be beloved by the fan base because of the way he plays.

I asked him if anyone from the Flyers brass has reached out to let him know how well he’s playing at a level no one expected him to be for at least two more years.

“They keep that stuff top secret,” Wisdom said. “I have no clue what they think of me, but hopefully it’s good thoughts.”

Don’t worry Zayde, it is.

“We’re very happy with his performance so far,” Flyers assistant general manager Brent Flahr told me. “Obviously you never know what you are going to get from an 18-year-old kid playing in the American League. Historically, I’ve been pretty hesitant about putting young players in the AHL because of the difference in age, size and physical maturity, but that’s the one thing that’s different with him. He’s a really strong kid. He’s built like a tank and his skill set is good and that has a lot of us excited. It’s what’s allowed him to transition as quickly as he has. He’s a confident kid that got off to a good start and has kept it going, which is great.”

Yeah, Simmonds is right. Philadelphia is gonna love this kid. It’s only a matter of time.

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