📝 by Patrick Williams
Mid-December turned out to be a hectic time for some American Hockey League coaches.
In Milwaukee, Admirals head coach Karl Taylor and assistant coach Scott Ford earned a promotion to the parent Nashville Predators after COVID-19 protocols roiled that National Hockey League club.
On the other side of Lake Michigan, Grand Rapids Griffins head coach Ben Simon went through his own NHL call-up experience that same week.
The 43-year-old Simon had been through NHL recalls during an 11-season pro playing career that featured 81 regular-season games between the Atlanta Thrashers and Columbus Blue Jackets. A diligent two-way forward, Simon was a 2002 Calder Cup champion and 2005 Calder Cup finalist with the Chicago Wolves who also played 481 AHL regular-season contests with Milwaukee, Grand Rapids, the Syracuse Crunch, the Springfield Falcons, and the Toronto Marlies.
That playing career then dovetailed directly into a coaching career that is now in its 12th season. Simon had assistant-coaching stints with the Marlies and the Rockford IceHogs before he started a three-season run as an assistant in Grand Rapids that included the team’s run to the 2017 Calder Cup. The Detroit Red Wings then appointed Simon the head coach in Grand Rapids before the 2018-19 season.
But this NHL recall would be a much different experience.
With Red Wings head coach Jeff Blashill unavailable due to NHL COVID-19 protocols for the team’s home game against the New Jersey Devils on Dec. 19, Simon was being entrusted with the controls to an Original Six club. Joined by Griffins assistant coach Todd Krygier and several Grand Rapids alumni in the Detroit lineup, Simon joined the NHL coaching fraternity.
In Simon’s words, here is his experience going through his first NHL coaching recall:
ON PREPARING TO GO TO DETROIT
“There’s a lot going on… a little anxiety, a little panic, a little excitement. But I knew it wouldn’t be very long-term, and knowing the people up in Detroit ― how prepared that Jeff Blashill is and his staff and what great people they are ― that it was going to be a fun experience, regardless. So those guys were fantastic welcoming [us] up, and it was a good experience.”
ON RECEIVING THE NEWS
“[As a coach] it’s different because you’re not expecting it. You know, that’s not your goal here. I mean, your goal is to always make it to the highest level. But as a coach, you’re really worried about your group and how you’re improving your group on a daily basis.
“So when you get that call, it’s not expected. But you get a little excited, and it’s kind of cool at the end of the day. Not a lot of guys can say they’ve stepped behind an NHL bench. And for me, whether it’s one game or turns into 1,000 games over the course of my life, it was a great experience, [and] to do it for Detroit was pretty cool.”
ON BEING CALLED UP AS A COACH VERSUS BEING RECALLED AS A PLAYER
“[It is] different. I mean, there’s still that same level of excitement. But I think as a player ― I don’t want to say you’re expecting it more, but that’s more of an end goal within your short-term, long-term growth.
“Long term, do I want to coach in the NHL? For sure. But you usually don’t get that opportunity in the middle of the season. As a player, you feel like if you do the job the right way, you do things the right way, and you do it consistently, that if that opportunity is there, you will get that opportunity afforded to you. So you kind of think that more as a player. As a coach, you don’t really think that, so it was a little bit of more of a surprise, more of a shock the other day as opposed to [being recalled as] a player.
“But both were both are pretty cool. Both [are] little moments, little milestones that you’ll look back on and remember.”
ON THE IN-GAME EXPERIENCE
“It was a little bit of fly-by-the-seat-of-our-pants… Things happen during a game that you have to just adjust to and then you just roll with the punches. Nothing [is] set in stone. You have to make decisions.
“Jeff had his game plan, and we tried our best to implement what he was looking for. Jeff is ultra-prepared, ultra-detailed. He made it very easy to go in there and help contribute.
“When you’re [at] the American League level, you’re concerned somewhat with line matches and stuff like that. You don’t have a guy like Jack Hughes on the other team. So from an American League point of view, it’s a developmental league, you want your younger guys that maybe aren’t the greatest defenders to have some experiences. Maybe it’s a big D-zone face-off that these kids [have] got to learn to be in those situations. The NHL is a win-now league.
“There’s no time to really have any hiccups, because they usually end up in the back of your net. So there’s a little bit of an adjustment there to really try and find the best match-ups possible. Obviously being at home, it was a little bit easier. Having [Red Wings assistant coach Doug Houda] on the bench was great. [Krygier] on the bench was great, because [of] communication throughout the game from coach to coach and then trying to get some kind of flow. And at the end the day, the players went out there, and they did the job.
“You don’t take it for granted when you’re there. You know it’s going to be short-lived. But I was treated like a king for a few days, and it was just a great experience. The people that run the ship behind [the scenes], from driving to the hotels [to] the arena people to the chefs to the ushers, it was awesome. A class, class organization.”
Behind a hat trick from Grand Rapids alumnus Dylan Larkin, Detroit defeated New Jersey, 5-2. Tyler Bertuzzi, who won the Jack A. Butterfield Trophy as the most valuable player of the 2017 Calder Cup Playoffs with Grand Rapids, chipped in two goals.
Simon had four members of his 2021-22 Griffins in his lineup that night ― forwards Riley Barber, Kyle Criscuolo, Taro Hirose, and Joe Veleno. The lineup also featured Griffins alumni on the blue line in Filip Hronek, Gustav Lindstrom, Danny DeKeyser, and Moritz Seider.
ON SEEING GRIFFINS ALUMNI IN DETROIT
“We’re proud of it. For sure. I mean, that was one of the things that made it somewhat easy to come up there, just the quality of character of the players on that team with some of the free-agent [players] brought in. Quality, quality people. Quality players.
“But then the guys that I’ve got familiarity with because they’ve come through Grand Rapids, so the number of guys there was fantastic. We’re proud of the fact. You’re standing there, looking down the bench. There were quite a few guys.
“It was a little bit more special for me to be able to share that, because you go through the grind down here in Grand Rapids, and you get to experience that even just for a game, the thrill of making that jump for a day, and it was fun.”
ON THE JOURNEY TO THE NHL
“Hockey was just kind of something fun that we did as a game that we loved to play. And then it led to some opportunities in college. A main goal of mine was to play college hockey. And then from that point, things just kind of opened up as a player. Ninety-nine percent of life is time and place, and I’ve been at the right time and right places sometimes and have had some [great] opportunities afforded to me.
“If it never turns out to be anything again, it was a great opportunity. I think this is just one of those [times] that the anthem’s going, you’re standing in front of a great building, the energy in that building was fantastic, and you kind of take a moment there and [say], ‘This is pretty cool.’”
Patrick Williams has been on the American Hockey League beat for nearly two decades for outlets including NHL.com, Sportsnet, TSN, The Hockey News, SiriusXM NHL Network Radio and SLAM! Sports. He is currently the co-host of the Around the A Podcast.
Patrick was the recipient of the AHL’s James H. Ellery Memorial Award for his outstanding coverage of the league in 2016.