by Kate Munson || AHL On The Beat Archive
Ben Simon isn’t someone who lets the dust settle under his feet.
After playing for the Toronto Marlies (AHL) and Kalamazoo Wings (ECHL) in the 2009-10 season, the then-31-year-old center was looking for the next stop on his playing career when he was presented with an opportunity to serve as a player/coach with the Sheffield Steelers of the United Kingdom’s Elite Ice Hockey League.
“As a veteran player of my ilk, it was harder and harder to find a job as a player. I wasn’t a goal scorer, I wasn’t a big point producer. I was more of a role player. And those guys, I don’t want to say get squeezed out, but we do,” Simon said. “I knew that my time was coming to have to hang them up, but this opportunity came up and I thought ‘Hey, let’s try it.’”
Coaching was something Simon had always been interested in, but the opportunity to be both a player and a coach required some thought.
“The coaching staff over there left. In Europe, there’s a lot of financial uncertainty with some teams. I don’t know what happened, but there was a lot of turmoil,” Simon said. “Then kind of a random phone call to my agent and my agent ran it by me. It took a while for us to think about it and digest it. I thought ok, well we don’t have anything here at home, this might be a good opportunity.”
Little did Simon know he would be doing more than just adding coaching to his resume during his time with the Steelers.
The extra tasks started even before the season, when Simon found himself responsible for helping his players obtain the necessary visas and work permits to play in the UK. Then there were flights to schedule and housing to find.
With a staff composed of himself, an owner living in Dubai, a bench coach, and an operations manager, Simon’s busy schedule continued into the season. He was responsible for using community service and getting the players out in the community in an attempt to sell the product, in addition to scheduling bus rides and meals for road games.
“It wasn’t just coaching in the role I took over. It was a lot of hockey operations, marketing. It was a lot of different hats I wore. But it was a good experience. It was fun to learn a little bit of every trade,” Simon said.
But the off-ice responsibilities were only part of the job.
Simon also skated in 62 games for the Steelers, finishing fifth on the team with 66 points (27 goals, 39 assists).
Practices and game days looked a little different from both sides of the bench, though.
“You’re involved in practice, so after every drill you blow the whistle in your glove, bring the guys over to the board, draw up the next drill. Stop a drill if it’s not done right, show them what you’re trying to get across in that drill, what you’re trying to gain from that.” Simon said. “I snuck home a little bit. It was long hours, but it was fun.”
The hours devoted to coaching didn’t leave much time for Simon to work on his own skills, either.
“As a player I don’t know how much I improved. Every day you strive to work hard to be better, but as a player and a coach, your personal success is kind of put on the back burner because as a player you worry about how you can improve. As a coach, you worry about how everyone else can improve,” Simon said.
Simon led the Steelers to the EIHL title in 2010-11, but chose to leave the player/coach role in favor of a strictly coaching job.
“I loved playing. I think as a competitor, as a hockey player, you’ll always want to have played the game longer,” Simon said. “But as you get older, there obviously comes a time to move on and transition to a different facet of life.”
For Simon, the transition was prompted in part by changing ownership in Sheffield and in part by the changing needs of his young family.
“Since the time I left until they opened up again this year, there have been two or three different owners. Teams get sold. Teams get bought. Owners walk out,” Simon said. “I just thought it would be best to move on and pursue other opportunities close to home. My girls are getting older, they’re seven and four, and I’d like to be at least not quite an ocean away from family.”
With the decision made to move on to full-time coaching, Simon began the job search process by calling potential employers. One of those phone calls resulted in a conversation between Simon and Mark Bernard, the General Manager of Minor League Affiliations for the Chicago Blackhawks.
The conversation’s content is what surprised Simon.
Instead of belittling Simon’s experience, Bernard told Simon about his own experience as a player/coach with the Basingstoke Bison of the British Elite League in 2005-06. Then Bernard told Simon that if anyone tried to demean his experience, he could put them in contact with him.
“It was nice to hear that someone appreciated all the stuff that goes on over there and the different hats you have to wear. I think that having Mark appreciate that was huge for me,” Simon said.
It was a phone call by Blackhawks Vice President/General Manager Stan Bowman later in the summer that really set things in motion, though.
The Notre Dame grad, who still spends summers in South Bend, Ind., didn’t hesitate when Bowman asked if he could make the drive to Chicago for an interview.
“My first interview with the Blackhawks was tremendous. Just the people involved, from Stan Bowman up at the top to Al MacIsaac to John McDonough to Mark Bernard here. Everyone I’ve met are good people. They’ve made the transition easier,” Simon said.
Originally drafted by the Blackhawks in the fifth round of the 1997 NHL Entry Draft, Simon skated in 81 NHL games over his career, mostly with the Atlanta Thrashers.
“It’s kind of funny the irony,” Simon said. “I’m done playing, never played a game for the Blackhawks, but all of a sudden now I’m coaching in their system. I was obviously grateful from the day they drafted me, but it’s funny how the world works. Now I’m obviously thankful and grateful for the opportunity they’ve given me in this capacity.”
While Simon’s new role as IceHogs assistant coach may be “a lot easier” than the player/coach role he filled last season, allowing him to focus on coaching and not worry about performance on the ice, Simon can’t help but miss playing hockey.
“It’s never easy to leave the game,” Simon said. “But I think that last year’s job made it a little smoother transition because I was able to get my feet wet in the coaching aspect in terms of video, practice planning, scheduling, and just management and planning just an overall season.
“Having that experience last year doing both I think made it a little easier than going directly from one side of the bench to the other,” Simon added.
But that isn’t to say that coaching is always easy.
“As a player, I played the game for 11 or 12 years pro, and it doesn’t just come. Sometimes it’s tough to realize, it did take me four or five years to learn and to progress. A lot of these kids are in the same situation, great raw talents, but you just have to afford them opportunities,” Simon said.
Just one season removed from his professional playing career, Simon is only two months older than current IceHogs center and fellow member of the 1997 NHL Entry Draft Brett McLean. But he feels he has plenty to offer to this year’s IceHogs team in terms of experience.
Simon skated for the IHL’s Orlando Solar Bears in 2000-01, a team that went on the win the Turner Cup. Much like this season’s IceHogs, that team contained plenty of rookies. In his second season of professional hockey in 2001-02, Simon played for the AHL’s Calder Cup winning Chicago Wolves.
“I see a lot of parallels and a lot of correlation between my first couple years playing with this team,” Simon said. “I think those experiences both on and off the ice and how you become a professional off the ice as well as on the ice, it’s those experiences as a player, you try and convey those to these guys that are going through the same thing.”
Now that his own professional hockey career is behind him, Simon is focused on giving back to the prospects from the same organization that also drafted him.
“I think if you can’t play the game and you can’t accomplish your dream of playing in the NHL again, I think it’s pretty neat to be able to help someone else do that,” Simon said. “The next best thing is to be able to see a kid accomplish his dream.”