Ben Simon, Toronto Maple Leafs newest addition to the Toronto Marlies coaching staff.
Then it hit me – I interviewed Simon while I was working for the BBC, when he was player-coach for the Sheffield Steelers. As such, I thought it would be a good excuse to share that interview with you all, to give an idea of the type of guy the Leafs and Marlies are bringing into the organisation:
Ben Simon walks slowly towards me in the same way that an elderly gentleman would, an unsettling image of someone who is only 32 years old. His battered and bruised six foot, 14 stone frame collapses into the chair opposite me and I worry what the interview will hold with someone who looks like he would rather be anywhere else but here.
The night before, Simon endured one of his more physically demanding hockey games of the season. He has just finished a morning practice session but, unlike the rest of the squad, doesn’t get to go home. As the Sheffield Steelers player-coach, he has a long day ahead of him and to top it all off has to now somehow fit this reporter into his already busy schedule.
Fortunately, any trepidation on my part is quickly erased as soon as we start talking. Simon’s passion for hockey is plain to see as his eyes light up in a manner reminiscent of a young child attending their first sporting event: “Hockey is something that’s always been a part of my life so if you take it away, what do I do?”
As with the majority of professional athletes, Simon has had a well-travelled career, with various stops around North America and Canada.
After playing at Shaker Heights High School in Ohio, he was drafted in the fifth round of the 1997 draft by the Chicago Blackhawks. However, Simon knew he wasn’t good enough to play in the NHL right away, so he went to Notre Dame on a four-year scholarship. Unfortunately, after finishing college, the Blackhawks had a new general manager in place and they decided to release him.
Simon recovered from this blow and has since gone on to enjoy a steady, if unspectacular, career. He has competed at the very highest level for the Atlanta Thrashers and Columbus Blue Jackets, mixed in with minor league stints in cities such as Toronto, Orlando and Milwaukee.
With all of the moving around, it takes a certain type of personality to survive. Simon seems to have the perfect mindset: “It’s [similar to] Darwinism, where it’s survival of the fittest. You have to find a way to keep your job. If they ask you to do a specific role you do it so you can stay there. If you can do that role and contribute more, then you’ll be able to stay there longer.”
It’s this mentality that has seen him end up in England: “I was looking around and things happened here in Sheffield quickly with the previous management leaving. My agent said ‘well he’s been looking to get into coaching and this could be a good fit’ and so everything kind of wound up right and here we are.”
Coaching appears to be a natural progression for Simon, who, if he wasn’t playing hockey, would have pursued a career in teaching. “It’s not a big money-maker but I like kids, I think we’re on the same wave-length,” he says with a laugh. “It actually correlates a bit to the coaching but I think teaching would be fun. Anytime you can have an impact on some kid’s life it’s neat to be able to do that.”
His contract with the Steelers is for one year initially, giving both the team and Simon himself time to see if he has what it takes to pursue a more permanent position within the coaching fraternity. The early signs are promising.
Last season was a disaster for the Steelers, as they failed to qualify for the playoffs for the first time in their history. However, since Simon arrived for the start of the 2010-11 campaign, he has proven to be an instant success, with the team currently sitting proudly atop the Elite League.
It helps that the Steelers squad have made the transition a smooth one: “It’s going well but it’s easy with the guys in the locker room, because they know I’m a rookie coach and they’ve been able to help out. It’s my first time in this league and the guys that have played here before have been helping me out too.”
This is the second time that Simon’s hockey career has brought him to Europe, after previously spending a year in Germany. His wife, Beth, and their two children always go wherever the game takes him, something that is very important to Simon. “I’m a firm believer in that you have to take care of your family,” he explains. “Without your family you wouldn’t be here. So you have to take care of them first and then they’ll be there for the rest of your life [because] hockey’s only going to be there for a minimal amount of time.”
It’s natural to wonder what effect moving around so much has on the children; Meg  and Kate . Luckily, Simon does not have to worry about them: “They miss their family and friends at home, but over here there are plenty of kids on the team and they make new friends at school, so they embrace it and they do well.”
As for Simon himself, the transition to England has been straightforward, especially when compared to Germany: “The hockey [was] different, the cultures different and then you throw a whole different language into it!”
Looking ahead, Simon realises he will eventually have to move the family back home once his playing career finishes: “At a certain point my kids have got to have their own niche and their own stability. They’re still young enough to move them around a bit, but we’ll settle down sometime in the future.”
In keeping with Simon’s busy schedule, the interview finishes far too quickly. We shake hands and go our separate ways. As I leave, I find myself thinking that it would come as no surprise if he has a long and successful coaching career ahead of him. You can be sure though, whatever the future holds, he can depend on the support of his family.
Photo used courtesy of www.marlies.ca