Dec. 16, 1996
Dec. 16, 1996

Table of Contents
Dec. 16, 1996

Faces In The Crowd


On Oct. 5, opening day for most NHL teams, Chris Simon was
standing in a swamp in the great north woods, grunting. It was
opening day of moose season, too. Simon, a half-blooded Native
North American from Wawa, Ont., had just spotted three cow
moose, and now he was trying to call in the bull. Arrooomphh ...
roooomph, Simon intoned. He is 6'4", 230 pounds and wears his
straight dark hair midway down his back in the manner of his
Ojibwa ancestors. He began breaking off nearby tree branches as
if he were another moose infringing on the bull's territory.
Harruuuungh ... roooomph. Simon watched and waited, but his
1,000-pound quarry, which he could just make out in the
distance, shoulder-deep in water, mouth full of weeds, didn't

This is an article from the Dec. 16, 1996 issue Original Layout

Another challenge refused. Simon is used to it. As one of the
biggest, toughest power forwards in the NHL and arguably the
league's best fighter, the 24-year-old Simon is generally given
a wide berth whether he's carrying a hockey stick or a Browning
.300 magnum rifle. He began learning the ways of the wild as a
two-year-old, when his white grandfather, Alfie Rutland, a miner
and trapper, packed him on his back while checking his traplines
for beavers, otters, foxes or timber wolves. Simon had been
taught to hunt moose by his other grandfather, Max Simon, an
Ojibwa who also worked in the mines. Because of Alfie and Max,
Chris is as comfortable in the woods as most hockey players are
on the golf course.

So on that October day he crept silently to the other end of the
swamp and waited for the bull to climb out of the water. When
the moose did, Simon felled him with a single shot from 325
yards. A clean kill--no suffering. It took him the rest of the
day to quarter the moose and pack it out of the swamp by canoe.
One more day of his contract holdout with the Colorado Avalanche
was behind him.

That night, a thousand miles away, the Washington Capitals lost
5-2 at home to the Chicago Blackhawks. The wheels were set in
motion that would bring Simon--a restricted free agent who had
rejected the Avalanche's offer of $650,000 for the season--from
Wawa to Landover, Md., where the moose he would encounter would
be of a different sort: marked by callused knuckles, scarred
lips and knots all over their faces. On Nov. 2, Washington
general manager David Poile, discouraged by the Capitals' 5-7-0
start, shipped forward Keith Jones plus first- and fourth-round
draft choices in 1998 to Colorado for the negotiating rights to
Simon and defenseman Curtis Leschyshyn.

The deal didn't attract much fanfare. With 555 penalty minutes
in 146 regular-season games, Simon, a left wing, seemed to be
little more than an enforcer. But his impact on the Caps was
immediate: They went 6-1-1 in Simon's first eight games, and he
surprised nearly everyone by getting five goals--several of them
of the highlights variety--and four assists while playing with
Peter Bondra and Andrei Nikolishin on Washington's top line.
Bondra, who had been in a slump, saw his points-per-game average
leap from .79 to 1.5 during that span, as opponents stopped
trying to run him all over the ice.

"It's nice to know the toughest guy on the ice is on your side,"
says Poile, who signed Simon to a two-year, $2 million contract
with the option for a third year at $1.2 million. "We're an
in-your-face team anyway, and players feel better about
themselves if they're going to war beside a guy like Chris. He
not only makes his own contributions, but maybe he'll make
somebody else play better too. In these days of the low-scoring
NHL, if he can score 20 goals, that's a pretty good package."

On Dec. 4, in a 2-0 loss to the Detroit Red Wings, Simon forced
several turnovers in the offensive zone with bone-rattling
bodychecks. Every time he approached a Detroit player who had
the puck, it looked like the parting of the Red Sea--the Wings
would dump the puck and scatter. Displaying unusual finesse for
a big man, Simon also deked out Detroit goalie Kevin Hodson on a
breakaway but missed the open net on a backhander. And he had 19
minutes in penalties, which included infractions for slashing,
interference and fighting, plus a misconduct. The fight,
actually a pushing match that ended with Detroit's Darren
McCarty sitting on top of the helmetless, jerseyless Simon, was
his first as a Capital. "When I got here, I had a meeting with
David Poile, and he told me the team didn't want me running
around as much as I did last year," Simon says. "They expected
me to be more of an offensive player, but I don't think he
expected me to go 11 games without a fight. That's the longest
stretch between fights in my career."

"If push comes to shove, Chris will be there," says Washington
coach Jim Schoenfeld. "But unless someone's been bumped on the
head on the way to the arena, who's going to challenge him? We
think he can be more than one of the top heavyweights."

So does Buffalo Sabres coach Ted Nolan, who coached Simon in
junior hockey for the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds of the Ontario
Hockey League. "He's one of the most underrated players in the
NHL," says Nolan, whom Simon credits for saving his hockey
career--and perhaps his life--by helping him give up drinking.
"He has soft hands and is almost impossible to move from the
front of the net, and he understands the game well."

Nolan, 38, who is an Ojibwa and, unlike Simon, was raised on a
reservation, knows the difficulties faced by Native North
Americans. Nolan has felt the sting of taunts and racial slurs,
and he has seen how alcoholism has ravaged Native North American
youth. Simon's story--except for the outcome--isn't that unusual.

The only son of John Simon, an Ojibwa, and Linda, a white
Canadian, Simon was 14 when he moved to Sault Ste. Marie, which
was 2 1/2 hours from Wawa, to play a higher level of bantam
hockey than was available back home. At 16 he was drafted by a
junior A team in Ottawa, where he scored 36 goals in 57 games
and began developing a reputation with his fists. In 1990 the
Philadelphia Flyers drafted him in the second round, 25th
overall, and after two more years in juniors he became part of
the six-player package the Flyers sent to the Quebec Nordiques
for Eric Lindros.

During the 1990-91 season in juniors Simon started getting into
trouble off the ice--usually in bars, usually while drinking.
"You grow up fast in junior hockey, and I didn't handle it
properly," he says. "Some guy would recognize me in a bar and
say, 'You're pretty tough as a hockey player. Let's see how
tough you really are.' If I'd been drinking, I didn't give a
damn. I'd fight them."

Early in the 1991-92 season he was traded from the Ottawa 67s to
the Greyhounds, the team Nolan was coaching. "Chris was way out
of shape, and he didn't work hard in practice," Nolan says. "He
was a frustrated young man."

And on the brink of blowing his future. For eight years John
Simon had been a recovering alcoholic, but Chris ignored his
father's advice to quit drinking. On Dec. 22, 1991, in Hull,
Que., five guys beat up Chris in a bar. Nine days later, on New
Year's Eve, he was arrested for vandalism during a team party at
a Sault Ste. Marie hotel (the charges were thrown out) and spent
the night in jail, scared and embarrassed. That's when he
decided--with help from his friends--to stop drinking.

"I told him to stay away from booze or go back to Wawa," says
Nolan. "We gave him a curfew, which I checked every night. It
was tough love. He wasn't happy with any of it. He broke some
sticks in practice. He'd come at you sometimes. But from that
time on we developed a special bond, almost like brothers. I'd
take him fishing. His teammates would take him to movies. And
that year Chris led us to the finals of the Memorial Cup, which
is the top tournament in junior hockey."

With the help of Alcoholics Anonymous, Simon says, he hasn't had
a drink since that New Year's Eve, and now he regularly visits
Native North American reservations to speak about his
experience. "I don't consider myself a role model," he says. "I
tell them, 'Don't go through the troubles I did. Learn from
them. Don't limit your potential by using drugs or alcohol.'"

He also hasn't been in any more fistfights off the ice. He has
learned to smile and walk away from anyone who taunts him. On
the ice, however, it has been a different matter. His fists were
his ticket to the NHL, and in his first three seasons with
Quebec he became one of the toughest fighters in the league. It
wasn't until the Nordiques were sold and moved to Colorado,
after the 1994-95 season, that anyone noticed his offensive
skills. Playing much of 1995-96 on a line with the Avalanche's
leading scorer, Joe Sakic, Simon had 16 goals in 64 games and
established himself as an immovable object when planted in front
of the net. "I can't really say where my strength comes from,"
Simon says. "I'm not good at lifting weights, but I can carry
the logs my dad cuts or haul a quarter moose out of the woods,
no problem."

Simon had an eight-game scoring streak entering last year's
playoffs, the longest of his NHL career. But it proved to be a
mixed blessing. "I was trying to play fancy, like Joe Sakic," he
says. "I forgot what got me on his line in the first place."

In the opening round the Vancouver Canucks won Game 2 of the
series on Colorado's home ice, sparked by an early goal from
tough guy Gino Odjick, who had picked up the puck after
cross-checking Troy Murray from behind. No one retaliated
against Odjick, and the next day in practice Simon was singled
out by Colorado coach Marc Crawford for a lack of aggression.
"He wasn't happy with the way I was playing, and I wasn't
either," Simon says. "Our game plan for that Vancouver series
was not to fight Odjick or Joey Kocur, not to degenerate to that
level. But after Odjick's check the coach never said anything
about the game plan."

If anyone thought that Simon had lost his taste for rough stuff,
he proved otherwise in the next round, when he took on Chicago
enforcer Bob Probert--the power forward Simon most admired as a
teenager. "He flattened Sakic," Simon says of Probert. "I didn't
like that."

"Simon destroyed Probert," says Rocky Mountain News writer Rick
Sadowski. "It looked like Mike Tyson against Peter McNeeley."

In the final two Stanley Cup rounds, however, against Detroit
and the Florida Panthers--teams that do not try to intimidate
the opposition--Simon dressed for only two games. He got his
name on the Cup after the Avalanche swept Florida, but his
future in Colorado was sealed when he asked for a raise that
would double his salary, to $1 million a season. Avalanche
general manager Pierre LaCroix balked and eventually traded him.
"Our forwards aren't as good as Colorado's," says the Caps'
Poile. "He'll get more chances to excel here."

As Simon has proved before, he's good at second chances. And as
Probert and others can attest, Simon only needs one shot to drop
a moose.

COLOR PHOTO: GREG FOSTER Simon, who scored five goals in his first seven games with the Caps, proved he's more than a fighter. [Chris Simon]COLOR PHOTO: LOU CAPOZZOLA [Chris Simon and New York Islanders in game]COLOR PHOTO: LOU CAPOZZOLA In the Ojibwa tradition, Simon wears his hair far down his back. [Chris Simon in game]