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When He Is Bad...

Oct. 29, 2007
Oct. 29, 2007

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Oct. 29, 2007

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When He Is Bad...

... Islanders left wing Chris Simon is horrid: a stick-swinging recidivist who drew a 25-game ban for slashing an opponent's face. So why do so many players—and his beloved coach—stand by him?

DARRYL BOOTLAND, a nondescript New York Islanders winger, and Riley Cote, a fourth liner for the Philadelphia Flyers, were standing beside each other at the face-off circle in the second period on the night of Oct. 13, jostling with their sticks and engaging in repartee that was more Oscar De La Hoya than Oscar Wilde. ¶ "Why d'ya look so angry all the time?" Bootland demanded. ¶ "'Cause that's my job," Cote replied. ¶ When Cote lifted Bootland's stick and it caught its owner in the face, the contretemps became Chris Simon's job. ¶ Seven months ago Simon, the Islanders enforcer, had delivered a vicious two-handed chop to the face of Ryan Hollweg, a pot-stirring New York Rangers forward. That act earned Simon a 25-game suspension, then the longest in NHL history, and evoked the usual somber comments from hockey's chattering class about how gratuitous violence has no place in the game. But for something with no place in hockey, it certainly seems to weasel its way in a lot. One reason Cote was in the lineup against New York is that the other Flyers forward whose job it is to look angry all the time, Jesse Boulerice (since waived), was starting his own 25-game suspension for a two-hander to the face of Vancouver's Ryan Kesler.

This is an article from the Oct. 29, 2007 issue

Now Simon, sprung from his personal purgatory, switched sides ... or at least moved from the right to the left side of the circle so he could line up next to Cote. "Simon looks at me, and he's like, 'What's up?'" Cote said. "And I said, 'Are we going to do this?' And he's like, 'Yup.' That's kinda [how] it happens."

The fight, the 98th of Simon's regular-season career according to hockeyfights.com, was nothing memorable: a flurry of lefts from Simon, some ripostes by Cote, two big men losing their balance and landing on the ice. During his first game back Simon would spend only 79 more seconds on the ice than he would in the penalty box. "Si didn't take a liking to that high stick," Bootland said. "That's Si, sticking up for me again. He's been good to me, that's for sure."

The two opposing values—good and bad, good and evil—have waged a terrible battle on earth for thousands of years.... Up to now there has been no greater event than ... this deadly contradiction.
—FRIEDRICH NIETZSCHE

If the terrible battle pits good versus evil, the three-round rematch staged by Simon and Hollweg last month made for an intriguing undercard. Simon, though still under suspension, was allowed to play exhibition games—another deadly contradiction—and so found himself facing the Rangers and Hollweg on Sept. 24. (Asked if dressing Simon for the game might have been provocative, Islanders coach Ted Nolan, who was born in 1958—and not, despite his wide-eyed response, yesterday—said, "I played him to get him into ... better condition.") The two players clashed along the boards throughout the first period, drawing roughing penalties. Later a high stick from Hollweg to Simon's right eye led to a quick exchange of stick jabs, then to fisticuffs when Rangers heavyweight Colton Orr stepped in to tangle with Simon. The third confrontation between Simon and Hollweg, after Hollweg hit an Islanders defenseman and Simon charged in from behind, devolved into a six-on-six brawl. Two weeks later, on the eve of the Islanders' season opener in Buffalo, purplish remnants of the high stick still rimmed the bottom of Simon's deep-set eye.

"The other guys who know [Hollweg] say he's an excellent guy," Simon said in his deliberate, leathery baritone. "Great teammate. Lots of fun to be around. He's an agitator on the ice. Draws penalties. Plays in your face. He just does his job."

The irony is that many of the same things are said of Simon. Indeed, grades of Simon's hockey character run the gamut from A to, well, A+. Says Buffalo goalie Jocelyn Thibault, who played with Simon in Quebec, Colorado and Chicago, "Unbelievable guy [who's] always been recognized as a straight shooter." Says Montreal defenseman Roman Hamrlik, who knows Simon from Calgary, "He loves you, he kicks ass for you. Awesome. Best teammate I played with." Says Toronto winger Jason Blake, who played on a line with Simon last season in New York, "Good teammate because he cared so much."

Thus the case of one of the NHL's most physical players raises some metaphysical questions: If Simon is so good, why does he do so many bad things? And if he does so many bad things, can he possibly be good?

"When I play, I'm different than I am in everyday life," says Simon, 35. "And I have to be. Sixteen years [in the NHL] and I've never been in any trouble away from hockey. Never an altercation. Nothing."

Fine. But the video evidence from last March 8 is as disturbing as it is incontrovertible. Maybe Simon's behavior wasn't as heinous as Marty McSorley's stalking of Donald Brashear in 2000 or Todd Bertuzzi's assault on Steve Moore in 2004, but it was so bad that teammates actually doubted what they had witnessed. With six minutes left in a 1--1 game against the Rangers—Simon had the Islander goal—the "gentle giant" (as defenseman Brendan Witt, who roomed with Simon for six years in Washington, calls him) took his 60-inch stick and tried to perform an Easton Synergy lobotomy on Hollweg. After his disciplinary hearing with NHL director of hockey operations Colin Campbell, Simon issued a nine-paragraph apology. In it, he let it drop that when he swung his stick he was still dazed from being checked into the boards from behind by Hollweg. (According to a source with knowledge of the drafting of the apology, Islanders owner Charles Wang wanted to mention Simon's possible concussion as a way of "getting out in front" of the story.) Simon said he had stayed in bed for about a week with headaches. He also said his eyes were overly sensitive to light, a symptom consistent with a Grade 2 concussion, according to American Academy of Neurology guidelines. But Simon's apparent haze sounded like a hockey variation of the Twinkie Defense; instead of sugar, a concussion had made him behave aberrantly. Judging by his record, however, the concussion just made him more like himself.

The "good kid" (as he's called by Brian Kilrea, his Hall of Fame junior coach in Ottawa) is a hockey recidivist, a man who has been suspended more often than disbelief. And of his seven NHL suspensions, four have been for using his stick. (In 1997 he also received three games for directing a racial slur at Mike Grier, who now plays for San Jose.) In the Ontario junior hockey league Simon was a disciplinary nightmare. Although the OHL was unable to provide records, The Sault Star (of Sault Sainte Marie, Ont.) reported that in 1991--92 he was suspended eight times for a total of 34 games—32 by the league and two by the team. The previous season, when the Soo Greyhounds acquired Simon from the Ottawa 67s, he was serving a 12-game suspension for having slashed Niagara Falls Thunder defenseman David Babcock in the face, breaking seven teeth and opening a gash that required 21 stitches.

Hollweg, who took a few stitches that night and returned to the Rangers lineup two days later, was lucky in comparison. "The incident was very surreal," said Witt, Simon's close friend. "When I saw Bertuzzi [injure Moore], it was [on tape], not in real time like this. I'm on the bench, and I'm like, Did I just see that? That was a heat-of-the-moment thing. [Simon] got a hard hit and somewhat snapped."

The contrite Simon thought he might receive a 10- or 15-game suspension, but these days the NHL has limited tolerance for miscreants. Campbell levied 25 games on Simon, just as he would on Boulerice. He also banned Flyers rookie Steve Downie for 20 games after Downie launched himself into Ottawa's Dean McAmmond this preseason, driving the unsuspecting veteran into the boards with an elbow and leaving him concussed.

The chorus of disgust directed at Downie was loud and nearly unanimous; Blake even suggested that the 20-year-old be barred from the league. But there was no tough talk when Simon went off last March. In the moral relativism of the NHL, Simon apparently treads with the angels.

"He made a bad decision, suffered the consequences, and that's it," says Sabres enforcer Andrew Peters, who neither knows nor has fought Simon. "But look what he's done in his career. He won a Stanley Cup in Colorado. He's scored goals, 29 one year. He's played with good players"—Simon's sweet hands have made him a suitable winger for stars such as Joe Sakic, Peter Bondra and Alexei Yashin—"and he's protected many players. Now guys will protect him publicly because that's what he's done for them all these years. It's part of the brotherhood. Part of the big circle. The circle of the game."

FOR THE North American native people—Simon is the son of an Ojibwa father and an Anglo-Canadian mother—life is a circle: they pay homage to the round Earth, the rotation of the seasons, the circular drum that beats at powwows.

A life about to swirl down the drain ... well, that's circular too. Simon was headed in that direction more than 15 years ago, when alcohol was playing clutch-and-grab with his soul. "Liquor," Simon said, "was real bad for me." If he had not doubled back from Ottawa to the junior team nearest his home, the Soo Greyhounds, Simon figures he might be in jail now. Or worse.

In the Soo his coach was Nolan, an Ojibwa who, in the great mandala that is Simon's life, is now his staunchest ally on Long Island. After a 1991 New Year's Eve incident at a hotel, in which Simon was arrested for vandalism (charges were later dropped), the player started on the road back to sobriety. Nolan walked in lockstep with him. The coach established a curfew. Every night at nine, Simon was obliged to call from his billet. Every night at nine, Nolan would answer. "It took me a while to realize what he was doing," Simon says. "I mean, he didn't have to be home every night just because I was calling."

In 1997 Nolan won the Jack Adams Award as the NHL's coach of the year with Buffalo, but there are no trophies for what he considers his best work. On the Greyhounds "there were people who said we should cut our losses [with] Chris," said Nolan, who helped reintroduce Simon to his native heritage. "There are people in hockey who we want to get the most out of but we don't want to give the most back to.... Being involved in Chris's career and having an impact is probably my biggest accomplishment. Trophies will come, trophies will go. Turning a kid's life around is way more important. The transformation Chris made to get where he is is truly amazing. He's the biggest, softest teddy bear on the ice you'll ever meet. He's a very sensitive guy."

Maybe too sensitive.

After the slash to Hollweg, Simon tried to apologize personally—he planned to go to the Rangers' hotel on Long Island—but Hollweg was not interested. Simon's 6'3", 232-pound frame has always been covered with a thin skin. In the 1996 playoffs Colorado coach Marc Crawford lambasted Simon in practice following a first-round Game 2 loss in which the player, skating on eggshells, had been a cipher. In front of the team Crawford spat out, "What is it, Chris? Are you with us or not?" Moments later, when practice ended, Simon slumped to his knees and buried his head in his gloves.

Simon stayed in the lineup—in the next round he pounded legendary Chicago heavyweight Bob Probert in a Game 4 win that tied the series and swung momentum back to Colorado—but he didn't play in the final against Florida because of an ankle injury. After Simon held out that fall, the Avalanche shipped him to Washington. In key games against rival Detroit later that season, Colorado sorely missed his looming presence. The NHL always seems to have room for an intimidator like Simon.

So who is he, really: the tough guy given to swinging his stick or the guy Nolan says will do charity events at 6 a.m.? The guy who earned the NHL's longest suspension or a committed teammate who merely had what Hamrlik calls a "cuckoo moment?"

If, as writer Flannery O'Connor suggests, good and evil appear to be joined in every culture at the spine, why can't Chris Simon be both?

Nolan (right) got Simon in touch with his Ojibwa heritage and made it his mission to TURN AROUND CHRIS'S LIFE.

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Doing the Time

The NHL's longest suspensions

Besides the recent bans on Chris Simon, Jesse Boulerice and Steve Downie, there have been six suspensions of at least 20 games in NHL history. Four of them were levied since Gary Bettman took over as commissioner in 1994.

Gordie Dwyer, LIGHTNING, Sept. 19, 2000, 23 GAMES
Left the penalty box to fight during an exhibition game, physically wrangling with two officials in the process.

Marty McSorley, BRUINS, Feb. 20, 2000, 23 GAMES
Two-handed slash to the head of Canucks enforcer
Donald Brashear (above). Ban was extended to one year after a judge in Vancouver found McSorley guilty of assault.

Dale Hunter, CAPITALS: April 28, 1993, 21 GAMES
Blindsided Islanders' Pierre Turgeon, who was celebrating a goal in the playoffs, and knocked him to the ice.

Brad May, COYOTES, Nov. 11, 2000, 20 GAMES
Baseball-swing slash to face of Columbus's Steve Heinze.

Todd Bertuzzi, CANUCKS, March 8, 2004, 20 GAMES
Punched Colorado's Steve Moore in back of the head, leading to Moore's career-ending concussion.

Tom Lysiak, BLACKHAWKS, Oct. 30, 1983, 20 GAMES
Intentionally tripped linesman Ron Foyt, who had repeatedly waved the 10-year veteran out of the face-off circle.

PHOTOPhotograph by Clay Patrick McBrideSCARFACE Six months after Simon's hit on Hollweg (above), the two scuffled again, leaving Simon a marked man (left).THREE PHOTOSMSG/AP (HOLLWEG INCIDENT,3)[See caption above]PHOTORICH STIEGLITZ/ICON SMI[See caption above]PHOTODAVID E. KLUTHO (SIMON)MULTIPLE THREAT After winning a Cup with Colorado in 1996, Simon (17) was a scorer for the Capitals in the late '90s.PHOTOLOU CAPPOZZOLA (NOLAN)PHOTOESPN