CHRIS SIMON was an NHL rarity: a recidivist thug who often broke the code of ethics that governs even violent enforcers, yet, by dint of his gentle off-ice nature, his sympathetic backstory (he struggled with drugs and alcohol) and above all his fierce loyalty to teammates, he was also a popular, even beloved, player among his peers.
Many fans accepted Simon too—until last season. In December, two months after the then Islanders winger had served a 25-game ban for slashing Ranger Ryan Hollweg in the face, he drew 30 games for stomping on the foot of Pittsburgh's Jarkko Ruutu. When Simon returned from that ban, the eighth of his 15-year career and the longest in NHL history, Islanders fans jeered him. After New York dealt him to Minnesota in February, Wild fans flooded the team's website with angry messages and some booed him on the ice.
Now the 6'3", 220-pound Simon has a place to hide—in Russia, with Vityaz Chekhov, in a town with a population of about 60,000. Terms weren't released, but Simon, 36, who made $475,000 last season, might have had a hard time finding NHL work at any price. The G.M. is Alexei Zhamnov, who played with Simon on the Blackhawks in 2002--03; that Simon has gotten a reprieve from a player he once protected is no surprise. As defenseman Roman Hamrlik told SI, Simon was the "best teammate I played with."