Last of the Barbarians
NHL enforcers are a dying breed. But Chris Simon refuses to go quietly.
Just sitting on a couch next to the most feared enforcer in the National Hockey League is more than a bit disconcerting. With his shaved head, scowling eyebrows, and a face etched by a lifetime of slashes, punches, and pucks to the skull, 6’3″, 220-pound Chris Simon looks like a serial killer’s mug shot, anxious to leap off the page and strike.
“Chris Simon,” says Georges Laraque, Pittsburgh’s bruising forward, “is one tough dude.” How tough? Over a 16-year NHL career, he’s had 107 fights and served 1,772 penalty minutes. Last March, in a widely publicized incident, he delivered a slash so vicious to the head of Rangers forward Ryan Hollweg that the NHL handed him a league-record 25-game suspension. Simon is so tough, in fact, that the question at hand—is he ever scared?—has the New York Islanders heavyweight totally stumped. He thinks long and hard. “I’ll tell you,” he says at last. “I’m never scared on the ice, and I’m not scared by much in my day-to-day life. But there was this time…”
With that Simon begins to recount an incident of three years ago when he was out hunting alone in the woods near his hometown of Wawa, Ontario. As he sat squatting on a rock waiting for prey, a female moose strode in front of him, about 15 yards away, with her two calves. “No big deal,” Simon recalls. “But then, out of nowhere, a bull comes up behind them. He probably weighed 1,000 pounds—you’re talking about an animal that could stomp and kill me very easily.” Upon spotting Simon, the bull inched closer, swaying back and forth. An attack seemed inevitable.
That is, until Simon stood up, cupped his hands, and screamed: “Go away! Get lost!” At that, the bull turned and walked off.
Chris Simon is so tough that even 1,000-pound beasts don’t screw with him.
Throughout a professional career that began in 1988 and has taken him to six NHL franchises, Simon has thrived as one of the most famous hired goons in the sport’s history—a man who makes the ice safer for smaller, quicker, more skilled teammates. With Quebec in the early 1990s, he served as All-Star center Joe Sakic’s personal bodyguard. Later, with the Washington Capitals, he offered similar protection to offensive phenom Jaromir Jagr. On the Islanders, star winger Bill Guerin knows he’s covered. The concept is simple: You touch one of his teammates, Simon makes you pay. “The guy is downright scary,” says Rick DiPietro, the Islanders’ goaltender. “Not only is he humongous, but he’s a brutalizing puncher. Playing against him sucks. But as a teammate, there’s nothing better. He always has our back.”
Were Simon a boxer, he’d be George Foreman, circa 1973. There’s little speed or flash to his pugilistic styling; he simply grabs a handful of jersey with his right hand, draws back his left fist, and drops it repeatedly, like a sledgehammer. “He’s remarkably accurate and as strong as anyone,” says Donald Brashear, a Capitals forward and one of the league’s best brawlers. In 1992, when Brashear and Simon were playing in the American Hockey League, the two squared off for their lone encounter. It was one-sided. “He threw this big left, and I dropped to my knees instantly,” recalls Brashear. As the victim of one of the dirtiest hits in NHL history—a stick to the head eight years ago from Boston’s Marty McSorley that resulted in a grade-three concussion—Brashear knows dirty players. But his opinion of Simon is high. “Chris is a fair guy who knows what’s right and what’s not,” Brashear says. “He plays hard if the game calls for it, but he’s not trying to kill anyone.”
And despite the touchy-feely ethos of the new NHL, where league rules put the emphasis on speed and finesse more than fighting, Simon makes no apologies for his style of play. “Nothing personal,” he says. “Just doing my job.”
Simon knows he’s an NHL dinosaur—a protector when few true protectors are left. Had he been active back in the ’60s and ’70s, when the NHL was loaded with toothless thugs and eye-gougers, he would likely have gone down as just another hard-nosed player; these days, he’s accepted by an increasingly image-conscious league as a tolerable evil. “He’s a throwback to a league that no longer exists,” says Bill Fleischman, who covered the “Broad Street Bullies” Flyers of the 1970s for the Philadelphia Daily News. “There was a time when every team had enforcers with defined roles. That’s changed dramatically.” Thanks in part to rule changes that penalize and even eject players for instigating fights, the average number of fights per game is down to .55 from over 1.0 in the ’80s, when slugfests were embraced. “They’ve really beaten up on guys who fight,” says DiPietro. “I don’t like that. To me it’s hockey.”
To Simon, too, fighting is an essential part of the game, and one that’s not altogether uncivilized. “Professional protectors subscribe to a code of honor. It’s almost like a fraternity,” he explains. “We’ll fight, but there’s an immense amount of respect for what goes into this job. We’re proud of what we do.” Some of the code’s guiding principles? For one, if an opponent falls to the ice during a fight, you never pounce on him. “To hit someone when he’s down just ain’t right,” Simon says. Second, the goal is never to inflict injury. “I know how precious this career is,” he notes. Third—no grudges allowed. “I see Georges [Laraque] all the time in the hallway when we play Pittsburgh,” Simon says, “and it’s nothing but pleasant.”
It all sounds pretty cheery for a guy who was suspended four times before the Hollweg incident for violent on-ice acts and banned for three games when, during a 1997 altercation, he threw a racial slur at Edmonton’s Mike Grier, an African-American. (Simon, a Native American, profusely apologized and was forgiven by Grier.) It’s not surprising that, when he used his stick to try to snap Hollweg’s head, something among NHL officials snapped, too. With six minutes remaining in a 1-1 tie, Simon was slammed from behind by Hollweg, a 5’11”, 210-pound center known, like Simon, for his bruising ways. Simon’s head and body ricocheted off the boards and onto the ice, where he momentarily rested in a fetal position. Upon rising, Simon spotted Hollweg, whipped back his stick and flattened his rival, who dropped like a sack of coal. When Simon later explained himself by saying he’d suffered a concussion and was acting in confused self-defense, he was greeted with disdain and disbelief.
“People see what they want to see,” says Simon, who admits he was stung by the aftermath. “But I’m more than a fighter.” Truth be told, he is a skilled forward who won a Stanley Cup with the 1995–96 Colorado Avalanche and has scored 144 career goals, including a team-leading 29 for the 1999–2000 Caps. “It gets lost in his rep, but Chris can downright play,” says Laraque. “You don’t have as many points as he does by accident.”
To Hell and Back
Simon’s path to hockey fame was a rough one. Born and raised in Wawa, an Ontario mining town with a population of 3,700, Chris is the only son of John Simon, an Ojibwa, and Linda, a Caucasian Canadian. His childhood was spent hunting, fishing, and playing hockey. At age 16 he was drafted by a Junior A team in Ottawa, for whom he scored with his stick (36 goals in 57 games) and his fists. He was selected by Philadelphia in the second round of the 1990 draft, a rugged forward who the team believed could be an NHL star for a decade. There was just one problem—Chris Simon loved to drink.
As with too many Ojibwas, alcoholism ran in Simon’s family. But instead of warning signs, Simon saw only postgame parties and wild nights. “I was out of control,” he says. “But I didn’t really know it. I had a real case of denial.” Although his rights were owned by the Flyers, in 1991 he was traded within the OHL from Ottawa to the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds. At the time his reputation wasn’t especially good. “Chris had an air about him that he was better than us, but he was drinking himself out of hockey,” says Rick Kowalsky, then captain of the Greyhounds.
For Simon the turning point came on New Year’s Eve in 1991, when he was arrested for pulling a fire alarm during a team party in a hotel ballroom. He spent the night in a holding cell, alone, wondering what he was doing with his life. “That was really the moment,” Simon says. “I hadn’t done anything illegal in that instance [the charges were later dropped], but I knew I was putting myself in bad situations.”
It’s now been 16 years since Simon last tasted alcohol (“The toughest test came during the Stanley Cup celebration; everyone’s pouring champagne and I’m drinking Pepsi from a Dixie cup”), and, not accidentally, almost 16 years since his star truly began to rise. On June 30, 1992, he was part of one of the biggest trades in NHL history, going to Quebec along with five other players and two draft picks in exchange for Eric Lindros. At the time, Simon was just the player to be named later. Now, in 2008, he is the last participant standing; Lindros recently retired, as did Peter Forsberg.
As the league continues to transition to a new style of play, perhaps Simon’s greatest legacy will be in teaching its young guns right from wrong on the ice. Case in point: a November 3rd game against the Penguins at the Nassau Coliseum. In the second period, Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh’s 20-year-old superstar, inadvertently nailed DiPietro in the head with the butt of his stick, sending the Isles’ goaltender to the ice and, moments later, the locker room. Soon after, Simon entered the game. As Crosby chased the puck into a corner late in the third period, Simon saw his chance. Elbows up, head down, he charged toward Crosby—yet when he reached his mark, Simon pulled up. He shoved the kid with his left hand and glided away.
So where’s the lesson? “You have to be physical, but you also have to be smart—even us tough guys,” Simon said afterward. “I could have hit Crosby really hard and maybe even hurt him, but instead I just finished my check and let him know I was there. In a close game you can’t take penalties without thought.” He paused, chewing on a wad of tobacco. “Not that I wouldn’t have enjoyed hitting the kid,” he said with a laugh.