FORMER Sheffield Steelers’ player-coach Ben Simon admits he is a mixture of “nerves and excitement” as he prepares to step off the ice into a full-time coaching role in the AHL.
The 33-year-old American was appointed as an assistant coach by the Rockford IceHogs earlier this week, seeing Simon go full circle almost as he was drafted by Rockford’s NHL affiliate the Chicago Blackhawks back in 1997.
Simon went on to play more than 80 games in the game’s top league, mainly for the Atlanta Thrashers, before enjoying a successful career in North America’s second tier, the American Hockey League, most notably with the Chicago Wolves with who he won a Calder Cup in 2002.
But it was his one season with the Steelers that Simon will be most remembered for in the UK, arriving at a club in turmoil last summer before helping turn them around and leading them to a third Elite League title.
Simon quit – as was always likely – after just one season in his first-ever coaching role, citing disagreements over the playing budget with the then sole owner Paul Ragan.
After a lot of soul searching, Simon decided his playing days were over in June, prompting his search for a full-time coaching role, which eventually took him to Rockford, much to his delight.
“I’m absolutely thrilled but at the same time I’m nervous – it’s a big opportunity for me,” said Simon. “I’m going to have to work my tail off to make it a success but I’m really looking forward to getting started.”
“I think I knew in the back of my mind when I left Sheffield that I was done playing. It wasn’t an easy decision - giving up something that has been your life and which you have loved doing for so long. But I’ve come to terms with that I’m now ready for this next stage of my career.”
Simon will be assistant to head coach Ted Dent, himself in a new role after being promoted after five years as an assistant coach with the IceHogs following the departure of Bill Peters, who took an assistant role with the NHL’s Detroit Red Wings.
Simon will work alongside fellow assistant Steve Poapst, who joined the organisation at the beginning of last season. The former centre believes his experiences on both sides of the Atlantic will prove useful in his new role as he helps to develop what the Blackhawks organisation hope will be its next group of NHL stars.
“This is Ted’s first year in a head coaching role in the AHL and my job is to make sure that I’m doing everything to help Ted and Steve be as successful as possible,” added Simon.
“I’ve got to make sure I do everything that they ask of me and be willing to go through a wall for them.
“Years ago I was the young guy making my way through the system and now I can pass my experiences on to some of the young guys that we have in a similar situation here.
“If it’s not you that’s making the next big step (to the NHL) there’s nothing better than helping develop somebody else and seeing them accomplish their dreams.”
Simon was quick to acknowledge that his eight months in Sheffield played a big part in him being successful in his application for the Rockford post. Thrown in at the deep end by former Steelers’ owner Bob Phillips, Simon quickly adapted to his new role, one minute sorting out players flights and accommodation, while also concentrating on more traditional on-ice coaching responsibilities such as devising training schedules and determining his best systems and lines and he believes his ability to demonstrate his knowledge of how a hockey club works from top-to-bottom was a definite advantage.
“Every little thing that I did over there (in Sheffield) both on and off the ice helped me in my application for the Rockford job,” said Simon.
“My experiences in Sheffield enabled me to learn a lot. I no doubt made a few mistakes along the way but the opportunity I had there has helped me develop tremendously. I don’t take anything negative away from my time in Sheffield, I met some great people and I’ll always be keeping an eye on how they are doing.”