THIS summer has proved something of a welcome change for former Sheffield Steelers’ player-coach Ben Simon.
For once in his distinguished career he has not had to spend the majority of his time worrying about where his next pay cheque will be coming from come the start of the new season.
A two-year deal signed last summer to become assistant coach with the Rockford IceHogs - the AHL affiliate to the Chicago Blackhawks - meant the 34-year-old could, for a change, relax and, more importantly, plan ahead for the following year.
Not that Simon is one to take anything for granted.
He admits it took some time to adjust to life off the ice, having finally decided to pack away his playing skates after guiding the Steelers to a third Elite League championship in 2010-11.
But the challenge of helping to produce the next NHL star for the Blackhawks - the organisation that first drafted Simon as the 110th overall pick back in 1997 - meant there was little time for the former Calder Cup winner to dwell on his playing years.
“It was refreshing to just focus on coaching,“ said Simon. “My year in Sheffield was my first experience as a player-coach and I was responsible for everything from sorting out travel arrangements to housing for players.
“This first year at Rockford was a pleasant shock in that I just had to focus on the coaching side of things and trying to make these kids into better players.
“The biggest thing for me was the teaching. It was frustrating at times if a particular kid didn’t do something right. You can’t do it for him of course, because he has to figure it out for himself, with your guidance. That sort of thing got better for me as the year went on and I learned to have more patience with them.
“You have a great sense of responsibility for these kids because what they eventually do and how they turn out is a reflection on you and how well you are doing as a coach.
“We had the second youngest team in the league. For most of the first half of the season we had a lot of kids playing, 20-years-old most of them. They are first-year pros and it takes a lot of time for them to adjust.
“It’s not just on the ice though where they have to adjust. It’s the whole thing - living on their own for the first time and being away from home. They are basically forced to grow up all of a sudden and that’s a lot to deal with for a young kid.”
Wins proved hard to come by initially for the IceHogs who, with former Bracknell Bees goaltender Mark Bernard as their GM, went into the campaign with a rookie coaching team.
As well as it being Simon’s first year as an assistant, it was also Ted Dent’s first year as a head coach, making the step up after five years as a No 2. Simon’s fellow assistant coach, Steve Poapst, was himself only beginning his second season in the role.
It was a tough start to the season with - as expected - numerous prospects regularly moving up and down from the Blackhawks. One exception was Andrew Shaw, like Simon many years ago, a fifth round pick for Chicago, and a prospect who stood out, eventually going on to score 23 points, including 11 goals, in 38 games for Joel Quenneville’s Blackhawks.
The second half of the campaign, however, brought about a significant improvement – partly, Simon says, because things finally began to click for the coaching staff and their young team. The post-Christmas record of 21-12-1-4 gave them a win percentage 20 per cent higher than in the first half of the campaign.
They still missed out on the post-season Calder Cup play-offs by seven points but, with the nucleus of last season’s team expected to remain in place, hopes are high for a more successful season this time around.
“We’ll probably keep about 15 guys from the 25 we ended the season with and that’s a good thing because they know who we are and what we want out of them,“ added Simon.
“Those second-year guys will then be able to help the new kids coming in and help explain to them what is expected.
“We were one of the top five teams in the whole league in the second half of the season and taking that kind of form into next year has got to be a good thing.
“As a coaching team we don’t go out and recruit, we get given the players and get told to go out and develop a team. From top-to-bottom Chicago make these guys feel like they are NHL players.
“Every time the Hawks played at home they encouraged us to go and watch the games. Mark Bernard runs it like it’s an NHL team. The facilities are unbelievable and we are given all kinds of resources - you name it we’ve got it, they want for nothing. These players are, essentially, an investment for Chicago and that’s why they treat these players so well.”
With the 2012 draft having passed and the Blackhawks prospects camp having also being held - it was at one such camp that Belfast’s David Phillips impressed enough to earn a deal with the IceHogs back in 2009 - Rockford’s coaching team are forming a clearer picture as to which players they will likely work with this season.
As for Simon, he is enjoying the rare comfort of knowing his future is secure - at least for one more year.
“I’ve loved every day and it’s difficult to imagine doing a job outside of hockey,” added Simon.
“Personally, this is the first summer when there has been no uncertainty with regards to where I’m going to be next season.
“Summers in the past few years have been a bit stressful with not knowing what’s going to be happening the following season until, sometimes, very late on.”
Simon’s efforts have clearly been appreciated by the Blackhawks organisation, in particular Bernard, who is well-known to UK ice hockey fans, more recently for his two-year spell as coach of Basingstoke Bison.
“I felt Ben made the adjustment to being a full-time assistant coach in the AHL very well,” said Bernard.
“There is a big difference going from being a player-coach to a full-time coach and because of his work ethic and professionalism, he handled the transition seamlessly.
“Ben’s entire playing career was built on determination, heart and his work ethic and he brings those three traits to the office every day. And it’s contagious with the rest of the staff.”
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