How baptism of fire at Sheffield Steelers helped put Ben Simon on the right trajectory

IT IS more than seven years since Ben Simon departed these shores, his destination at the time unknown, but with a crystal clear determination to make it as a full-time coach.

Ben Simon gives instructions during a Detroit Red Wings training camp earlier this year. Picture courtesy of Grand Rapids Griffins.

His time in North America following his nine-month spell as player-coach of Sheffield Steelers has been one of constant progression, leaving him – potentially – just a couple of steps away from coaching in the NHL, the world’s top league in which, as a player, he made 81 appearances.

Understandably, the 40-year-old father-of-two has ambitions to advance his career, but for now he is more than happy plying his trade as head coach of the Grand Rapids Griffins, an organisation whose main purpose as the AHL affiliate of the Detroit Red Wings is to help develop the next generation of talent.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

It is the fourth season for Simon with the Michigan-based Griffins, the first three seeing him work as an assistant to Todd Nelson, under whose leadership the team won the Calder Cup in 2017.

Ben Simon, right, during a Detroit Red Wings training camp. Picture courtesy of Grand Rapids Griffins.

Nelson departed in the summer to take up an assistant role in the NHL with the Dallas Stars, giving Simon the opportunity to apply for and then take on his most senior coaching career. It is a role he is relishing.

“I enjoy this level a lot, largely because I spent the majority of my career in this league as a player,” explained Simon.

“The NHL is a great league, the top league around with the best players in the world playing in it and I got to spend a little bit of time there as a player, which was great.

“I always think of coaching as the next best thing, though. If it’s not you working your way to get called up (to the NHL) then what I love is telling a kid for the first time that he’s been called up and that he’s getting the opportunity to accomplish his dream.

Ben Simon, left, battles for possession with fellow player-coach, Hull Stingrays' Sylvain Cloutier back in 2011. Picture courtesy of Arthur Foster

“To work with these kids and players on a daily basis, to help them improve and get better as a player and develop as professionals – to have an impact on their lives and careers – is something I love, but that I don’t take for granted.

“A huge part of teaching these kids is how to approach the game every day as a pro, how to take care of themselves both at and away from the rink and helping them develop routines that will not only help them on the way with their hockey careers, but also once they walk away from the game.”

Still so early into the most high-profile job of his coaching career, Simon is understandably not concerned with looking any further ahead at the moment.

But should an opportunity arise, for example, to follow in the footsteps of his former boss Nelson it would clearly be something that would interest him, although there are plenty of other factors to take into consideration, not least the interests of his family.

Ben Simon, centre, working on the Griffins becnh last season as an assistant to head coach, Todd Nelson, right. Picture courtesy of Grand Rapids Griffins.

“I’ll never say no to anything, but right now I’m ecstatic and happy where I am in my professional career and my family is extremely happy with where they live right now in Grand Rapids. It is a tremendous community and my wife is from around this area so life for us is okay right now,” he said.

“We’re not looking to make too many changes. One of our kids was born in New York, the other in Atlanta, Georgia. They’ve lived in Canada, Germany and England, as well as 10 or more different states over here, so every time there is an opportunity for a different job it’s not always for the better.

“At a certain point it is a family decision as opposed to a career decision. I wouldn’t be where I am without the sacrifices that all of them have made, so there comes a time when I have to make sacrifices in return

“But, at the end of the day, I would love to coach in the NHL. Do I think I could? Absolutely, but right now I embrace every day, I embrace the challenge, I love coming to the rink and trying to put the pieces together for this team.”

How Simon puts those ‘pieces’ together is something he first learned to do in South Yorkshire once he jumped on board with the Steelers for the 2010-11 Elite League season.

Simon arrived at Sheffield Arena in August 2010, coming into an organisation in deep turmoil, management staff including head coach Dave Matsos having quit following a vote of ‘no confidence’ in then owner Bob Phillips.

What he learned during the nine whirlwind months that followed has proved invaluable to the progression of his career.

Having been thrown in at the deep end, Simon found himself responsible for various tasks – initially having to arrange flights and accommodation for players, scheduling and overseeing on-ice practices, contract talks, not to mention a mid-season change of ownership being thrown in for good measure. But it was all made worthwhile when Simon led the Steelers to an Elite League championship, albeit by the narrowest of margins at the expense of the Cardiff Devils.

All those experiences have helped shape Simon into the coach that he is today, for which he remains grateful.

“I always wanted to get into coaching,” recalled Simon, who in his one year as head coach of the Cincinnatti Cyclones in the ECHL reached the Kelly Cup final. “I was a student of the game and thought the Sheffield job was a good way for me to dabble and experiment with coaching to see if I liked it.

“It is what got me started in coaching, it taught me how to deal with players going through slumps, it taught me that players have problems away from the rink and how it’s not just about hockey – all manner of issues and problems that you have to understand in order to help them to be good at their jobs.

“With that job I don’t think a lot of people understand the many different hats that you have to wear to be successful in that league. You have to be smart, organised and be on top of things – and believe me, if you’re not things can go south real quick.

“With all the circumstances involved at the start of the year, and even throughout the season, a lot of it was learning on the fly, but it is what opened the door for me to get other opportunities.

“It taught me a lot about myself and whether I actually wanted to be a coach. That year in Sheffield kind of lit a fire under me and I realised, ‘this is what I want to do, this is where I want to go with my life’ and other opportunities have presented themselves to me because of that.”