Simon quickly finds his feet to give Steelers hope

BEN SIMON readily admits he has found it tough at times adapting to life as a player-coach – but the majority of Sheffield Steelers' supporters think he's doing just fine.

Sitting second in the Elite League table, three points behind leaders Belfast Giants and with four games in hand on Doug Christiansen's team, the Steelers are surprisingly well-placed given that some people never thought they would even start the 2010-11 campaign.

A dreadful – by Steelers' standards – 2009-10 regular season saw a fifth-placed finish followed by a first-round exit in the play-offs. In May, the club's operating company under then owners Bob and Maraini Phillips went bust and was followed weeks later by the walk-out of the management team, including General Manager Mike O'Connor and head coach Dave Matsos, citing a vote of no confidence in the ownership.

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The Phillips' – who last month relinquished control of the club to allow Cardiff Devils' owner Paul Ragan to take over – took direct control in the running of the club and, after weeks of speculation over whether they would be able to start the season, let alone pay their players, the curtain went up on their Elite League campaign with an impressive 5-1 victory over their South Wales rivals.

That opening performance, together with subsequent impressive showings on clearly limited resources, was largely down to the one significant appointment made by the Phillips' in that troubled six-month spell. In fact, the Steelers almost got a taste of 32-year-old Simon in just a playing capacity 12 months earlier, had talks between the Ohio-born forward and then coach Matsos proved more fruitful.

But Simon admits things weren't the "right fit" in the summer of 2009, unlike this time around when the opportunity to combine coaching with his years of playing experience in North America proved too good to resist.

"I talked to Belfast, Coventry and I actually talked to (Dave) Matsos last year but at the end of the day, it just wasn't the right decision and it just didn't feel right for me to come over here," said Simon.

"But towards the end of this summer, my agent talked to the guys running Sheffield and there was clearly an opportunity. I had been thinking about making the move into coaching and I realised that now I'm 32, the window of opportunity closes pretty quickly the older you get.

"I love the game of hockey, I'm very passionate about it and I'm a student of the game. It was a good opportunity, a good fit and it meant I would still be able to play as well as learn the ropes of being a coach."

Simon has been attributed with bringing the passion and intensity back into the Steelers' game, something the team under previous coach Matsos was accused of lacking during what was still one of the most successful periods in the club's history which saw the Canadian guide his team to two play-off titles and one regular season championship.

Simon clearly leads by example, evident in an approach to the game which has benefited from years of experience at the top levels in North America.

After being a fifth round pick for the Chicago Blackhawks back in 1997, father-of-two Simon had to wait another five years before getting his chance to shine in the NHL, the world's biggest league, by which time he was at Atlanta Thrashers. During the next four seasons Simon would get to play a total of 81 games in 'The Show', while spending the majority of his time enjoying more fruitful stints in the second tier American Hockey League.

It was with the Chicago Wolves that he enjoyed most success, making significant contributions to their Calder Cup play-off triumph in 2002, as well as a Conference championship three years later.

A two-year spell at the Syracuse Crunch followed and it was there during the early part of an unsuccessful play-off campaign in 2006 that Simon suffered a bizarre leg injury which, if medics had not intervened, would almost certainly have spelled the end of his career.

A substantial swelling in his left leg following a play-off game at Manitoba Moose, led to Simon being taken to hospital where he was wheeled in for an emergency procedure. Suffering from compartment syndrome, doctors performed an emergency fasciotomy in order to save his leg.

After six months of rehabilitation, including two more bouts of surgery for skin grafts, Simon returned to the ice with Syracuse for another season before, via a number of different organisations in North America and Germany, he found himself, in late August, sitting in a windowless office at the Sheffield Arena, helping arrange flights and accommodation for his soon-to-arrive players.

"At the time, I wasn't aware that I could have lost my leg, but, with the swelling, I knew there was something seriously wrong," said Simon. "They sliced my leg from the top of my knee right up to my hip, so they had to carry out some substantial skin grafts as well.

"Initially, I wasn't even thinking about hockey, I was more concerned with just being able to walk again. I was lucky that it was spotted when it was. I was wheeled straight into the ER because they knew how serious it was immediately. As a result, I've been able to continue with my career, which I'm grateful for."

Grateful is what the majority of Steelers fans are for having Simon as their coach it would seem, a situation that is likely to continue for at least another season after he recently agreed to a second term in charge with Ragan.

Simon admits he has found combining the role of player and coach difficult at times but results show that he could be a natural, being able to transform a group of under-performing players into serious title contenders once again in just a few months.

"It is tough being a player-coach and you have to find the balance between the two," he admitted.

"You don't want to focus too much on the playing side because you'll forget something on the coaching side, but if you focus too much on coaching your play can suffer because of that. But as the season has gone on I've found a routine that I've got into and I think I've become more comfortable with both roles."

With the Elite League entering the home straight and with both a regular season league title and a play-off trophy still up for grabs, it would be hard to see Steelers ending the season empty-handed, not a bad achievement in a first season as player-coach. But Simon is quick to point out how much of a factor luck may be in deciding the destiny of silverware this season.

"I won't write off any team right now because as the year goes on teams will get better," said Simon.

"But I think, ultimately, it will really come down to which team stays the healthiest. Rosters over here are small so if you do run into injury problems it's pretty difficult to cope with that."