Be honest. Be strong. Be proud.
Chris Simon repeated these simple admonitions to himself each day. On the cloudy days when he was still unsure if he liked, or even understood, the feeling of being sober. On the painful, bloody days when there was hardly any reason to carry his hockey gloves to the rink because he knew as soon as he hit the ice he'd be dropping them. On the long, grueling days in the gym, where he finally learned the price he'd have to pay to become anything more than a goon. And, most recently, on the quiet, peaceful days in "the bush," the northern Ontario wilderness near Lake Superior, where he hunted and fished and sat on the porch of his house, waiting on a new contract that would pay him like the goal-scoring, powerful left wing he has become, and not the enforcer he was. Be honest. Be strong. Be proud.
If the drumbeat of these principles wasn't enough to keep them fresh in Simon's mind, there was always the hair. The long, dark hair that Simon unfurled from a ponytail at game time, the mane that flew wildly out from under his helmet when he skated, was Simon's strongest reminder of where he'd been and where he wanted to go.
"I grew my hair because I'm Indian and I'm proud of it," says Simon, whose father is a full-blooded Ojibwa from northern Ontario. "At the time, nine years ago, when I gave up drinking, as I learned more about my spirituality, I started to let my hair grow the way my Native ancestors did. Like the story of Samson in the Bible, many Native cultures believe that your hair is your strength. I began to realize, this is who I am."
So why did Simon show up in Washington in late October, after a 46-day holdout that ended with a new, two-year, $4.5 million contract, with a head shaved nearly bald? Had something changed in his life? Had he become less spiritual? The answers, though Simon's been reluctant to share them until now, are "yes" and a resounding "no."
"A lot of Indian men cut their hair when they lose a loved one," Simon explains, speaking barely above a whisper in the equipment room of the Caps' training facility in a D.C. suburb. He interlocks the fingers of his massive, mangled hands. "And that's the way I feel right now. As good as things are for me in hockey, I spent the last couple of weeks of my holdout hunting and fishing up in Wawa [Ontario], where I grew up, and for me and my grandfather, it was nonstop harassment from the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources. The MNR makes no effort to understand the Indian people. They don't honor our rights to live off the land."
So, before he returned to the ice, Simon put scissors to what had become not only his trademark, but a big part of the Capitals' identity as well, asking his then-girlfriend, Valerie (now his wife), to apply the finishing touches with electric clippers. "He was sad and excited," Valerie says. "Sad to cut it, but excited to be making a statement for his Native friends. He wanted to stand up for them. And when Chris gets passionate about something, you just stand back."
Is there a casual hockey fan out there who thought Simon was anything but a brawler? Is there anybody out there who knew before last year that this guy had any skills? Simon's never going to be a power forward in the mold of Brendan Shanahan or John LeClair, but he's not Tony Twist, either. And last year, when Caps coach Ron Wilson put him on a line with Adam Oates, one of the league's best setup men, Simon showed what he's capable of doing, leading the team with 29 goals. Wilson wanted Simon to use his 6'4", 235-pound frame to ward off defensemen, and to use his powerful hands and wrists to get pucks on the net. Wilson appealed to Simon's pride: "If you're only out there to fight and be an intimidator, you're limited in what you can accomplish. Toughness got you here, and it'll keep you here, but you're more well-rounded than that."
Perhaps the coach knew that brutal self-evaluation was one of his player's greatest strengths. Simon, who turns 29 next month, could easily have blamed his teenage battle with alcohol on ? well, name it. On hockey culture? When he was 16, Simon left Wawa (pop. 4,100) to play junior hockey in Ottawa -- 18 hours from home in a city that, says Simon, "may not be New York, but sure felt like it," and where he never lacked for a few older drinking buddies to get sloppy with. On the pressure? In his second season, already 6'3" and 230 pounds, Simon put up 74 points (36 goals, 38 assists) and was drafted in the second round by the Flyers. Nobody is tracked closer than a big player who can score. On his upbringing? His father, John, like many Native Canadian men, had his own battles with alcohol. Who, then, is to blame?
"All me," says Simon. "I was 14 when I had my first drink, and I know now that I was born alcoholic. I always wanted more." And he got it: "I was every different kind of drunk. Some nights I'd get in trouble. Some nights I'd get in fights. Some nights I'd just have a great time. Finally I realized this just wasn't the way I wanted to live." He was not even 18 years old.
Quitting was terrifying. Simon says that for the first year after he started attending AA meetings, "I wasn't thinking at all like a sober person. I remember reading once that, if you have a couple of beers, it will be out of your system when you get up the next morning, but if you drink four or five hard drinks, it will stay in your system for two or three days. I started thinking, with all the hard liquor I drank, I'll never be sober."
The process became somewhat easier in 1991, when Ottawa traded Simon to Sault Ste. Marie, putting him close to Wawa and under the guidance of coach Ted Nolan, a full-blooded Ojibwa who took Simon's recovery personally. The first time Simon slipped up -- he was arrested for pulling a fire alarm, but never charged -- Nolan suspended him and made him practice early in the morning -- by himself. "Obviously, Ted was a coach, but he was also like a brother," says Simon. "I had to call him at 9:30 every night to let him know I was home. He was there every night. That was his commitment to me as a person, and I didn't want to let him down." Simon has been sober since New Year's Day 1992.
Nolan did more than help Simon fight alcoholism. He also helped Simon get in touch with his roots -- the drums and the dancing, the strength and the spirituality of his ancestry. Simon began to let his closely buzzed hair grow out, and he became fascinated by his family's heritage. He went home to Wawa in the summers and grew closer to his grandfathers: Max on his father's Native side and Alfie on his mother's Canadian side. "Both played hockey," says Simon. "Both got invited to Red Wings training camp. Both grew up in Wawa. Their children married and had me and my sister." He spent hours in the bush, learning the best fishing spots from Max and the nuances of all kinds of wildlife from Alfie, a trapper. "You see Chris in the wilderness," says Valerie, who's been to Wawa each of the past two summers, "and he has this glow, this aura of happiness. It's where he belongs."
The excitement in Simon's voice when he talks about rising before dawn and fishing for walleye is matched when he talks about skating as a kid at daybreak and hammering shots in a cold, empty rink. The difference is that hockey is Simon's first love. When Wilson grew tired of his team's lackluster training sessions in late November, he gave his players a written assignment following practice: "Why do you play the game? In 50 words or less." Simon becomes emotional when he thinks of his response: "There was nothing better as a kid than getting to the rink first, playing all morning, getting something to eat and playing some more. I still feel that way." Simon's so in love with the game that he speaks fondly even of his days as an enforcer, which defined his first seven years in the NHL. "That was how I established myself," Simon says. "Go out and get in a fight. Make sure no one took advantage of the smaller players. I knew what my job was, and I was good at it."
But as much as fighting kept Simon employed -- and put his name on the Stanley Cup with the Avalanche in 1996 -- it also held him back. "Being a tough guy," says Wilson, "meant he was playing only six to 10 minutes a game. You don't have to be in great shape to do that. For a while, he was getting hurt every other game. He wasn't following the fitness program, wasn't rehabbing as hard as he had to, wasn't paying the price. We told him if he was willing to work, we'd pay him back with ice time. But he wasn't going to score until he got in shape."
Bullheadedness, not laziness, kept Simon out of the gym. Why should I lift weights, he reasoned, when I'm already bigger and stronger than everyone else? "Take a 300-pound boat, drag it over a hill through the woods to a lake," Simon says. "Then go back and get the motor and your gear. Carry a quarter of a moose for a couple of miles in a backsack. I grew up cutting trails, moving logs, all kinds of rough work. That's where my ?natural' strength came from. But when it came to weightlifting, guys weighing 180 pounds could lift more because I had no idea how to do it. There was so much I had to learn."
Simon didn't simply begin to train -- he immersed himself. Joining a group of players who worked under guru T.R. Goodman at Gold's Gym in Venice Beach, Calif., Simon discovered that proper conditioning is not about more brute strength but about endurance and flexibility and targeting specific problems, like the shoulder injuries that dogged him for so many years. "Now, I define my toughness by staying fit," says Simon, who played a career-high 75 games last season after missing an average of 51 games because of injury from 1996 through '99. "I'm in the gym either before or after practice every day. I know better now." As for fighting, Simon now flexes the muscles of restraint. He knows that if he's going to be on the left wing next to Oates, and if he's going to lead his team in goals, he can't be egged into the box. "I've got guys trying to get me to fight, messing with my mind," he says. "I like that. I used to be that guy, trying to bug Claude Lemieux into doing something stupid."
Simon had kept his reasons for cutting his hair to himself, to the point that even Caps goaltender Olaf Kolzig recently said, "I just think he got tired of having to take care of it. I used to tell him that my wife could get ready to go out quicker than he could." Caps owner Ted Leonsis is planning a promotion where fans who buzz their hair will get into a game for free. Simon just shrugs: "I'll grow my hair back when I'm satisfied that something is going to be done. That time may come. But it's not now."
To understand the Ojibwa and other Native Canadians, Simon explains, is to understand that hunting and fishing are not sports, but essential components of Native life protected under Canada's constitution. There are rules and limits that apply to non-Native sportsmen but not to Natives because of various treaties and agreements signed over the course of many years.
"An Indian has the right to harvest the land," Simon explains. "My Native grandfather and I have never shot or caught anything we didn't eat. We don't abuse our rights, yet the MNR has threatened to take my truck, my gun, even a moose we shot. This whole thing has made me realize what I want to do when I get out of hockey. I want to see that the rights of the Indian people are honored." In the meantime, Simon knows he can't lose focus on his first love, the game. The Caps should win another division title, but if they're going to advance to the Cup Finals, Simon must prove last season was not a career year. The holdout only adds more pressure. While Simon waited on his new deal, the Caps got off to a 1-4-3-1 start. Leonsis says, "As the owner, I have to trust my GM [George McPhee] with contracts, but the fan side of me and the marketing side of me were saying, ?Just get it done!' I called Chris, which is not something I'd normally do with a player, and I said, ?I miss you.' As soon as he showed up, I said, ?We're back.'"
Simon's response? Bring on the responsibility: "Early in my career, maybe I didn't know all it took to be a good player, what price I had to pay. But I was willing to listen and learn, and I'm still looking for ways to improve. I know my mind is clear and I have a very strong belief in who I am." Honest, strong and proud -- even without the hair.This article appears in the Next Issue of ESPN The Magazine.
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