The only son of John Simon, an Ojibwa, and Linda, a white Canadian, Simon was 14 when he moved to Sault Ste. Marie, which was 2½ hours from Wawa, to play a higher level of bantam hockey than was available back home. At 16 he was drafted by a junior A team in Ottawa, where he scored 36 goals in 57 games and began developing a reputation with his fists. In 1990 the Philadelphia Flyers drafted him in the second round, 25th overall, and after two more years in juniors he became part of the six-player package the Flyers sent to the Quebec Nordiques for Eric Lindros.
During the 1990-91 season in juniors Simon started getting into trouble off the ice—usually in bars, usually while drinking. "You grow up fast in junior hockey, and I didn't handle it properly," he says. "Some guy would recognize me in a bar and say, 'You're pretty tough as a hockey player. Let's see how tough you really are.' If I'd been drinking, I didn't give a damn. I'd fight them."
Early in the 1991-92 season he was traded from the Ottawa 67s to the Greyhounds, the team Nolan was coaching. "Chris was way out of shape, and he didn't work hard in practice." Nolan says. "He was a frustrated young man."
And on the brink of blowing his future. For eight years John Simon had been a recovering alcoholic, but Chris ignored his father's advice to quit drinking. On Dec. 22, 1991, in Hull, Que., five guys beat up Chris in a bar. Nine days later, on New Year's Eve, he was arrested for vandalism during a team party at a Sault Ste. Marie hotel (the charges were thrown out) and spent the night in jail, scared and embarrassed. That's when he decided—with help from his friends—to stop drinking.
"I told him to stay away from booze or go back to Wawa," says Nolan. "We gave him a curfew, which I checked every night. It was tough love. He wasn't happy with any of it. He broke some sticks in practice. He'd come at you sometimes. But from that time on we developed a special bond, almost like brothers. I'd take him fishing. His teammates would take him to movies. And that year Chris led us to the finals of the Memorial Cup, which is the top tournament in junior hockey."
With the help of Alcoholics Anonymous, Simon says, he hasn't had a drink since that New Year's Eve, and now he regularly visits Native North American reservations to speak about his experience. "I don't consider myself a role model," he says. "I tell them, 'Don't go through the troubles I did. Learn from them. Don't limit your potential by using drugs or alcohol.' "
He also hasn't been in any more fistfights off the ice. He has learned to smile and walk away from anyone who taunts him. On the ice, however, it has been a different matter. His fists were his ticket to the NHL, and in his first three seasons with Quebec he became one of the toughest fighters in the league. It wasn't until the Nordiques were sold and moved to Colorado, after the 1994-95 season, that anyone noticed his offensive skills. Playing much of 1995-96 on a line with the Avalanche's leading scorer, Joe Sakic, Simon had 16 goals in 64 games and established himself as an immovable object when planted in front of the net. "I can't really say where my strength comes from," Simon says. "I'm not good at lifting weights, but I can carry the logs my dad cuts or haul a quarter moose out of the woods, no problem."
Simon had an eight-game scoring streak entering last year's playoffs, the longest of his NHL career. But it proved to be a mixed blessing. "I was trying to play fancy, like Joe Sakic," he says. "I forgot what got me on his line in the first place."
In the opening round the Vancouver Canucks won Game 2 of the series on Colorado's home ice, sparked by an early goal from tough guy Gino Odjick, who had picked up the puck after cross-checking Troy Murray from behind. No one retaliated against Odjick, and the next day in practice Simon was singled out by Colorado coach Marc Crawford for a lack of aggression. "He wasn't happy with the way I was playing, and I wasn't either," Simon says. "Our game plan for that Vancouver series was not to fight Odjick or Joey Kocur, not to degenerate to that level. But after Odjick's check the coach never said anything about the game plan."
If anyone thought that Simon had lost his taste for rough stuff, he proved otherwise in the next round, when he took on Chicago enforcer Bob Probert—the power forward Simon most admired as a teenager. "He flattened Sakic," Simon says of Probert. "I didn't like that."