On Oct. 5, opening day for most NHL teams, Chris Simon was standing in a swamp in the great north woods, grunting. It was opening day of moose season, too. Simon, a half-blooded Native North American from Wawa, Ont., had just spotted three cow moose, and now he was trying to call in the bull. Arrooomphh...roooomph, Simon intoned. He is 6'4", 230 pounds and wears his straight dark hair midway down his back in the manner of his Ojibwa ancestors. He began breaking off nearby tree branches as if he were another moose infringing on the bull's territory. Harruuuungh...roooomph. Simon watched and waited, but his 1,000-pound quarry, which he could just make out in the distance, shoulder-deep in water, mouth full of weeds, didn't budge.
Another challenge refused. Simon is used to it. As one of the biggest, toughest power forwards in the NHL and arguably the league's best fighter, the 24-year-old Simon is generally given a wide berth whether he's carrying a hockey stick or a Browning .300 magnum rifle. He began learning the ways of the wild as a two-year-old, when his white grandfather, Alfie Rutland, a miner and trapper, packed him on his back while checking his traplines for beavers, otters, foxes or timber wolves. Simon had been taught to hunt moose by his other grandfather. Max Simon, an Ojibwa who also worked in the mines. Because of Alfie and Max, Chris is as comfortable in the woods as most hockey players are on the golf course.
So on that October day he crept silently to the other end of the swamp and waited for the bull to climb out of the water. When the moose did, Simon felled him with a single shot from 325 yards. A clean kill—no suffering. It took him the rest of the day to quarter the moose and pack it out of the swamp by canoe. One more day of his contract holdout with the Colorado Avalanche was behind him.
That night, a thousand miles away, the Washington Capitals lost 5-2 at home to the Chicago Blackhawks. The wheels were set in motion that would bring Simon—a restricted free agent who had rejected the Avalanche's offer of $650,000 for the season—from Wawa to Landover, Md., where the moose he would encounter would be of a different sort: marked by callused knuckles, scarred lips and knots all over their faces. On Nov. 2, Washington general manager David Poile, discouraged by the Capitals' 5-7-0 start, shipped forward Keith Jones plus first- and fourth-round draft choices in 1998 to Colorado for the negotiating rights to Simon and defenseman Curtis Leschyshyn.
The deal didn't attract much fanfare. With 555 penalty minutes in 146 regular-season games, Simon, a left wing, seemed to be little more than an enforcer. But his impact on the Caps was immediate: They went 6-1-1 in Simon's first eight games, and he surprised nearly everyone by getting five goals—several of them of the highlights variety—and four assists while playing with Peter Bondra and Andrei Nikolishin on Washington's top line. Bondra, who had been in a slump, saw his points-per-game average leap from .79 to 1.5 during that span, as opponents stopped trying to run him all over the ice.
"It's nice to know the toughest guy on the ice is on your side," says Poile, who signed Simon to a two-year, $2 million contract with the option for a third year at $1.2 million. "We're an in-your-face team anyway, and players feel better about themselves if they're going to war beside a guy like Chris. He not only makes his own contributions, but maybe he'll make somebody else play better too. In these days of the low-scoring NHL, if he can score 20 goals, that's a pretty good package."
On Dec. 4, in a 2-0 loss to the Detroit Red Wings, Simon forced several turnovers in the offensive zone with bone-rattling bodychecks. Every time he approached a Detroit player who had the puck, it looked like the parting of the Red Sea—the Wings would dump the puck and scatter. Displaying unusual finesse for a big man, Simon also deked out Detroit goalie Kevin Hodson on a breakaway but missed the open net on a backhander. And he had 19 minutes in penalties, which included infractions for slashing, interference and fighting, plus a misconduct. The fight, actually a pushing match that ended with Detroit's Darren McCarty sitting on top of the helmetless, jerseyless Simon, was his first as a Capital. "When I got here, I had a meeting with David Poile, and he told me the team didn't want me running around as much as I did last year," Simon says. "They expected me to be more of an offensive player, but I don't think he expected me to go 11 games without a light. That's the longest stretch between fights in my career."
"If push comes to shove, Chris will be there," says Washington coach Jim Schoenfeld. "But unless someone's been bumped on the head on the way to the arena, who's going to challenge him? We think he can be more than one of the top heavyweights."
So does Buffalo Sabres coach Ted Nolan, who coached Simon in junior hockey for the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds of the Ontario Hockey League. "He's one of the most underrated players in the NHL," says Nolan, whom Simon credits for saving his hockey career—and perhaps his life—by helping him give up drinking. "He has soft hands and is almost impossible to move from the front of the net, and he understands the game well."
Nolan, 38, who is an Ojibwa and, unlike Simon, was raised on a reservation, knows the difficulties faced by Native North Americans. Nolan has felt the sting of taunts and racial slurs, and he has seen how alcoholism has ravaged Native North American youth. Simon's story—except for the outcome—isn't that unusual.