DARRYL BOOTLAND, a nondescript New York Islanders winger, and Riley Cote, a fourth liner for the Philadelphia Flyers, were standing beside each other at the face-off circle in the second period on the night of Oct. 13, jostling with their sticks and engaging in repartee that was more Oscar De La Hoya than Oscar Wilde. � "Why d'ya look so angry all the time?" Bootland demanded. � "'Cause that's my job," Cote replied. � When Cote lifted Bootland's stick and it caught its owner in the face, the contretemps became Chris Simon's job. � Seven months ago Simon, the Islanders enforcer, had delivered a vicious two-handed chop to the face of Ryan Hollweg, a pot-stirring New York Rangers forward. That act earned Simon a 25-game suspension, then the longest in NHL history, and evoked the usual somber comments from hockey's chattering class about how gratuitous violence has no place in the game. But for something with no place in hockey, it certainly seems to weasel its way in a lot. One reason Cote was in the lineup against New York is that the other Flyers forward whose job it is to look angry all the time, Jesse Boulerice (since waived), was starting his own 25-game suspension for a two-hander to the face of Vancouver's Ryan Kesler.
Now Simon, sprung from his personal purgatory, switched sides ... or at least moved from the right to the left side of the circle so he could line up next to Cote. "Simon looks at me, and he's like, 'What's up?'" Cote said. "And I said, 'Are we going to do this?' And he's like, 'Yup.' That's kinda [how] it happens."
The fight, the 98th of Simon's regular-season career according to hockeyfights.com, was nothing memorable: a flurry of lefts from Simon, some ripostes by Cote, two big men losing their balance and landing on the ice. During his first game back Simon would spend only 79 more seconds on the ice than he would in the penalty box. "Si didn't take a liking to that high stick," Bootland said. "That's Si, sticking up for me again. He's been good to me, that's for sure."
The two opposing values—good and bad, good and evil—have waged a terrible battle on earth for thousands of years.... Up to now there has been no greater event than ... this deadly contradiction.
If the terrible battle pits good versus evil, the three-round rematch staged by Simon and Hollweg last month made for an intriguing undercard. Simon, though still under suspension, was allowed to play exhibition games—another deadly contradiction—and so found himself facing the Rangers and Hollweg on Sept. 24. (Asked if dressing Simon for the game might have been provocative, Islanders coach Ted Nolan, who was born in 1958—and not, despite his wide-eyed response, yesterday—said, "I played him to get him into ... better condition.") The two players clashed along the boards throughout the first period, drawing roughing penalties. Later a high stick from Hollweg to Simon's right eye led to a quick exchange of stick jabs, then to fisticuffs when Rangers heavyweight Colton Orr stepped in to tangle with Simon. The third confrontation between Simon and Hollweg, after Hollweg hit an Islanders defenseman and Simon charged in from behind, devolved into a six-on-six brawl. Two weeks later, on the eve of the Islanders' season opener in Buffalo, purplish remnants of the high stick still rimmed the bottom of Simon's deep-set eye.
"The other guys who know [Hollweg] say he's an excellent guy," Simon said in his deliberate, leathery baritone. "Great teammate. Lots of fun to be around. He's an agitator on the ice. Draws penalties. Plays in your face. He just does his job."
The irony is that many of the same things are said of Simon. Indeed, grades of Simon's hockey character run the gamut from A to, well, A+. Says Buffalo goalie Jocelyn Thibault, who played with Simon in Quebec, Colorado and Chicago, "Unbelievable guy [who's] always been recognized as a straight shooter." Says Montreal defenseman Roman Hamrlik, who knows Simon from Calgary, "He loves you, he kicks ass for you. Awesome. Best teammate I played with." Says Toronto winger Jason Blake, who played on a line with Simon last season in New York, "Good teammate because he cared so much."
Thus the case of one of the NHL's most physical players raises some metaphysical questions: If Simon is so good, why does he do so many bad things? And if he does so many bad things, can he possibly be good?
"When I play, I'm different than I am in everyday life," says Simon, 35. "And I have to be. Sixteen years [in the NHL] and I've never been in any trouble away from hockey. Never an altercation. Nothing."
Fine. But the video evidence from last March 8 is as disturbing as it is incontrovertible. Maybe Simon's behavior wasn't as heinous as Marty McSorley's stalking of Donald Brashear in 2000 or Todd Bertuzzi's assault on Steve Moore in 2004, but it was so bad that teammates actually doubted what they had witnessed. With six minutes left in a 1--1 game against the Rangers—Simon had the Islander goal—the "gentle giant" (as defenseman Brendan Witt, who roomed with Simon for six years in Washington, calls him) took his 60-inch stick and tried to perform an Easton Synergy lobotomy on Hollweg. After his disciplinary hearing with NHL director of hockey operations Colin Campbell, Simon issued a nine-paragraph apology. In it, he let it drop that when he swung his stick he was still dazed from being checked into the boards from behind by Hollweg. (According to a source with knowledge of the drafting of the apology, Islanders owner Charles Wang wanted to mention Simon's possible concussion as a way of "getting out in front" of the story.) Simon said he had stayed in bed for about a week with headaches. He also said his eyes were overly sensitive to light, a symptom consistent with a Grade 2 concussion, according to American Academy of Neurology guidelines. But Simon's apparent haze sounded like a hockey variation of the Twinkie Defense; instead of sugar, a concussion had made him behave aberrantly. Judging by his record, however, the concussion just made him more like himself.