What Steve Yzerman told Ben Simon before he coached Detroit Red Wings

Detroit Free Press

Steve Yzerman’s first bit of advice to Ben Simon was sensible. His second was to savor everything.

Simon, the head coach of the Grand Rapids Griffins, is used to hearing from the Detroit Red Wings when they want to poach his roster. But when Yzerman called this time, it was to let Simon know there were multiple players needed in Detroit — and two coaches.

Simon served as acting head coach during Saturday’s game against the New Jersey Devils, in what was the Wings’ last game before COVID-19’s stranglehold forced a shutdown through the Christmas break. Other teams that are shut down at least through Dec. 26 include the Montreal Canadiens, Columbus Blue Jackets, Toronto Maple Leafs, Boston Bruins, Nashville Predators, Calgary Flames, Colorado Avalanche and Florida Panthers.

The next game on the Wings’ schedule is Dec. 27 at the New York Rangers.

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Amid so much turmoil, Simon has a memory to treasure.

“Not a lot of guys can say they’ve stepped behind an NHL bench,” Simon said. “Whether it’s one game or turns into a thousand games over the course of my life, it was a great experience and to do it for Detroit was pretty cool.”

Simon got the call Friday that he and his assistant Todd Krygier were needed in Detroit because Wings head coach Jeff Blashill and assistant coach Alex Tanguay had tested positive for the virus. By the time the puck dropped against the Devils, the list of players in pandemic protocol numbered Filip Zadina, Alex Nedeljkovic, Robby Fabbri, Michael Rasmussen, Givani Smith and Carter Rowney.

Pius Suter, Joe Veleno and Sam Gagner entered protocol Sunday.

Simon filled in for Blashill, and Krygier, whose duties in GR match those of Tanguay, filled the other coaching spot. Wings assistant coach Doug Houda served his usual role in charge of the defensemen and penalty killing, and, Simon said, was the one who “gave it” to the players during first intermission after a tepid start.

It was a hectic day during a tumultuous time. The Wings played Thursday at Carolina, against a Hurricanes team that was short two skaters because of the virus. On Friday, Blashill was among Wings personnel who tested positive, leading Yzerman to summon Simon, Krygier, plus three players from Grand Rapids. Preparing for the Devils was a handful, especially when Zadina received a positive result shortly before game time.

Blashill was a part of pre-game planning via phone and Zoom.

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“I talked to Jeff Blashill about line matchups, stuff like that, and you’ve got everything and you’re trying to take a breath, and then Z comes in and he was no longer able to go,” Simon said.

That led to defenseman Jordan Oesterle being moved to forward.

“It was a little bit of flying by the seats of our pants,” Simon said. “But things happen during a game that you have to adjust to, and you just kind of roll with the punches. Jeff had his game plan and we tried our best to implement what he was looking for, and at the end of the day, a lot of the success that night was because of the preparation that went on behind the scenes by Jeff and his staff, even though they weren’t able to be there.”

Yzerman’s advice was “don’t mess it up,” Simon said, and to enjoy the experience: “He was great. We’re missing a lot of players, a lot of coaches, go out there, have fun, and do this to the best of your ability.”

So Simon did, to the tune of a 5-2 victory. It also turned out to be a special night for captain Dylan Larkin, who celebrated his first NHL hat trick, and for AHL call-up Kyle Criscuolo, who earned his first NHL point on Larkin’s third goal. Larkin made sure everybody got a memento.

“Dylan Larkin was fantastic and there’s a reason why he’s wearing that letter on his jersey,” Simon said. “He was very complimentary of Houds, myself and Todd. They gave us each a puck, which is great. It was fun to be a part of.”

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Simon said he felt, “a little anxiety, a little panic, a little excitement,” when he first found out he’d be coaching in the NHL, but when he stood on the bench at Little Caesars Arena, the overwhelming feeling was exhilaration.

“The anthem is going, the energy was fantastic, and you take a moment — this is pretty cool,” Simon said. “I was treated like a king for a few days. It was a great experience. It was awesome.”

Contact Helene St. James at hstjames@freepress.com. Follow her on Twitter @helenestjames. Read more on the Detroit Red Wings and sign up for our Red Wings newsletter. Her book, The Big 50: The Detroit Red Wings is available from AmazonBarnes & Noble and Triumph Books. Personalized copies available via her e-mail. 

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