Hockey has never seemed more like a job to Kalamazoo forward Ben Simon
And he's loving every second of it.
Simon is finally getting to enjoy a little businessman's normalcy in his transient profession.
He wakes up in his house in South Bend, Ind., around 6 a.m., fixes breakfast for his two young daughters and is out the door 45 minutes later. He catches up on phone calls during his slightly more than an hour drive to the rink.
On non-game days, he's back home in time to sled with the neighborhood children. If there's a game that night, he can catch a nap at his in-laws' house in Kalamazoo. It's not the NHL or AHL, but as far as the next best thing goes it's a pretty cushy alternative.
"This was an easy transition. It's so much more comfortable having the luxury of living in your own house," he said. "If I wanted to keep playing, this is the place for me to play."
It's also an option that took awhile to emerge.
Simon, 31, skated in Germany last season and was banking on another overseas contract this year until that well ran dry. He thought about pursuing a job at Notre Dame, his alma mater, or somewhere else in the real world, but that, too, was a dead end.
"This isn't the best time to jump into the job market," Simon said. "At some point, I have to pay bills somehow."
Simon, who has skated in 81 NHL contests, had never played lower than AHL or IHL hockey as a pro. But Kalamazoo appealed to him because of its proximity to home and because his wife, Beth, is from there.
One of Simon's many contacts is former teammate Darryl Bootland
. Darryl's brother, Nick, is the bench boss of the K-Wings. Simon called Nick in November and asked if he had any spots available. Nick said come on over, we'll take a look at you.
Simon's reprieve in Kalamazoo has been more than just a case of a coach with a soft spot for a vet. Simon contributed 4 goals and 8 assists in his first 14 games.
"It was a little rough at the beginning. It still took time to get my timing down," Simon said. "I still think I have a lot to offer. That's the thing that's frustrating. You know you have stuff left in the tank. At the same time, you know you have things working against you. Down here, it's been great. You're playing a ton. It's fun. It's getting back into playing hockey."
How much longer Simon gets the chance to do that could come down to his ability to forgo the elements that make his current setup so perfect. After getting a taste of the settled-in life, or as much as a hockey player can in-season, Simon would find it harder to turn around and distance himself from his home base to join another team.
"When I was young and single, I'd love to play until they drag me off," he said. "At this point (his hockey future) is a family decision. We have to take a step back and evaluate everything. There's a fine line between pursuing my career and letting (his girls) enjoy a normal childhood."
Going the distance
- South Carolina forward Matt Fornataro
was scheduled to appear on Stingrays coach Cail MacLean
's radio show last week. The only problem was that Fornataro got lost driving to the studio.
"I had no idea where they held it. I don't know my way around here very well," Fornataro said.
Fornataro kept puttering around until he found his destination. Which is only fitting, since the coach went the extra mile for him first.
Fornataro popped into training camp with Houston, but failed to stick there. Meanwhile, MacLean was looking for a little extra help up front. He called his old buddy, Aeros assistant coach Troy Ward.
Ward spoke highly of Fornataro, 24. MacLean brought the player in, and an initial trial has turned into a much longer-term relationship. Fornataro ranks ninth in the league with 28 points (13-15). In his last 10 games, he's piled up 18 points (7-11).
"This was an easy transition. It's so much more comfortable having the luxury of living in your own house. If I wanted to keep playing, this is the place for me to play." -- Ben Simon
"Cail's been great. He's definitely put confidence in me for me to be our go-to guy," Fornataro said. "Lately it's been a confidence game. You have a good game, try to take that into the next."
The defending Kelly Cup champs have been rolling that over very nicely lately, as winners of 11 straight. One of the reasons is an improved power play, which was revitalized when MacLean put Fornataro on the point. He played that role at the University of New Hampshire, and volunteered to give it a try in South Carolina when the unit was sputtering earlier this season.
"I thought it took him a little while to find his way here. But in the last month, he's done well. He simplified his game. Then his skill started to come out," MacLean said. "When he's in possession of the puck, he makes things happen. He's been at the forefront a fair amount of time on the streak. His success lately directly ties into our success as a team."
Right temperature for Gordon
- When Reading forward Ben Gordon
checks in with his father, Kevin, the topic of weather comes up frequently.
Dad invariably wants to know the temperature wherever Ben is. The answer is usually about 50 degrees warmer than where Kevin is calling from, the family home in International Falls, Minn. That North American version of the North Pole is where Ben grew up playing hockey in the huge outdoor meat freezer.
"It's kind of shocking. The temperature difference from here to there is so big," Ben said. "Now that I've lived away for a few years I realized how cold it was when I was younger. It can get miserable. I thought that's the way it was (everywhere). I didn't know any better."
The thing is, both Gordons are exactly where they want to be. Kevin, a former coach of the IHL's Kansas City Blades, is settled in as an elementary school gym teacher and a girls' softball coach back home. Ben, 24, is one of the best scorers in the ECHL.
His 34 points (14-20) in 25 games rank him third in league scoring. That production -- including a 3-goal, 2-assist night vs. Johnstown on Dec 16 -- is a continuation of a sneak preview he gave the Royals last season.
Gordon turned in a solid performance for Cincinnati as a rookie last year, going 15-24 in 51 games. A late-season trade to Reading set him on an even more inspired pace of 6-12 in just 12 games, a fast clip he's easily matching this year.
"As a rookie, you are trying to figure out the game. You are trying to make a name for yourself," Gordon said. "I told myself I wanted to pick up where I left off. Nothing really changed. I just started coming into my own in Cincinnati. It carried over to when I got here."
Around the ECHL
- The ECHL reached the one million mark in attendance in 237 games, the fewest number needed to hit that level since it took 206 in 1999-2000. … Charlotte goalie Ryan Munce
has stopped 112 of the last 116 shots he's faced. … The Checkers' Randy Rowe
played in his 500th pro game and Mike Harder
his 600th on Dec.11 vs. South Carolina. … Cliff Loya
played his 200th all-time game as a Wheeling Nailer on Dec. 12 vs. Kalamazoo, becoming the fourth player in franchise history to reach that milestone. Loya has a chance to catch Stephan Brannare's all-time Nailers record of 231 games. … Gwinnett's 3-2 loss at Wheeling on Dec. 13 was the Gladiators' first regulation road defeat of the season after starting out 8-0-2. … Bakersfield has won a team record 10 home games in a row. … Idaho is the only team that has not allowed a shorthand goal. … Steelheads defenseman Mike Stuart has left the team to play in Norway. … Last weekend, Stockton become just the second team in seven seasons to sweep Alaska in a three-game series at Sullivan Arena. … Reading's 3-2 loss to Cincinnati on Dec. 12 marked the Royals' first regulation loss in a game decided by one goal this season. The Royals have compiled a record of 9-1-1-2 in one-goal games this year. … Reading's Eric Werner
scored the game's first goal in a 4-3 shootout loss in Kalamazoo on Dec. 9. That marked the tenth time that the Royals had tallied the game's first goal-and to that point ten different players had scored those first goals.