Friday, January 22, 2016


by Daniel Cote

Reid Simpson as a member of the Minnesota North Stars in 1992.
Here at the North Stars Preservation Society, we don't simply celebrate the "stars" of the franchise.  We celebrate ALL who wore the North Star.  Sure, we've been lucky to talk to some of the legendary players in franchise history, such as Steve Payne, Craig Hartsburg, and Brad Maxwell.  But we strive to tell the stories of anyone and everyone who suited up for the team we loved.  Today we talked to Reid Simpson, who appeared in one game for the North Stars.

Simpson's Minnesota hockey connections run deep, as does his love for the game.  He returns to the Twin Cities on February 20 for the NHL Stadium Series North Stars/Wild vs. Blackhawks Alumni Game -- as a member of the
Blackhawks, for whom he suited up for the most in his NHL career.

Simpson was drafted by the Philadelphia Flyers in the fourth round of the 1989 NHL draft.  He made his NHL debut for the Flyers during the 1991-92 season, appearing in one game.  Following that season, he signed as a free agent with the North Stars.  Once again, he appeared in one game for his new club.  On December 20, 1992 (ironically against the Blackhawks), Simpson made his North Stars debut.  His highlight was a heavyweight bout with Bryan Marchment.

Two more seasons would pass before Simpson appeared in another NHL game.  When he did resurface, it was with the Jacques Lemaire-led New Jersey Devils, during their Stanley Cup winning season of 1994-95.  Simpson shuttled back and forth between New Jersey and Albany for four seasons before finally becoming a full-time NHL player with the Blackhawks in 1997-98.  He would go on to play for the Lightning, Blues, Canadiens, Predators, and Penguins before hanging up his skates.

Simpson now resides in Chicago where he coaches and owns the Illiana Blackbirds junior hockey club, based in northwest Indiana.

North Stars Preservation Society (NSPS):  Hi, Reid, thank you so much for talking to me today.  This is North Stars blog, and I thought it would be a lot of fun to talk to you since you are playing against them in the alumni game.  But you were actually, for one game, a North Stars player.  What brought you to the organization, and what do you remember about your game with the North Stars?

Reid Simpson (RS):  Sure!  I grew up in northern Manitoba and obviously the Minnesota North Stars were one of the clubs that I knew a lot about.  When I signed with the team in Minnesota, back in '92-'93, I hadn't really played in the NHL much.  My experiences were with the Philadelphia Flyers, who drafted me.  I felt at that time I was just breaking through to potentially get a chance to play at that level.

In that first year I signed with them, it was one of those unexpected things where everything happened really fast and I got an opportunity to play.  The first game I played with them was against Chicago, in the old (Chicago) Stadium.  Obviously, you can't get much more of an enthusiastic building to play in or game to play in.  It was one of those games that made me look at the whole thing differently, as far as playing in the NHL.  Whether it was with the North Stars or not, it was like, "Oh my god, this is a much different setting than anything I've ever seen before."

So it had a big impact on me.  Unfortunately, at the time I got called up, I had some injuries with my groin and stuff.  I wasn't able to spend much more than two or three weeks there.  But it still had an impact.  It gave me the opportunity to realize that I was good enough to play at that level.  To practice with the team, like I said, for two or three weeks, I realized that I just needed an opportunity.  Unfortunately, it didn't come with that organization. But I think it was a springboard, in that short period of time, for myself to realize that I was capable of playing with them.

NSPS:  And when you finally did get an extended look, it was with Jacques Lemaire in New Jersey.  So I guess in a roundabout way, that's another Minnesota connection.

RS:  Yeah, you know the hockey world is a small world.  And you don't really realize it at the time you're going through it.  The most important thing a player has to do is show his work ethic.  Show his perseverance.  Show that he's willing to do whatever it takes to play at that level.  Sometimes that's just shutting your mouth and doing what you have to do, day in day out.  And that's kind of what I did.

There are a lot of real small connections that I had.  Part of maybe getting there at the time might have been that Bobby Clarke had a little to do with the organization, and he's from my hometown.  And Jacques Lemaire -- I met him before he was in Minnesota obviously -- but I think that once you're coached by a guy like that, and you do good things for them, it comes around.  They always have good things to say about you behind the scenes, and it allows you to continue playing.  I truly believe that Jacques is one of those guys.  I have great things to say about him as a coach.  And pretty much everyone, you know?  Rick Wilson was my coach in juniors, and he's coached for years now with (the Wild) organization.  There are a lot of connections that you form over the years.  As long as you do people right, and you give them your best every day, it's hard for anyone to say anything negative about you.

NSPS:  In yet another Minnesota coaching connection, you went to Chicago and played for (former North Stars captain) Craig Hartsburg.

RS:  Yeah, I did!  He was my first coach there.  That's another guy that I have a tremendous amount of respect for.  I only played for him for a short period of time, but I really had a lot of respect for him as a coach and for the things that he taught.  I certainly feel like he should have stayed a little longer than he did.  At the time, he was doing all the right things and it was unfortunate when he left because I really liked what he was doing with the club at the time.

NSPS:  I actually just talked to him earlier this week.  He was the most recent interview that I conducted before talking to you.  And now you get to play against him in this game!  So how excited are you to play outdoors in Minnesota in the middle of February?

RS:  Well, it's always exciting to get to play against guys who you played against and with in the past.  And the setting that this game has, to be played in at a national level... I think that everyone that I know who's playing in this game is doing everything they can to not show their age.  We do a lot of alumni stuff here in Chicago, and when you play with professionals, it's just a different game.  Everybody's still very competitive.  They just want to be the best that they can be.

So I've played in a lot of alumni games.  Maybe none at this level, where it's nationally televised.  And with the weather, nobody really knows what it's going to be like.  It could be sunny and 30 degrees.  It could be snowing and minus 20.  So you don't know what you're going to get there, but you deal with it.  It's more about seeing the guys that you played with, and having the opportunity to meet some of the fans that you've never met before.  There's a lot of people in the Minnesota area who have been die-hard hockey fans for a long time, and it'll be fun to give them an opportunity to see a lot of guys on the ice who they haven't seen for a while.

NSPS:  As far as the game itself, with this old rivalry, what do you think the chances are that some gloves get dropped?

RS:  No, that's not an issue.  There's a different compete level at the NHL level, you know?  You're competing for a job.  There's a different motivation for anyone who has ever fought.  You look back at guys who did that job for a living, and they're not guys that wanted to go out and get in a fight.  That's not their personality.  They did it for the team.  They did it for the wins.  They did it for the organization.  They did it because that's what was needed to be done at the time.  Whether you call it sacrificing yourself or just getting the job done, that's why the guys did it.  But it's not an issue in a game like this.  It never has been.  There might be some guys who get a little too aggressive, but a fight is not going to solve that.  Maybe the fans, from their perspective, want to remember the days that Basil McRae or Shane Churla fought Hawks players.  But these are great guys.  There's nobody really looking to do that in this situation.  Someone would have to take it way too far for that to happen, as far as I'm concerned.  I can't foresee anything like that.

Simpson with the Chicago Blackhawks
NSPS:  Right.  And I guess I asked that a little bit tongue-in-cheek, because of the rivalry.  But I agree with you.  I've met guys like Jack Carlson and Willi Plett, and they're great guys.  Absolutely some of the nicest players who I've met.  Let me ask you this, though... as someone who did make his living as a very physical player, how do you feel personally about the way that fighting has been phased out of today's NHL?

RS:  Well, I think that sports evolve and rules dictate certain behaviors out on the ice.  From a league perspective, they have adjusted the rules to the point where there really is no forum for that to happen.  If two guys decide they want to get in a fight that's born out of the action of the game, under the current rules, that's still an acceptable practice.  But the strategy of how players inject that into the game has dramatically changed over the last five to ten years.  If I was to watch a game now and try to put the Reid Simpson of 2005 onto a team, there would not be a lot of opportunity for those kind of things to happen.  I have friends that started in the early 2000s who had that job, when it was still a big part of the game.  But if you don't evolve, the game leaves you behind.

When I watch games now, do I say to myself, "That guy needs a beating right now?"  Well, yeah, maybe.  But the rules of the game don't allow for that to be a part of it anymore.  So if you're one of those guys, and you want to stay in the game and be around the current game, then you have to adjust.  Whether that means you can still fight five to seven times a year, or whether that means you have to be relevant in other ways of the game, then you have to (adjust).  The game evolved in my time and it's going to evolve again.  If you look ahead to 2025 or 2030, you'll see differences in how the game is played then, too.  You've got a window of 12-20 years to play and you've just got to make the most of it.  If I was born fifteen years later and made the National Hockey League at the age I did, I would have probably figured out what I needed to do.  I didn't grow up as a hockey player thinking, "I want to fight every game."  I did what I had to do to stay in the game and be relevant every night.

That's the thing people don't realize about these guys who play as so-called enforcers.  They were helluva hockey players.  They were the best of the best from the teams they played on in juniors.  They were the best players in the American Hockey League at the time.  And they just figured out how to be relevant at the NHL level.  It's about finding your way and figuring out what you can do to help your team win.  I own a junior hockey team in Chicago now, and that's what you look for in kids.  Not everybody has the exact same skill set.  Not everybody has the physical attributes to do the same things.  You look for players who realize how they can help the team every day.  I guess I figured that out.  Mike Modano figured it out when we played in juniors together.  He figured out what he could be, and he became one of the best American born players in the world.

NSPS:  You mentioned your junior team, and I think it's awesome that you're still involved in the game in that capacity.  How did you get involved with the Illiana Blackbirds?

RS:  I wanted to give back to junior hockey players and help them realize their dreams.  I had a lot of great people around me to help me do that.  I put up some money financially for the team and, as time went on, I realized that I had to be the person to step in to get it off the ground.  I don't know how long I'll continue to be involved at that level (as owner, general manager, and coach), but it's been great so far.  Each year I have to decide where I am with the hockey side of things.  So I commit to it by the year.  We've had some great kids come through the organization.  We've had great teams who have had a lot of success.  That's the fun thing about having teams and great kids.  You can have hockey be a big part of their lives and they use that for whatever they can in life.