BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – One of the most well-known players in the SPHL is Birmingham Bulls captain Craig Simchuk. Simmer, as he is called by his teammates and friends, has had an interesting professional career despite only being 29-years old. Recently, I had the opportunity to sit down with the Bulls captain and pick his brain. We talked about movies, junk food, sports, and life. What he would like to most be remembered for and fun times growing up. The topics ranged from Lord of the Rings to The Simpsons and the Kennedy wives.
I first met Craig last season, long before I became a writer for The Sin Bin. One of my hobbies has always been taking pictures. During one of the skate with the team events last season, I was standing at center ice taking pictures of the players with fans and whatnot, when suddenly a shower of ice comes flying up behind me. I turn around and see Simmer, his words were simply, “Did I scare ya?” I replied no, we laughed and I realized the Bulls have a captain that despite the reputation as a badass on the ice, is one of the nicest and fan-friendliest people I’ve had the chance to meet. So sit back and enjoy my time with Birmingham Bulls captain Craig Simchuk.
- Who is Craig Simchuk?
Well, definitely a guy with a big heart. Someone who likes to put other peoples needs before mine. Sometimes that’s a double-edged sword. A guy who will do anything for a teammate. Someone who loves the game of hockey, who is very passionate about hockey.
- Favorite memory of playing hockey as a kid?
I have a few growing up. One of the better ones, most fun and one of the better teams I’ve been on. It was a summer/spring league team. We were probably the top players in our age group in the area. Instead of the traditional simple Bulls jersey, with Simchuk on the back. We were called The Simpsons and we had Simpsons characters names on the back. We were Nashville Predators colors.
At the time I was Groundskeeper Willie and I believe one of the mobsters, I believe his name was Fat Tony. Some guys had Bart and Homer and whoever, we ended up winning, I don’t even know if we ever lost a game. Other teams didn’t think that was too funny after we were beating them 10-1, and we’re rubbing it in with these funny jerseys.
- When you’re not playing hockey, what’s your favorite hobby?
I always like to get out on the golf course. Love working out, going to the gym, and uh what else? Nothing too crazy, pretty laid back when it comes to that. I’m always either working or doing something hockey related. Golf, throw fishing in there too. I went fishing a ton this summer, I enjoyed that every time.
- Favorite movie of all time?
Wow, that stumped me there. (Please don’t say Goon), no definitely not Goon. There are a couple of hockey movies up there. Probably go with the Trilogy, The Lord of the Rings. Those are my favorite, grew up watching those. Still will watch them any day.
- Favorite junk food?
I’ll have to go with the Nanaimo Bar, the New York Slice. My parents recently brought me down some, it didn’t last too long.
- More fun, scoring a goal or getting into a fight?
Definitely scoring a goal, I mean winning a fight is always fun, but all around scoring a goal. You don’t always win the fight, that’s not fun.
- Favorite arena you’ve played in?
I’ve played in the MTS Place, where the Winnipeg Jets play, pretty nice facility. Got to use one of the locker rooms, that was pretty cool. All around I’d have to go with Lake Placid. Played a college game up there. There’s just so much history there. It’s a massive rink, its over Olympic size, so a lot of skating there.
- You can pick your dream team to play one, who’s the starting lineup including yourself?
Braden Holtby, got the pleasure of meeting him a few times, stayed in his condo for a couple of weeks, an amazing guy. Bobby Orr on defense, definitely a legend. Sidney Crosby, Steve Yzerman, (this answer took a lot of thought) Scott Stevens. He was a fearless leader, he wouldn’t back down from anybody, I respect that.
- Who was your biggest role model growing up?
I always loved as an athlete, looking up to my favorite player was Steve Yzerman and Joe Sakic, I always thought they were great, on and off the ice, they represented the game and their team the way you should. Other than an athlete, I’d have to say my brother, older brother, Kevin Simchuk. I always looked up to him, he showed me the way.
- During your final season in Columbus, you were one of the players involved in the bus wreck. What was your initial thought when it happened, and where were you on the bus?
I was actually in the bathroom at the time. We had a sleeper bus, I don’t know how many people have seen a traditional sleeper bus, but the bathroom is located roughly in the middle. I was in there, I did not know what happened. I felt a couple of big bumps, next thing I know I was pinned between the sink counter top and the door caved in on me. All I remember is different, various items. I remember a jar of jam came sliding in and smashed next to my head. The swing out mirrors shattered in front of me. The toilet dislodged, and had uh, well I don’t know if you wanna call it that blue water, dye, the cleaner was slowly leaking out everywhere, smelled awful. I was trapped in there, I don’t know how long. Seemed like an eternity, I think I was told 5-10 minutes.
- Unfortunately one of the defining moments of your career to this point happened on December 19, 2015. Take me back to that night and what lead up to the incident with Kyle Rank?
I think uh, there were a few factors that led up to it. It was the second of two meetings at home against Peoria, that was a Saturday. On Friday I did not play, I was in the stands injured. We got beat pretty bad, I think it was 7-1. Our starting goalie actually got called up that week to the East Coast. We played Shannon Szabados at the time. There were about three or four instances she was either bumped, ran into, knocked over or interfered with in some kind of way. Banging and crashing the net on her. At the time, I felt they were being rather chippy as a team, dirty, taking advantage of our depleted lineup and rubbing it in.
So the next night I asked if I could dress in warm-ups, to see how it was. Looking bad I probably shouldn’t have played, but I did, and the same thing happened again. They actually ran into her, causing her to stay down for 5-10 minutes, the trainer had to come onto the ice. There was just built up frustration. There was no intent to hurt Kyle Rank, cause any harm. If you go back and watch the video, I was actually hoping to get into a fight or start a line brawl. At the time they had a few tough guys on the ice, somewhat tough guys, no one obliged. Not saying that’s their fault, but they didn’t wanna go. I got into an altercation, incident with Kyle Rank.
I wish I could go back, take it back, go back in time, but we can’t do that. I suffered the consequences, I learned the hard way, it wasn’t easy coming back and sitting out and watching. Coming back, seeing the verbal abuse everyone on social media had to offer. No one really said anything to my face, but everyone was tougher online. It wasn’t easy, but in the end, it made me a stronger, better person. I definitely learned from the experience. I wish I could go back and do things differently or handle it differently, but like I said, I can’t, I’ve moved on from it. From my understanding, I did reach out to Kyle Rank, pretty close, a few days after the incident. It did take him a while, but he did finally return my message and accept my apology. We haven’t talked since, we played each other since, but nothing was said or done. I like to put that behind us and move on from that. I know reality is, it is something that will always be with me, but at the same time, it’s not something that defines me, much bigger and better things define me.
- Toughest guys you’ve ever had to fight?
One of the guys early in my career was, Drobot, Brad Drobot. It was military night, they shipped in about 7,000 U.S. Soldiers and the place was packed. We were beating them pretty good, that was the second fight of the night. The soldiers loved it, I actually held my own, I did pretty well, he’s much bigger, but I held my own. I think the guy that punches the hardest was one of his, their captain at the time, Corey Toy. That guy almost broke my helmet with a punch.
- When you were selected to be the Captain of the Bulls, you followed in the skate marks of current coach, Jamey Hicks, and former coach Jerome Bechard, what was it like when you got that honor?
It was an absolutely great honor. Seeing those guys, those two players, I never got to see them as captain(s). Seeing how people respected them years down the road, how their legacy lived and still continues to live in the Birmingham and Southern hockey area, It is amazing. I got to know both of them I’d like to say pretty well, very well off the ice. I wouldn’t say I try to model myself after one of them in particular, or any person in particular. I try to take bits of every captain I’ve had along the way and what I thought made them unique. Definitely playing for them, being around them, seeing them as people, has grown me as a person. Has definitely helped me as a captain, just from on-ice advice, off-ice to the real world, not even hockey related, just being a regular Joe in society, you can see why they were selected back when they played. They have characteristics that stand out, and I respect both. I was truly blessed to be named the captain and follow in their footsteps. Definitely not an easy job, but it’s one that I cherish.
- How does a player from Midwestern Canada end up playing hockey at a small liberal arts college that is more known for being the alma mater of the Kennedy Wives than for its hockey program?
You did some research. I was fortunate enough back in the Manitoba Junior Hockey League that I played in, we usually have a showcase tournament where most of the teams come in and play at one location. It’s just easy, easier for scouts and coaches to come watch players, watch four or five games in a day, without travel. I was lucky enough to have a pretty good game. I received an email from Manhattanville’s coach asking if I wanted to come for a visit. I knew nothing, I knew a couple of things about D1 but I didn’t really know anything about D3, I accepted a free trip to New York. I went down there, I loved it. I got a tour of the city, they took me out a few different places, I got to see MSG and Times Square and everything, I couldn’t say no. Probably one of the best decisions I’ve made. I met some tremendous people there, and I still have ties there. I do wish I could go back and visit, see the renovations that have been done and the changes. I know they’re still doing well, they’re actually in the NCAA tournament right now. Yeah, it’s a long way from home, but it was one of the best choices I could have made.
- Tell me what was it like to play for the Manhattanville College Valiants?
It was a little intimidating, I didn’t know what to expect. It definitely was a lot different than juniors. You don’t start till a certain date, but you’re on the ice. There’s captains practices, that was definitely a change. There’s captains workouts, those are “optional” but not really. At the same time, if you’re not there, you’re not in good. It was fun, I got to see some of the most amazing cities and places along the way from going to that school. It was definitely four years of my life, I’ll never forget. It was a great opportunity, it was very exciting. The rink that I played on, was actually the New York Rangers old practice facility. So our dressing room was probably better than 95% of pro dressing rooms right now. We had hot tub, cold tub, steam room, sauna, everything you could think of, we had. It was kind of neat, some ex-NHLers would stop by, see their old stomping groups. It was an honor to play there.
- When your final shift is skated, what would you like to be known for?
Ultimate team guy, he was the guy that was either out there in the last minute, to score a goal or to hold the lead and prevent them from scoring. I wanna be known as the guy who would go through a wall for his teammates. I wanted to win at all cost.
- What would it mean to be the first player to hoist up the Presidents Cup this season?
I try not to think about that, that’s a long way away. It’s something, you always, like a little kid holding the Stanley Cup. It may not be the Stanley Cup, but for the amount of time we invest here daily, either at the rink or the gym or whatever it is. It would definitely be an amazing opportunity, a sigh of relief. All the hard work, the 25-years you put in, paid off. I can’t even imagine what it would feel like. I just hope that day comes.
- What are the three things you’ve learned from playing hockey that you use in everyday life?
Well if anyone knows me, I like to joke around and call it Simmer time. Being on time definitely was instilled at a young age. I remember one of my coaches, “If your five minutes early, you’re ten minutes late.” I live by that, I try to instill that into everybody. I love to be the first one at the rink, and I try not necessarily to be the last one there, but I usually end up being one of the last ones there.
Definitely, the team group mentality atmosphere, everybody has a role and everybody is equally important and that nobody is irreplaceable. If Gretzky can get traded, anybody can. Everybody brings something to the table. It may not be on the scoresheet, but it doesn’t mean it’s not important. There are guys that do the dirty work and do all the grunt work, stand in front, take a beating so that the point man can get a shot through.
Self-discipline/hard work. Especially in college there’s more of a team atmosphere in the sense of team workouts, everything is as a team. The pro mentality is, your old enough. Everyone’s done it, everyone’s gotta do it on their own. It’s here, it’s up to you if you want to take advantage of it. Some guys go to the gym, some guys don’t. That’s something, I’ve learned and tried to adapt and take into my consideration. It’s holding yourself accountable, if no one is gonna make you do something, you’ve got to have the fire in your belly to do it yourself. The will to want to win, to be better each day.
- Tougher to deal with, overzealous fans or bad officiating?
I’ve definitely had my share of both, I wouldn’t say I’ve had too many crazy fans. I don’t wanna say officiating, because if they read this, they’re gonna call me on penalties. There are times I have been impolite to referees and voiced my opinion toward them. At the end of the day, the fans are the ones who pay my paycheck. So I’ll have to go with the refs, they all suck, including John Rey.
- What’s your favorite sport to watch besides hockey?
I would say, one of the major four golf tournaments. One of the PGA events, like the Masters, I’m tuned in all day Sunday. Can’t really watch baseball it’ll put me right to bed. Football is growing on me, especially being in the South for a few years, I’d have to go with golf, I like golf.
So there you have it in his own words, Who is Craig Simchuk. Going into this interview I was anxious about it. I knew the questions were good, some came with previous knowledge of Craig, others I wasn’t sure what kind of answer I would get. What I can say I’ve learned about Simmer is I can see why he was chosen to be the last captain of the Columbus Cottonmouths and first captain of the Birmingham Bulls. He is a leader both on and off the ice. I wouldn’t say we are friends, but I would say if there is something I needed, I believe if I called on Simmer, he would do everything he could to help me out.