Former Indigenous hockey enforcer now a leader teaching fitness to kids

Jason Simon played hockey for 31 teams in 13 leagues before returning to the Aamjiwnaang First Nation. Submitted Photo

Troy Shantz

Jason Simon learned from a young age he could hold his own in a fistfight.

As a kid from the Aamjiwnaang First Nation, he parlayed that skill into a lengthy professional hockey career, suiting up with and scrapping against some of the top names in the game.

Simon doesn’t drop the gloves any more. These days, he trains and mentors First Nations youth at a fitness program he runs on the Sarnia reserve.

“I teach them about eating right, about drugs and alcohol, as well as fitness,” he said.

“I like to get them at 12-years-old when you can start training and teaching them properly, right off the hop.”

A reputation as a fighter earned Simon contracts with a remarkable 32 teams in 13 leagues, including brief stints with the NHL’s New York Islanders and Phoenix Coyotes.

This year, he was inducted into the Sarnia-Lambton Sports Hall of Fame.

“I moved around a lot because there was always a need for my type of player,” he said. “I could always find a job.”

Racial prejudice forced Simon as a teen to defending himself on and off the ice. But when he saw others around him turn to drugs and alcohol, he decided instead to get fit.

“You’re getting peer pressure to do drugs and alcohol, and you want to fit in so badly that you start doing it,” he said. “I was lucky that I had hockey to focus on.”

Working out three hours and running eight miles a day, Simon was soon in peak condition. Already 6’1” at the age of 15, he caught the attention of several OHL clubs.

Enforcers were once a vital part of every team’s lineup and Simon’s background, size and conditioning fit the bill, he said.

Following a junior career in Sudbury, Kingston, Hamilton and Windsor, Simon was drafted in 1989 in the 11th round of the NHL draft by the New Jersey Devils.

Simon remembers his the first day of training camp squaring off against tough guy Claude Lemieux – a bout that left Lemieux with a bloody nose.

“Some of the coaches said, ‘Good for you Jason, he needed that,’” Simon said.

“The veterans, they always thought they were untouchable. But they’re not. I’m trying to take their job.”

Simon amassed more than 4,000 penalty minutes and estimates he was involved in more than 200 on-ice fights.

When his career came to an end in 2008 he found himself back home, and the adjustment was difficult.

“I’m sitting here in my apartment on the reserve,” he said. “There’s no fans, no stadiums, so what do you do to kill the pain? You drink.”

Before it got out of hand, though, Simon sought help. He also fell in love again with fitness and conditioning.

And then an idea struck.

“I was working out anyway, so I thought why don’t I gather up some youth?” he said. “And, like, 15 youth worked out with me every day.”

Today, Simon has a gym at Aamjiwnaang and runs a nine-week fitness program for indigenous kids every summer. He’s hoping soon to add an after-school program.

“Every summer I see the same results. They get 100% better,” he said.

“Their skating, their strength, their cardio, their attitude, their confidence. That’s what makes me happy, that’s what stimulates me, how I can help change lives.”

Simon also takes his story on the road, visiting Indigenous communities across North America and inspiring youth by providing the role model he lacked growing up.

He’s booked to visit about 20 communities over the next year.

“In about an hour and 15 minutes I try to tell them, ‘OK, this is what happened in my life, this is how I reacted, this is what I should’ve done.

“But here I am today,’” he said. “Experience, strength and hope.”