Christian: In this interview I’m joined by Craig Simpson. Craig is two times Stanley Cup Champion and Wikipedia says the greatest sniper in NHL history.
Craig: Thanks for having me on. I appreciate it.
His recollection on the ‘Battle of Blades’
Christian: Craig, I saw the clip from the battle of blades with your wife, Jamie Salé. The skating skills we could see there. Is that something that comes naturally to an ice hockey player, or did you train for that?
Craig: I would say the figure skating was a completely different realm for us from being [ice] hockey players. It’s something that for me was happening 13 years after I retired. I had back trouble and hadn’t skated much. So getting back on the ice and having to learn and skate the way figure skaters did was a huge challenge.
But honestly, I wish I had used it in my hockey playing days because their power, control, and edges and the way that they skate would have helped me a lot. And as you can see now, so many figure skaters are NHL skating coaches.
Honestly, I wish I had used figure skating in my hockey playing days because their power, control and edges, and the way that they skate would have helped me a lot.
Jamie’s partner and ex-husband David Pelletier is the skating coach for the Edmonton Oilers here in Edmonton, so I definitely would have done it. If I could go backward and use some of the strengths and the techniques, I think it would have really helped me as a player.
Check out the clip from the ‘Battle of Blades’
The benefits of figure skating skills for ice hockey players
Christian: That’s interesting. What do the figure skaters actually bring to the table? Is it more the skill side of skating?
Craig: Yes, and more of the skating edge control, the power, the strides and the focus of the core of your body. If you think of figure skaters, they can execute so much and keep their body very still and use their lower body for real power and edge work and turn corners. Also to be able to lift themselves and spin like they do in a jump, you can just imagine the control that that takes.
I think what you’re finding for skaters and hockey now is that that really does help their way of increasing your power, increasing your ability to turn tightly. And it does translate well to hockey.
What you’re finding for skaters and hockey now is that that really does help their way of increasing your power, increasing your ability to turn tightly. And it does translate well to hockey.
It’s a completely different sport and discipline. But I think to the skating stride, a lot of the NHL teams, anyways, are finding that it’s helped guys increase their power, their speed and their explosiveness, and that’s something that’s really been used very effectively.
Christian: Yes, I can imagine that.
His darkest moment
Christian: In your life, as an athlete, what was your darkest moment?
Craig: I was contemplating the answer to that question. There are different moments that stand out for different things. Just to give you a little background, I would say at the very end, I had a career-ending back injury at 28 years old in the prime of my career.
So I would say from a darkness standpoint, I can remember a moment at the end of my last season, when I had been struggling with the pain every day. My life was just chronic pain 24/7.
I had a career-ending back injury at 28 years old in the prime of my career. I had been struggling with the pain every day. My life was just chronic pain 24/7.
I remember a day, I was at Disney World in Florida with my son, Dylan, who was not even two years old yet. I had him on my shoulders waiting for one of the rides to open. I just remember how much pain I was in and feeling I can’t do this anymore.
I can’t be dad. I can’t hold my kids. I can’t act away from the rink and from an emotional standpoint, that was probably the lowest that I felt. I thought that my hockey career was over and my life was in pain.
And that puts you into an area when you’re been used to competing and having the drive of waking up every day to try to get better and improve on your skills, that had nothing, no bearing on my life. It was like,
I was horrified. My thoughts were that I got to get through the day and be a dad and be a father and be able to sit and walk without pain. So that was probably the darkest and something that, here 25 or 27 years later, I still have chronic pain and still deal with the remnants of that.
I was horrified. My thoughts were that I got to get through the day and be a dad and be a father and be able to sit and walk without pain.
But from an athletic standpoint, I was the second overall pick in the NHL draft in 1985, which was a year after Mario Lemieux, who ended up being one of our games greatest players. My first year in the NHL was one with great expectations and I didn’t meet them.
This was especially going to a team where Mario, the year before, as the first overall pick, won the Rookie of the Year, had a hundred points and was a dynamic player. It was really the first time in my career that I failed. I didn’t have a great rookie season.
I had 11 goals with 28 points. It was a disappointment. So darkness wise, it was the first time that you really had to look at yourself and say, you didn’t perform to the level you needed to be. I remember many nights coming back from the rink frustrated and down and disappointed.
I would say it was probably the best learning moment for me, though. Instead of being down and letting it derail me, it inspired me and it taught me what I needed to know about myself to get better and to train at a higher level and to be prepared to make that jump from university or college hockey to the NHL.
So there were moments in that year where I thought that it was not going to work. I thought that I was a failure and I was not going to make it. That was probably the first real-time that I had to dig in and tell myself that I could do it and turn things around. Less than two years later, I had my best year and had 56 goals.
I was the second overall pick in the NHL draft in 1985, and my first year in the NHL was one with great expectations and I didn’t meet them. It was really the first time in my career that I failed. I thought that I was a failure and I was not going to make it.
Those are the moments that you have to decide if it is worth it. The answer was yes. I really had to look at myself and say that it’s not always somebody else’s fault. The onus is on me to make sure that I trained and I did things differently to find that way to get success.
Christian: And what made you decide to say yes, you want to do it. Imagine you would have to give advice to a young athlete that is probably in the same situation.
Craig: I think you got to have a passion for what you want to do. And my dream was to be an NHL player. To go so high in the draft and have great expectations was exciting, but it also comes with the responsibility. That responsibility is to put in the work to try to achieve that level.
You got to have a passion for what you want to do, my dream was to be an NHL player.
So the decision was an easy one, but it was one that takes a lot of self-evaluation. Let’s say there were some times where maybe I didn’t get the opportunity or the coach didn’t give me a chance. In the end, the onus was on me.
I’ve seen the other parents with young kids in hockey that try to push their kids and give them every opportunity and give them the best of this and that. I always said it’s up to their child to decide what his development or her development is going to be.
It’s up to the child and the athlete that says, what do I want to be? What’s important to me? And it was too important to me. It meant too much to me.
I made sacrifices. At that point, I was 19 years old and had played since I was about five years old and I just said, this is far too important, and I’ve got to find a way to make it work.
His reflection on his short career in the NHL due to ongoing injuries
Christian: When I did my research and I read that you had to end your career at a fairly young age, I was thinking there was a story of a tennis player. Her name was Monica Seles and she was at the height of her career and then she was stabbed down by someone, and could never really return to the same level after the attack.
Later she said, in an interview, she still has these “what ifs” in her head, so what if it would not have happened? Do you have “what ifs”?
Craig: Inherently as an athlete and a dreamer and a performer with the drive to be the best you can be, and our goal was to win a Stanley Cup and to be a part of that. I do have the “what ifs”.
Inherently as an athlete and a dreamer and a performer with the drive to be the best you can be, I do have the “what ifs”.
Certainly financially, there’s no question. When I was the second-leading scorer in the league scored 56 goals, I was making $175,000. Today’s player at that level is making five, six, seven, $8 million. So I think the “what ifs” sometimes is what if I’d played at a different era or a different time, or if I had an opportunity to play another 10 years?
What was easier for me was that moment I talked about earlier, where I had my son on my shoulders and I couldn’t even stand and had to disappoint him by getting him down, I knew that my body was telling me I couldn’t perform at this level. And having the ability to deal with that is a hard one at 28 years old.
My last three years in the NHL, I was in so much pain and battling through injury. I think I remember in my training sessions the last year I played, when I was struggling to get even ready for training camp because my back was still giving me trouble, where I went in and got a couple of medical procedures done.
I remember thinking consciously that I got to go and give a hundred percent of what I do. I’ve got to try as hard as I can. I got to train as hard as I can. I got to see every medical thing because I don’t want to be the 52-year-old now saying that I really didn’t try and I didn’t work hard at it and I should have, and maybe I could’ve played more.
So it’s something that you have to deal with emotionally at the time. You have to say that if you cut corners and you didn’t rehab, or you didn’t train hard enough, and then all of a sudden you weren’t able to play anymore, that’s the hardest part to sit here because the time has passed you by.
I remember thinking consciously that I got to go and give a hundred percent of what I do. I’ve got to try as hard as I can. I got to train as hard as I can. Because I don’t want to be the 52-year-old now saying that I really didn’t try and I didn’t work hard at it, and the time has passed you by.
You’ll never get it back and there’s your biggest “what if”. I was very conscious of that in the last two years of my hockey career with my struggles. I had to make sure that I was honest with myself, that I tried everything and I worked as hard as I could, and it just wasn’t there.
So the fact that I got traded and lived the dream of winning two Stanley Cups with the Edmonton Oilers and playing on such great teams, I think made it easier to handle the end of my career so young.
The fact that I got traded and lived the dream of winning two Stanley Cups with the Edmonton Oilers and playing on such great teams, made it easier to handle the end of my career so young.
But it’s definitely something that I thought about at the time while I was going through the training.
Christian: I believe that.
His best moment
Christian: What was your best moment?
Craig: I was thinking of that and ironically I don’t think it’s an individual moment. Fiftieth goal in the NHL is a big milestone, so to get that was a great moment and I enjoyed it. Winning the Stanley Cup the first time was a great moment and something that still stands out as something special.
Fiftieth goal in the NHL is a big milestone, that was a great moment and I enjoyed it. Winning the Stanley Cup the first time was a great moment and something that still stands out as something special.
But I really feel the moment that if I was to paint a picture of what the journey of being an athlete is, I remember sitting in the Boston Garden after we won the Stanley Cup in 1990. This was after Wayne Gretzky had been traded and nobody thought we were as good a team.
Mark Messier was our captain and he was my center. Glenn Anderson was my linemate and I played the best hockey of my life. I led the playoffs in scoring that year. I scored the game-winning goal to clinch the Stanley Cup final that night.
Check out the Stanly Cup-winning goal of Craig Simpson
The moment that really fills me up as an athlete was sitting in the dressing room in my sweaty underwear, with my teammates, with the Stanley Cup sitting there on the floor. And I can remember like it was yesterday. I can remember the smell. I can remember the champagne smell going around there. And I took inventory of that moment, said, “this is what it feels like.”
It’s like the Vince Lombardi quote about being exhausted on the field of battle and being victorious. And it gives me chills in my hair on my arms just thinking about it.
That moment, I remember thinking, I want to remember how this moment feels, because that’s the best moment you could ever have. You’re playing your best hockey, you’re with your best teammates and you just won. And so it’s not a game or a goal or something. It’s that moment.
The moment that really fills me up as an athlete was sitting in the dressing room in my sweaty underwear, with my teammates, with the Stanley Cup sitting there on the floor. I can remember, like it was yesterday. I took inventory of that moment and I remember thinking, I want to remember how this moment feels because that’s the best moment you could ever have.
Christian: I’m getting goosebumps here at this end.
Craig: I just noticed it too. It’s a good feeling to relive.
Christian: It’s really cool, I think. Really cool.
His advice to a younger Craig Simpson
Christian: If you could travel back in time, what advice would you give a younger you?
Craig: Don’t waste the day on things that are unimportant. Take the example of me being cut short of my career. Basically, I played 10 years in NHL, but my last three were a living hell from a pain standpoint. But if I look back on it now, it was gone like that, in no time.
Don’t waste the day on things that are unimportant.
And I think far too often younger me or younger guys complain about the travel or complain about all the practices or complain about the work. And until you are not able to do it anymore, you don’t realize how valuable it is.
Far too often younger me complain about the travel, all the practices or about the work. And until you are not able to do it anymore, you don’t realize how valuable it is.
I’d tell the 15-year-old Craig Simpson if he put the work in every day, it’s honestly worth it. Don’t take anything for granted and make sure that you take advantage of every opportunity that’s given to you.
His rivalry with his brother who was also a successful ice hockey player
Christian: You have an older brother who was also an ice hockey player, and when you were a young, aspiring ice hockey player, was it more a rivalry or did you support each other?
Craig: It was like any good, healthy, sibling rivalry. It was a rivalry that is helpful to both. And I was probably the best recipient of that help because I was five years younger. So you can imagine five years younger looking up to older brother and trying to emulate the things that he did.
He was a wonderful player, Canadian Junior Hockey Player of the Year. To me, he was always a testing point. He played a junior B hockey when he was 15 years old. I played junior B hockey when I was 14 years old.
It was like here’s where the bar is and now go out and try to get there. He was always there as a great role model for me because he was a good person. He cared about scholastics. He was a smart guy who got his university degree while playing junior.
It was a rivalry that is helpful to both. And I was probably the best recipient of that help because I was five years younger. He was always there as a great role model for me because he was a good person.
He was a good role model for being an athlete and a student at the same time. And he performed at a hugely high level. So from the time that when I was around six or seven and his buddies were 11/12, I had to play goal because that’s the only guy, the young guy who was the old guy, I got stuck in goal.
It made me tougher because I took slap shots to the arm and to the face, but it’s the young guy wanting to play with the older kids. And I think that forces you to be better. And throughout my life, I think that had a huge impact on me getting to where I was.
Why he decided to go all-in on hockey
Christian: And I also read that he decided to not go all-in on hockey because he wanted to focus on education. What made you then say, “I go all in.”
Craig: I think he was realistic of the opportunities that presented themselves. He was in a little bit of a tough spot where he got drafted at a time where the draft went from 20 years old down to 18 years old.
So he got drafted with a lot of older guys, so he went maybe lower in the draft than he would have. He got drafted to the New York Islanders who won four Stanley Cups in a row during that time.
I just think at the age of about 24 or 25 years, he had to make a call and a decision of whether his hockey life was going to involve the NHL and to that point, it hadn’t been the minor leagues. If it wasn’t, then it was time to get on with his life. So I think I always felt very comfortable with that decision for him.
My first training camp when I was, again, second overall pick, he was there trying out for our team as well, which was hard on me because I actually cared more about him getting an opportunity to make it then than myself. But I think it was the right choice for him.
My first training camp when I was the second overall pick, my brother was there trying out for our team as well, which was hard on me because I actually cared more about him getting an opportunity to make it then than myself.
For me, I got the opportunity to play my very first year in the league and I got to get some traction and find some success. So from that point, we traveled in two different ways. But that’s part of the reason I went and finished school early and went to Michigan State University as a 16-year-old to make sure that while I was trying to become an NHL player, my school was an important part of our life, for sure.
His success habits
Christian: What are the habits that make you a successful person or athlete?
Craig: It’s never settling for anything but trying to do the best. I’ve lived my entire life of whether we’re playing a card game or checkers in the basement, you want to win. You want to find a way to be as good as you can at it. I think great performers are ones that don’t settle for just the ordinary.
It’s never settling for anything but trying to do the best. I think great performers are ones that don’t settle for just the ordinary.
If you’re struggling to get to a different level like we talked about before when you reach that new hurdle that you tell yourself that you can’t do this easily. You wonder how you’re going to find a way to get better.
I’ve always been a perfectionist. Now that can be good and that can be bad in your parts of your life too. And my wife would probably say there are times where it’s bad in your personal life, but I think that you should find the things that you need to do to improve and continually grow and get better.
That’s really at the heart, I’ve always felt I’m in control of my own development and so you have to be focused on taking the steps to try to make sure if you don’t know something, who does and where can you find it?
You have to be focused on taking the steps to try to make sure if you don’t know something, who does and where can you find it?
If you haven’t perfected something, you got to work on it every day and try to get better at it. I’ve always had that mentality that you want to try to be the best you can be.
His considerations to go full time into head coach role in the NHL
Christian: You were the assistant coach of the Edmonton Oilers and you got the team, including yourself to the Stanley Cup final 2006. Did you never consider going full time into a head coach or did you never wanted to pursue a head coach role?
Craig: I did and again, with the timing of life and family and children and changes in our family, it was difficult, but I definitely had the desire. The two players specifically, who, while they were teammates, we talked about joining as Coaches and General Manager, Craig MacTavish, and Kevin Lowe, who are eight and nine years older than I am.
So when we were talking about that, the idea was that they would retire and go into that and then I’d have a longer career and go. I ended up having to retire before both of them. So I think the fact that I was 28 when I retired, sort of stopped me from immediately going into it.
But the time I spent into it was thrilling. It’s the closest thing I’ve ever been able to get back to being an athlete again, to have every single day where there’s something to work on.
It’s the closest thing I’ve ever been able to get back to being an athlete again.
Like there’s never a dull moment. There’s never a restful day. There’s always something to push. You have to find a way to communicate and correlate your thoughts into helping a player which I really loved. So yes, I did have thoughts.
Part of the situation in Edmonton, I felt that if Craig McTavish was going to leave as the coach, I probably wouldn’t get that job as an ex-Oiler again. It’s just the situation that had been there for a number of years and from a family-wise, I didn’t want to go to the American League and be a Head Coach and move to another spot.
If you were saying, are there any regrets or is there a little bit of me in the back of my head? I wish I had an opportunity at some point to have been a Head Coach in the NHL, but I loved the experience and going to the Stanley Cup final.
If there are any regrets, I wish I had an opportunity at some point to have been a Head Coach in the NHL.
When you asked earlier about the darkest moments, the darkest hockey moment for me, experience-wise, was losing Game Seven of the Stanley Cup final 2006 in Carolina. From a coach’s perspective, you just can’t understate what it means for the players who have worked so hard. One team is celebrating 16 wins, the other team got 15 in the playoffs.
From a coach’s perspective, you just can’t understate what it means for the players who have worked so hard and then losing Game Seven of the Stanley Cup final.
You’ve been working so hard and that was probably the most difficult for me to think of the players and the efforts that they had to get there. So coaching is definitely something that filled my bucket and really got me back to thinking from a player’s perspective.
His morning routine
Christian: Do you have a morning routine or did you have a specific morning routine as an athlete?
Craig: Yes, what amazes me as an athlete, I was thinking back is how much you think about your body, your energy, and how you feel. Like if we were doing this today and tomorrow was a game day, your sole thoughts are about your body and your preparation of where you’re at.
As an athlete, you think about your body, your energy and how you feel. Your sole thoughts are about your body and your preparation of where you’re at.
I’d be thinking in the morning, do I have to get to the rink early? Am I in the mode where am I getting a little out of shape so I got to go in early and workout? Or are we on an exhausting run where I need a little more rest and get in and get the body worked on or massaged?
It’s amazing and I kind of forget about it now that you’ve been out of the game so long. It’s amazing how much your body is your vessel. It’s your means of everything. And I forgot how much you’re always focused on what you’re feeling and how you’re feeling and where are your energy levels at.
So the morning routine is always about getting your body prep to get going so that you’re not wasting time, where you get out on the ice and that is when you realize that you’re a little sluggish. If it means coming in and getting an early workout, an early stretch, your body tweaked a little bit, I think every athlete is focused on how am I feeling now?
When do I have to be at peak performance? If the game was tonight, I probably wouldn’t be doing this in the morning because that changes your body. My mind on a game day is all about visualizing the things I need to do well. I would be visualizing who’s playing goal that night and deciding what I’m going to do against this particular guy and getting my body and mind ready to play.
You’re very fortunate when it’s your profession that you can have that day where you don’t have to do other stuff because you’re getting paid to do this job or that’s your focus. But every now and then I’d forget having been gone so long, how much that was an everyday and every moment focus of your mind is to prepare yourself for playing.
On a game day my mind is all about visualizing the things I need to do well.
Christian: And I also think, no discredit to other sports, but I think the NHL is very cutthroat. So if you don’t perform at your best, there are another few people waiting to fill your spot.
Craig: Absolutely, there’s always somebody else pushing from behind, no question. And every night is a different opponent. Like you might have a night where I’m having a great night because my matchup against who I’m playing is not as difficult.
Whereas I might get three nights in a row where I’ve got the top defensive forward and a top defenseman and so it’s never the same. I often talk with Jamie about the difference of trying to perfect every stroke and every stride of a routine and do it time and time and time and time and time again. That’s such a mental preparation that is disciplined and focused.
Every single day is a different opponent and different speed, different sizes, different angles and it’s just different. And so you have to have the mental toughness to stick with that through 80 games during the year, and then a long playoff run. It’s a daunting task physically and mentally.
Every single day is different, and you have to have the mental toughness to stick with that through 80 games during the year, and then a long playoff run. It’s a daunting task physically and mentally.
Christian: Yes, I believe that. That leads perfectly right into the next question.
How to prepare for more important moments
Christian: How do you prepare for more important moments?
Craig: I’ve always been a big visualizer. If you ever say that going into the Stanley Cup Final Game Seven, that you’re not nervous. Baloney! You’ve got to be a little nervous. You’ve got to have that feeling in your stomach of the anxiousness and anxiety a little bit.
If you ever say that going into the Stanley Cup Final Game Seven, that you’re not nervous. Baloney! You’ve got to be a little nervous.
What I found during growing up from being a young performer to then getting into junior hockey to college hockey, then to the next level, NHL, is just always trying to maneuver those nervous energies into a positive and visualization was a big thing for me. As I said before, if we’re going in, I’m thinking about who am I going to have to go up against that night.
Or goaltender has a certain way of playing, so I’m going to visualize what move to make on him at the right time. I just think that that allows you if you’re focused on your energy, role, responsibility and your assets that you have and the things you do well, you’re not focused on the end result.
It’s when you’re trying to focus on the winning, then everything else gets kind of lost. If I can focus on doing my job and being prepared and feeling energized and being hard for me, hard on the puck, that’s what gets you in those special moments and those big games that you’re not going to falter. You’re going to be confident, you’re going to be energized and you’re going to be able to play at the highest level.
If I can focus on doing my job, being prepared and feeling energized, that’s what gets you in those special moments and those big games that you’re not going to falter. You’re going to be confident, you’re going to be energized and you’re going to be able to play at the highest level.
Christian: Focused on the process.
Craig: Yes, I see how you’ve heard that before.
Christian: Yes, a few times.
How to overcome setbacks
Christian: How do you overcome setbacks?
Craig: We had a saying with the Oilers. Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier always said the five Ps. Proper preparation prevents poor performance and we had a sixth one in there, proper preparation prevents piss poor performance. It’s just a little dressing room added to it.
Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier always said the five Ps. Proper preparation prevents poor performance.
In those moments of setback, I’m a firm believer in accountability. As a group, we’ve always talked about accountability, respectability, and responsibility to be doing your job and understand if there’s a setback in your team or in your game, or you lose a couple in a row or you lose in a series, you’ve got to be able to analyze and look back.
You have to think about the responsibility that is solely on your shoulders or wonder if it is bad luck. Things happen, like bad timing and great performances.
But again, the process you’re talking about, you’re saying that if you’re honest with yourself, you’re prepared and you’re playing well, but it’s just not going well. You tell yourself that it’ll come and the hockey gods will take care of it.
If you’re honest with yourself, you’re prepared and you’re playing well, but it’s just not going well. You tell yourself that it’ll come and the hockey gods will take care of it.
Whereas, how do you handle bad performances? If you can look at yourself and say that you weren’t prepared that night, or you didn’t put the effort in that night. Well, that to me is where you’re going to find a way to the next night to be better. And it’s that accountability to that.
Self-evaluation is an easy word to say, but some people have a hard time taking the onus and then finding energy of saying that they failed there. Now, what are the steps in the process that they need to get better? I felt that I was pretty good at that.
At the Oilers, we’ve always talked about accountability, respectability and responsibility to be doing your job. Self-evaluation is an easy word to say, but some people have a hard time taking the onus and then finding energy of saying that they have failed.
I will say when you falter as an athlete, and every athlete does when you’re doing 80 game season against so many different opponents, typically you’ve lost that confidence. And how can you maintain that confidence when things aren’t going well.
As the sports psychologist will say, that’s the gem that the great athletes can find. Even when it’s been a bad stretch, you can dig down and find that confidence again. So I think that self-evaluation of where you’re at is so important.
The Gretzky Trade and the influence on the Edmonton Oilers
Christian: I have an extra question for you. I’m a kid of the eighties and for some people, it’s very difficult to imagine back then, the medium of information was television and newspaper.
Craig: Yes, nothing else.
Christian: So over here in Europe, we did follow American sports, but sometimes information was difficult to get, but we certainly knew about Joe Montana, we knew about Magic and Jordan. One thing that we definitely followed was the Gretzky trade. From my research, you were on the team that he left. How was it for the team and the players?
Craig: It was devastating. It changed hockey.
It was devastating. It changed hockey.
Like you’ve probably heard people say so often if Wayne Gretzky can get traded, anybody can get traded. So now it’s a business. It’s not staying with a team to be honorable and show loyalty in that.
So for me, I got traded to Edmonton in November of 1987 and to get an opportunity to play with Wayne and win a Stanley Cup with Wayne was just like a dream come true. And he truly is great. He’s the best teammate, he’s an amazing combination of incredible individual talent with a great sense of how to bring a team together.
To get an opportunity to play with Wayne and win a Stanley Cup with Wayne was just like a dream come true. He’s the best teammate, he’s an amazing combination of incredible individual talent with a great sense of how to bring a team together.
He was so good with players of all levels. So he had been the heartbeat of our team, which won, at that point, four out of five Stanley Cups. This was four cups in five years.
So the hardest thing for everybody to swallow that something like that could happen. It took our team a long time to survive from that. I go back to a key moment when I said before, about us winning two years later in 1990, the next year we ended up playing the Kings in the first round of the playoffs and we had a 3-1 series lead.
So we had won the first three out of the first four games. And like Wayne has done so many times before, we still hadn’t cut the cord with him. I think of when you’re playing a great opponent, you hit them hard and you check them hard and you’ve got fear of him. He was still our friend, our leader, our captain, even though he was our opponent.
We still hadn’t cut the cord with him. He was still our friend, our leader, our captain, even though he was our opponent. Just to give you an idea of how much damage it did to our mentality of still not separating that Wayne should be an Oiler.
And lo and behold, they came back and beat us three straight to win four games to three. So we blew a 3-1 lead, which didn’t happen much at that time.
Just to give you an idea of how much damage it did to our mentality of still not separating that Wayne should be an Oiler. We’d be a great team and we’d win the Cup again. When we lost that game in Los Angeles, Wayne scored an empty-net goal, which ended it.
He did a celebration in the middle of the ice. At the end, Glen Sather, our coaching GM came in and just told us that there’s not much that we can say there. He said that it was a devastating loss.
He goes, “I just want you to remember your friend, your buddy, your guy who you treated special in this series”, because he knew. We didn’t hit him; we didn’t do the things. He goes, “he just shoved it down your throat there and it’s time to cut the cord.”
I honestly do think that allowed us the next year to be prepared to be the Edmonton Oilers minus Wayne Gretzky. It was Mark Messier’s team. He was the captain, he was that. Now Mark was the captain the year before, but it just hung over us so badly.
So it was a shock, but it changed the way, we players perceived being a part of the team and showing loyalty, having a guy like that traded at the prime of his career. It would have been interesting to see how many more we could have won, but as I said, he was a pretty amazing guy.
We won four out of five Stanley Cups. It would have been interesting to see how many more we could have won.
Christian: I believe that.
Check out the short documentary of the Gretzky Trade
His role model
Christian: Who’s your role model and why?
Craig: Since we’re talking about Wayne, Wayne was definitely a huge influence in my life getting to the NHL, watching a guy who’s a smaller player come in and just dominate the league. He was head and shoulders above the level of other players.
He was somebody that you could aspire to and say, you didn’t have to be the strongest. You didn’t have to be the fastest. You didn’t have to look the best all-around. It’s just there’s something inherently there that’s so special. Then to get him as a teammate was a dream come true and he helped me out so much.
Wayne was definitely a huge influence in my life getting to the NHL. He was head and shoulders above the level of other players. Then to get him as a teammate was a dream come true
Even just little morning skates skating around, I used to ask him about, year after year, his setting NHL records with his points. He had 215 or 214 points and I said, “Each year, Wayne, what do you do to re-inspire yourself to say, okay, who’s driving and pushing you.”
I told him that I knew what was pushing me, which was me having a terrible rookie year. We spoke about him trying to become an established star. I told him that when he was at the top of his game and nobody’s better, I wanted to get inside his head and to find out what drives him.
He told me that he’s always felt there’s somebody along the way, who’s going to be better. He said that every year you got to prove that you can be the best you can be. He continued, saying it doesn’t really matter what kind of great year you had the year before, next year was the new one. He told me that I got to start fresh again.
From a player perspective, he was a great role model. My dad and mom were so great at making sure we had every opportunity to play the game, but I think one of your questions, either coming up or involved with this one is a piece of advice or saying from a player.
My dad’s three things that he said my entire life growing up was “work hard, keep smiling, have fun.” And I do it with my kids now in their sports playing days. Those are three things in its simplest terms.
I remember being asked if my parents really push me hard and drive me. I told them that they didn’t. As I said, your son is responsible for his development. I was responsible to say, how badly I wanted it. I always felt that going to the rink instead of having to make sure you do this or four check card to do that, dad would just say, “Son, work hard, keep smiling and have fun out there.”
That stuck with me. If you’re doing the work every single day, and you got a good, positive energy with a smile on your face and you’re having fun, it’s never work. It’s like, they always say, you’re never really working a day in your life if you’re doing something you love.
Those are three things that have just sort of kept me at an even pace when things were bad and at a grounded place when things were really good. It’s just sort of been my three-word mantra throughout my career.
My dad and mom were so great at making sure we had every opportunity to play the game. My dad’s three things that he said my entire life growing up was “work hard, keep smiling, have fun.” Those are three things that have just sort of kept me at an even pace when things were bad and at a grounded place when things were really good. It’s been my three-word mantra throughout my career.
Christian: And to expand on that, I really think that parents, the further they are away from the sport, the less they understand. I truly believe from what I’ve seen working with my athletes, but also people I’ve spoken to, the ones who succeed, are intrinsically driven. There’s nothing coming from the outside.
Craig: No. I’m sure of all the different athletes you’ve talked about, you can’t imagine the discussions I’ve had with other parents who say that I should go and talk to their son. They usually say he’s not doing this so they’re sending him to this camp and they’re doing different things.
I just try to back them off and tell them to trust the heart and soul of their child to tell them what they are. I remind them that the child will be the ones telling them whether they’re really driven or if this is their drive to try to get them to be something that they’re not.
You have that self-awareness as a parent too, to ask yourself why you’re doing it. It may not be his goal or her goal. I think you’re bang on there. Absolutely.
The impact of the “Miracle On Ice” on his career
Christian: At the 1980 Olympic Games in Lake Placid, the US Ice Hockey team beat the Soviet Union in the final. To date, it’s considered to be one of the biggest upsets in Olympic history called the “miracle on ice”. That was at the point your career started. Did it have an impact on you because essentially it was David beating Goliath.
Craig: Absolutely. I remember it. I remember it like yesterday, actually watching the game. Like you were saying in the 1980s, there were no social media, there’s not instantaneous this and that. In our family, we had a black and white TV with rabbit ears that got one station for a good chunk of my life.
So watching Hockey Night in Canada, which now I broadcast, was something you did every Saturday. But watching that Olympic Games final was just the best reminder that team is stronger than the individual.
Watching that Olympic Games final 1980 was just the best reminder that the team is stronger than the individual.
It’s one of the things that growing up playing a team sport, that just resonated with me. If you’ve ever been around, it doesn’t matter how successful you are as an individual. You could be the best player on the worst team and eventually, that’s not a whole lot of fun.
But if you can be the best player that you can be on a group that has the same feeling and meaning and growth together, that’s the most powerful thing in sport. And so watching that, was amazing.
It is amazing to me that you say that because four years later, at that point, I would have been 17 years old, my first year at Michigan State University, we got to the NCAA Final Four, and guess where they were? At Lake Placid.
So I was in the NCA finals at Lake Placid, and so for me, again, it’s going four years after watching the US beat the Russians and all the glory that went with that, here I am on the same ice playing that. So, yes, there’s no question that it has an impact and has a huge impact on what it means to be a good teammate.
Again, going back to what’s the most special moment, the most special moment is being a part of a team like the Edmonton Oilers in 1988 and 1990, that we were all like-minded people that sacrificed for each other and you played for each other. It’s the most powerful thing when you’ve got 23 people, all loving the game, and playing and working for each other.
You could be the best player on the worst team and eventually, that’s not a whole lot of fun. But if you can be the best player that you can be in a group that has the same feeling, that’s the most powerful thing in sport. Like the Edmonton Oilers in 1988 and 1990, we were all like-minded people that sacrificed for each other and you played for each other.
You can always control yourself, but it’s pretty special to be in a group that is together and doing it. And that’s the greatest thing about winning a Stanley Cup, is that journey to get there as a teammate. To me, it’s incredible.
If you haven’t heard about the ‘Miracle On Ice’ check out this short documentary
The best advice he has received
Christian: I think now we’re getting to that question, that you mentioned earlier. What is the best advice you received?
Craig: The best advice I would go with as a young kid, my parents were saying you’ve got to follow your dreams and do what makes you feel good. It does make me sad in today’s world with parents pushing and looking at the NHL as a business as opposed to a game.
It does make me sad in today’s world with parents pushing and looking at the NHL as a business as opposed to a game.
In my hockey world, and saying my kids got to do this and got to do more of that. Why can’t they do that? And I think the best advice I ever got was follow your dreams and don’t think you can’t do anything.
I played with 20-year-olds when I was 14 and I went to university as a 16-year-old with guys who were 25. I was an 18-year-old in the NHL, the youngest you could be. Those sorts of feelings from my mom and dad were, you can accomplish anything you put your mind to and don’t let anybody else tell you you’re not ready. If you’re ready, you’ll know it.
The best advice I ever got was to follow your dreams and don’t let anybody else tell you you’re not ready. If you’re ready, you’ll know it.
It just broke down barriers and boundaries for me and people would say that I was too young to play there. I tell them that that is not so as I grew up and matured quickly. I never felt those shackles of, “well, this is the way you’ve got to do it.”
From a young age, my parents instilled that I must not be afraid to journey out on my own and I was to be as great as I could be. I’ve kind of always lived that throughout my whole life.
There are times in my professional life where you doubted it and you thought that it can’t be. You tell yourself that you’ve lost the game or you’ve done that. But I just think that’s been the driving force inside me, for sure.
A typical training day in the life of an NHL player
Christian: Back in the days, how did a typical training day look like?
Craig: Very different than today’s, that’s for sure. I look at the speed of the game and the training that the guys have, but for me, I was not a very fast skater. I wasn’t gifted with blinding speed.
Again, going back to my dad, I remember I always had teammates that I’d be playing with and they’d speak about the guy that gets a breakaway every game. They would talk about how he’s just flying speed around the outside and they wish they could do that.
My dad would say that while he agreed when he got to the net, he didn’t have the calmness I have or the hands I have. He would tell me that God gives me different gifts in my development because I’m not the fastest and he has made me better at different things.
My dad would say that God gives me different gifts in my development because I’m not the fastest and he has made me better at different things.
So a day for me would be my focus especially at the NHL level, was my legs. I was not fast, so it was all about power and explosiveness and working in the gym to try to make sure that that was ready.
I know I had teammates that were so fast skaters, just naturally fast and I’d see them in the gym and they’re always pumping up their arms. And I just said, I don’t skate on my arms and my legs are my slowest body.
In the off-season, I really focused on improving power and speed and quickness, and in-season I worked on my shot. You said earlier on, they called me the sniper. I had the best shooting percentage in regular-season career and playoff career because I worked tirelessly at framing the net and knowing where to shoot and getting positional and getting so natural at it that you had it ingrained in your eyes.
They called me the sniper because I worked tirelessly at framing the net and knowing where to shoot and getting so natural at it that you had it ingrained in your eyes.
From training during the season, the greatest thing about being in the NHL, unlike minor hockey, minor hockey, when the practice is over, the Zamboni comes on and you got to get off. NHL, that’s where you do the most work is when the official practice is over, the amount of time you spend on honing your craft and shooting pucks in, it was just like heaven because you had free time and you could use it.
The commonalities and the differences of the NHL greats he played with, Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, and Mark Messier
Christian: You’ve rubbed shoulders not only with one of the greatest of the game but also two more. You mentioned Mark Messier and Mario Lemieux. If you look at the commonalities and the differences, so looking at what makes a high performer? What did they have in common? Where were they different?
Craig: Common is just the incredible confidence and belief that they can accomplish anything. Like you asked for about not being afraid or how do you handle those big moments? Wayne and Mark – Mario, when I left him was in his third, fourth year in the league and had yet to have the success that way, but it’s inherent in him that to be the guy that the onus of winning and losing really does fall on is a heavy burden.
And what the commonality of all of those guys is an unbelievable unrelenting belief in that they can accomplish anything and they can do it. Give it to me. Three guys that never seen more clutch performances, just at the key moments.
The commonality of all of those guys is an unbelievable unrelenting belief in that they can accomplish anything, they were fearlessness of failure and embracing anything that’s coming at them.
What I loved about playing with all of them, and mostly, I spent most of my time with Mark Messier, was just what that brought out of me because I look to that as leadership. And just say, now it’s kind of like your father.
You don’t want to let your father down. Your teammate and your leader, you don’t want to let him down. And he brings more out of you like that.
That ability to be not only focused on his own or their own skillset and be at the top all the time is the understanding of what they can do to bring everybody else along with it. That leadership quality is inherent in all of them.
The difference is, Mario, I thought was the most mind-boggling individual skill. He could just do so many things because of his size, because of his hands. That made him unique. He was probably the most skilled individual of those three.
Mario was the most mind-boggling individual skill.
Wayne’s incredible vision and inherent timing of what’s going on around him. He always knew who was in the stands, where his parents were, where the guy was behind the net and he could juggle those things. If you had those little word boxes above his head, he’s got so many juggling, but they’re all in sync.
He truly had an amazing ability to sense what was going on around on the ice and just see guys out of nowhere. A great example for him was when you’re on a two on one in practice with him, where you’re coming late and it doesn’t look like he could even see it.
Wayne had an amazing ability to sense what was going on around on the ice and just see guys out of nowhere.
For most guys, you tell yourself that if they only saw you. You’d be open and then you never get the puck. With him, you’re going to think if he only saw you and the puck comes to you. It’s like he saw you and he was making the play.
And Mark just his spirit and just his anything to get it done spirit. Mark was a ball of energy off the ice that wanted you to be around or made you want to be around him and on the ice, just the most bullet determined person.
Mark was a ball of energy off that made you want to be around him and on the ice, just the most bullet determined person.
The commonality is that fearlessness of failure and embracing anything that’s coming, but they each had their own little way about them that made them special as well.
Christian: Really cool.
His interview nomination
Christian: Do you want to nominate someone to be interviewed?
Craig: Well, you know what, we were talking earlier, I’ll try to find Mike Eruzione’s contact for you if I can. How does that sound?
Christian: That would be really cool.
Craig: I’ve been at events with Mike and everybody, he’s got a big passion and big spirit. And again there’s a guy who seizes the moment as the ragtag group of American college kids and he was their leader.
We see him at Mario’s tournament in Pittsburgh many times, he was America’s guest for a long time after winning that. So I’ll try to make efforts so that you can connect with Mike.
Christian: That would be awesome, thank you!
What’s going on in Craig Simpson’s life at this moment in time
Christian: What’s going on in Craig Simpson’s life at this moment in time?
Craig: Fortunately a father of five great kids. I’m going to be a grandfather actually coming up. My oldest son, Dylan, and his wife, Haley are having a baby. So I’ll be 53 being a grandpa. The kids are doing great. Life is good.
I’m broadcasting Hockey Night in Canada, as I said. I remember you ask any young player of my age, especially growing up in London, Ontario, you only saw the Toronto Maple Leafs on a Saturday night and Hockey Night in Canada on Saturday was our one time you got to watch hockey.
So to be here at this age being the voice of Hockey Night in Canada is a pretty big honor and a special time. I feel very fortunate to still be around the game that I do love being around. And I get an opportunity every week to bring it into millions of homes in Canada.
I feel very fortunate to still be around the game that I do love being around. And I get an opportunity every week to bring it into millions of homes in Canada.
It’s a lot of fun.
Christian: I believe that. That’s really cool.
Where can you find Craig Simpson
Christian: Where can people find you?
Craig: I’m not a huge social media guy. But my Twitter is H-N-I-C, which is Hockey Night in Canada. H-N-I-C simmer; S-I-M-M-E-R. And I’m not a huge tweeter.
Craig Simpson’s social profiles
As you were saying, growing up in the years I did, I wasn’t big into that, but I know in social media times I going to have to become more. My wife’s getting me into it a little bit better, but that’s about all I do now.
Christian: It’s hard to remember that we had phones. You could just make calls with, right?
Craig: Oh gosh. Exactly. I said I was in Los Angeles when Wayne Gretzky got traded. When you were saying that I was down there visiting him. And when he went up to Edmonton, I’ll tell you this 1988, Janet Gretzky and I were on a cell phone with Walter and Phyllis Gretzky, Wayne’s parents, holding the phone to their TV because it wasn’t even on TV in LA.
The press conference, I go, you look at 1988 and how much has changed from then. It’s incredible. I’m not sure I’d want to be an athlete in today’s environment with all the social media around, for sure.
Christian: It has certainly different challenges.
Craig: Yes, for sure.
Christian: Craig, thanks a lot for your time. That was awesome.
Craig: Thanks for having me. I really appreciate it.