Leading By Example

After Overcoming Adversity As A Youngster, Kansas Coach Teaches Players To Do The Same

 

“All in, every shift.” 

Those aren’t just the words of advice that Jason Simonsen tells his players; it’s a motto the coach has been living by even before he got involved in hockey.

Growing up in a middle-class family in Jamestown, N.D., he had to pick and choose what sports to be involved in.

“I picked quantity,” said Simonsen, who participated in everything from baseball to bowling. The extent of his hockey involvement was watching friends – including North Dakota’s first Mr. Hockey Matt Stockert – from the stands. 

Simonsen never had dreams of playing in the NHL, but he was on track to represent Team USA at the Olympics – as a boxer. Those aspirations were cut short when, at 14, he was diagnosed in 1986 with hydrocephalus, a condition in which water is found on the brain.

By 2011 – after relocating to Kansas – Simonsen’s life slowly began to revolve around hockey. First, he was instrumental in bringing the Topeka Pilots of the North American Hockey League to town. He was known as “Bucketman” thanks to his way of revving up the crowd by drumming on a large plastic barrel. Then, he got his nephew hooked on the game.

“My nephew wanted to try it out. But his mom was a single mom and we got him hooked. She said ‘it’s on you if you want him to play,’” said Simonsen. “So, I started coaching and helping out, and that’s kind of where it all started.”

Now a Level 5 coach, Simonsen coaches two teams in the Kansas City Saints organization. To do so, he travels 100 miles roundtrip up to four times a week. That’s just one of the many challenges facing those pursuing hockey in the Sunflower State.

“The rink availability is the biggest challenge,” he said. “We still don’t have year-round ice in Topeka. The lack of general knowledge of the sport in a nontraditional hockey market is also a challenge.”

Simonsen chooses to focus instead on the growing number of players and the “godsend” that the junior team has been in cultivating interest in the sport. After all, his biggest lesson for players is how to overcome adversity, something he knows a lot about after undergoing 11 surgeries for his condition.

“Whether it’s talking to kids here on the Junior A team or talking to kids in Kansas City, the thing I think I help them with is overcoming adversity so they can reach their full potential,” Simonsen said.

“At the end of the day, it goes back to my medical stuff and what I told myself at 14 years old. Live every day to the fullest because you never know if it will be your last. I kind of relate that to hockey. Either as a player or as a coach, I say ‘all in, every shift because you never know if it’s going to be your last shift.’ 

“You might as well enjoy it while you can.”

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