Like father, like sons.
Coming from a guy who was at one time the No. 2 overall draft pick in the NHL, a guy who has won two Stanley Cups and a guy who is now a TV hockey commentator, you’d have to assume Craig Simpson knows what he’s speaking about when asked why his sons both decided to skate for the Spruce Grove Saints.
At a game recently where he was watching Riley, and having been at the Grant Fuhr Arena in the past to watch his other son Dillon, who is now the captain of the University of North Dakota hockey team, the dad said there’s a good reason his boys chose to play in the AJHL rather than the WHL — the educational opportunities it affords them.
You see, Craig knows what he’s talking about as he was in college himself at Michigan State University, where he racked up 84 points in 53 games in his sophomore year, when he got the call from the Pittsburgh Penguins back in the 1985 NHL entry draft.
Now, having seen Dillon graduate from the ranks of the Saints and excel at the college level he has the same hopes for Riley, who is in his rookie year with the same team.
“First and foremost is obviously the opportunity to go to school and continue their education,” Craig began on why he likes the AJHL as opposed to the WHL. “Dillon was fortunate to be done school at a young age and go on to school as a 17-year-old (he played with the Saints when he was 16). It wouldn’t have been a problem to stay longer here and it’s the same with Riley, who’s in Grade 12 now and 17. I just think the organization and the community, a good supporter of the team, and with the league as a whole you’ve got a good mix in getting competition against older players. At 16, 17, you have to battle against 19- and 20-year-olds and that’s important in the development level.
“And there’s the opportunity to play at a high level now and the ability to keep the opportunity for a scholarship. I’ve always been an advocate of continuing your education and for Dillon it’s worked out wonderfully. For Riley, it’s probably not something that’s going to happen this year, but again you come back here as a 17-, 18-year-old, and it will be a good opportunity for him.
“I really look at the fast-track decisions that have to be made for kids in the (WHL). A lot of them are making choices at 19 if they’re good enough, or not, to be an NHL player. To continue on with your education and play in the Western League is almost impossible, especially at a university level,” said the elder Simpson.
“I think this league (AJHL), if you’re not ready as Dillon was at 17, you’ve still got the ability to play at a high level. If you go in a year or two, now you’re 18 or 19 going to university and you can still have a dream of being an NHL player. There’s no hurry.
“I ended up leaving Michigan State after my second year, but I was the second pick overall and I had something to go to as opposed to hoping you get the chance … or leaving school to go play in the minors. To me, as a parent, this is such a great opportunity.”
Of the AJ, Simpson spoke highly about the talent level and equality among teams, especially this season.
“I think it’s a real competitive league and one where you have a lot of guys, some have played in the Western League and come back down and some who may have the skill to go to the Western League but are playing here because they want to go to school. There’s a balance in that.
“This year more than ever, there seems to be not as big a discrepancy between the good and bad which I think overall is fantastic for the league. You don’t see a bunch of haves and have-nots. Every night you’ve got to play a hard game. I don’t see that changing much. There are a lot of good players that look at the AJHL for growth and development.”
When he’s at the Grant Fuhr Arena or any Edmonton-area rink that is home to an AJ team, Craig is just another hockey parent, a guy who is proud of what one son has done in the AJ and just as proud of what the other is doing now.
“There are so many teams within a drivable area and to get to see your kids play at this level, you feel very fortunate because you don’t know how much longer it’s going to go.
“You don’t have to send them far away; Riley’s still living at home and Dillon did as well. I know Dillon always keeps track of how things are going with the Saints, even before Riley was playing. They have a real sense of pride of having been a Spruce Grove Saint and I think that’s a really important part of their development as well,” and coming from a guy who has been there and done all that in hockey, that is high praise indeed.