November 25, 2015

Jim Playfair

Jim was the second one from the Playfair family to make it to the NHL. Jim's brother Larry, who was almost six year older, enjoyed a 12-year career in the NHL as a tough as nails defender.

Jim was not so fortunate, lasting only 21 games. He was as big as Larry (6'4") and every bit as tough. And, as we will see, the two both had big hearts.

Jim started playing for the Fort Saskatchewan Traders (AJHL) and then in 1981 moved up to play major junior hockey for the Portland Winter Hawks of the WHL. He played two and a half seasons in Portland before finishing his junior career with a half season stint with the Calgary Wranglers (also WHL).

The scouts liked Jim's package of the size and aggressiveness. Like his brother Jim was picked in the 1st round (20th overall in 1982 - Edmonton).

During a two week span in the summer of 1982 Jim experienced the highest and lowest points of his young life.

His highest point came on June 9 when one of his older brothers 27-year old truck driver Jeff  answered a phone call at 6:40 AM. On the phone was Oilers coach Glen Sather who wanted to speak to Jim. He told Jim that he had been drafted in the 1st round by the Oilers.

The whole family celebrated the occasion and youngest brother Dennis (15) was ecstatic and immediately went out and bought a Oilers cap. They were all very proud of having one brother in the NHL and another on his way.

But only 15 days later, on June 24, just two days before high school graduation in Fort St. James, Jim's two weeks on cloud nine abruptly was shattered when he learned that his youngest brother, 15-year old Dennis, had been crushed under a pickup truck that had rolled over and had landed upon him. He was killed instantly.

The entire family was left in shock. Larry, who was playing for Buffalo in the NHL at the time, was scheduled to have a wedding on July 3. He immediately rushed home from Buffalo together with his sister Kathy and a sister in law. They were all vacationing in Buffalo, awaiting the occasion.

"We're a religious Catholic family. It hurt a heck of a lot. A lot of our friends didn't want to go to graduation, but I told them 'you worked 12 years for this and it wasn't going to bring Dennis back. Go to the grad party,' " Jim said.

Jim and Larry also convinced the 17-year old who drove the truck that killed their brother to attend the party. They accompanied him, and even took him water skiing, constantly keeping in touch to show there was no hatred involved.

Dennis, so the story goes, was considered an even better prospect than his brothers, and could have been on track to be picked in the 1st round one day, too.

All of this made Jim mature a lot quicker than other 18-year olds. He attended Oilers training camp in 1982 and was assigned as Kevin Lowe's defensive partner on the ice and captain Lee Fogolin during workouts. Ironically, when his brother Larry first attended Buffalo's camp in 1978, he was paired with Fogolin.

Larry called Jim during the training camp and told him "Don't worry, Fogolin will look after you."

Unfortunately for Jim the Oilers were stacked with stars as Edmonton went on to win the Stanley Cup four times in the next five years. Jim only got to play two games for the Oilers, in 1983-84. Jim anchored the defense for Oilers AHL farm team, the Nova Scotia Oilers, for a couple of years.

But Jim fondly remembers scoring his first NHL goal.

"I was playing with the Oilers," recalled a chuckling Playfair. "We beat New Jersey 13-2 and I got the 11th goal. Gretzky came up to me after I scored and said, 'Phew, thanks for taking the pressure off, kid.' "

That was also the infamous game where Gretzky called the Devils' a "Mickey Mouse organization."

While playing in Nova Scotia Jim had a life-altering injury, to say the least. Jim was read his last rites in a Quebec hospital. Suffering from a sizeable tear in his liver that came courtesy of a devastating bodycheck while his Nova Scotia Oilers played the Sherbooke Canadiens, Jim remembered looking up to see a handful of strangers huddling around his hospital bed.

"There were two liver specialists and a surgeon and the doctor says, 'Your liver is like a tick-a-tick-a-time bomb and they said if anything happens, we have two minutes to stop the bleeding,' " said Playfair, reflecting back on a pivotal moment in his life in 1987.

"The chaplain came in and read me my last rites in broken French. Halfway through I'm thinking, 'I'm 21 years old and I'm going to die in a French hospital because I got hit in hockey?' I don't know if that knocked all the wind out of my sails but it changed the way I was as a player.

"I struggled really hard to get over that as a player and it changed my way of thinking in life."

Needing a change, Jim signed as a free agent by Chicago on July 31, 1987. He hoped to finally see some ice time in the NHL, but Jim never caught on in Chicago, either.

He played 12 games for the Blackhawks in 1987-88 and 7 more games in 1988-89. The majority of his time was spent in the IHL where he played for the Saginaw Hawks and Indianapolis Ice.

Jim's patience ended after the 1991-92 season when he decided to hang'em up, only 28 years of age. He knew that he wouldn't get any more shots at the NHL at that stage of his career.

He stepped behind the bench to embark on a successful minor league career and also in a stint with the Calgary Flames.

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