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Candy-store visits just part of the fun for Cougars associate coach Playfair

NHL experience behind the bench paying off for Cats in WHL playoffs

Major junior hockey championship teams take years to assemble and for fans of the Prince George Cougars that wait time for a winner can be measured not just in years, but decades.

In 30 years since the franchise moved north from Victoria, the Cougars have never won it all. They’ve made it to the third round three times, in 1997, 2000 and 2007, but each time they came out on the short end of the stick and in each of those years the Cats were the underdogs.

Not so this year.

After dispatching the Spokane Chiefs in the minimum four games and two shutout wins on home ice over the Kelowna Rockets last weekend the Cougars are carrying a different playoff pedigree, which they’ve never had before.

The talk around town is these Cats are championship-calibre and they’ve owned that billing since the start of the postseason when they entered the playoffs as the No.1-ranked team in the Canadian Hockey League.

The Cougars resume their series with Rockets tonight in Kelowna (7 p.m., 94.3 FM The Goat) leading 2-0 after blanking them 4-0 and 5-0 last weekend at CN Centre.

The ownership that bought the Cougars in May 2014 made the choice to invest into making the Cougars what they are today. They spent money on building up the scouting staff and paid for the team to leave a day earlier on roadtrips and treated the players like the young pros they are, which raised the reputation of the team as a desirable place to base their junior hockey futures.

The Cougars took their lumps in rebuilding mode after the 2016-17 team that hung its first WHL banner as BC Division champions. But with Mark Lamb at the helm the past five years they’ve used smart draft picks, impact free-agent signings and shrewd trade decisions to build a top-shelf team that’s brought sellout crowds back to CN Centre

For all Lamb has done to shape the Cougars player roster, one of his best decisions he made was the addition of Jim Playfair as a full-time associate coach. Call it fortunate timing, that Playfair was part of the purge a couple years ago when the Edmonton Oilers fired Dave Tippett and his staff, or favourable geography, with Playfair close to his roots Fort St. James, but his effect on making the Cougars a better team can’t be overstated.

You see it the Cougars’ penalty killing and how their team defence has become the envy of the league in the WHL playoffs. The defence-first systems Playfair has designed to best utilize the talent they have in abundance are working. The two-way ability of high point-producing forwards Ondrej Becher and Riley Heidt has grown by noticeable leaps this season. Defencemen Bauer Dumanski, Keaton Dowhaniuk, Villiam Kmec and Hudson Thornton are having career years, and Playfair is the common denominator.

“Obviously, the respect we have for him and what he’s done at the pro level, when you have a guy like that telling you what to do you listen” said Thornton. “He’s an intense coach, always pushing us to be better and always expects the best out of us and when you have a guy like that on your side, it’s a guy you want to play for and try to do whatever you can to win.

“I was really excited when it was announced he would be our coach this year. I feel like I’ve always been an offensive player in this league and I’ve consistently tried to work on being a good defender and made good progress throughout my career but this year I think I took a really big jump and I owe that to Jim. Whether it’s video sessions or just chatting on the ice (in practice) or in games I’m always learning something from him, so we’re pretty fortunate to have him on the bench for us.”

This is Playfair’s 30th year as a coach and that started when he became a player-coach while still playing defence in the International Hockey League with the Indianapolis Ice. Seven years before he won the Turner Cup playing for Indy, Playfair was a WHL champion with the Portland Winterhawks in 1983, the year after he was a first-round pick of the Edmonton Oilers, and he went on to play 21 NHL games with Edmonton and Chicago.

Seven years behind the bench in the ECHL and IHL led to a job coaching the Saint John Flames and a Calder Cup championship his first season. After 2 1/2 seasons he was promoted to Calgary as an assistant, working with Daryl Sutter as part of the Flames’ run to the Stanley Cup final in 2004. After one season (’06-’07) as head coach, Playfair was replaced by Mike Keenan. He spent two more seasons as a Flames assistant until he was hired as head coach of their AHL affiliate in Abbotsford.

In 2011, Playfair returned to the NHL as an associate coach with the Phoenix/Arizona Coyotes for six seasons, then was an Oilers associate from 2020-22. He and Cougars head coach and general manager Mark Lamb knew other from their time working in Arizona and Lamb asked Playfair to come on board informally last season to help him coach the Cougars.

No other WHL team has a coaching tandem as long in pro experience as that of Lamb/Playfair.

Lamb has been a coach for 21 seasons, including seven years as an NHL assistant and one year as an AHL head coach. As head coach/GM of the Swift Current Broncos for seven seasons he laid the groundwork for the Swift Current Broncos’ WHL championship team in 2018. He’s now in his fifth year holding the dual role with the Cougars.   

Lamb’s playing days as an NHL centre included a 473-game tour of duty with Calgary, Detroit, Edmonton (where he won the Stanley Cup in 1990), Ottawa, Philadelphia and Montreal.

Having two coaches with that kind of a resume is a rare luxury at the major junior level and the Cougars are reaping the benefits. They set new team standards this season for points and wins, their special teams were in the WHL’s top-two and heading into this week’s games in Kelowna they put together an incredible run of 15 straight wins, including the first six games of the playoffs.

“It’s been a five-year turn and now that we’ve got the players we have, the coaching staff, the scouting staff, it’s things organized and now we’re in a position to win,” said Playfair. “It took owners’ patience, it took Mark’s vision, the fans’ patience, and now it’s organized the way it’s supposed to look.

“What we’re really proud of is we’ve kind of changed the narrative where agents want their players to come here. We’ve had good success with Europeans and this is going to be a destination players want to come to. We’ve put the travel deal to bed - we had 24 (road) wins in our league this year, the way we travel is outstanding.  They invest in the travel and our job is to win those games so the investment pays off.”

Playfair sees similarities in the rise of the Cougars to that of the Flames in the early 2000s. Calgary hadn’t made the playoffs in seven straight seasons the year they took it to a Game 7 loss to Tampa in the 2004 final.

“This organization was out of the playoffs for a block of time and you make steps, you win the BC Division, you win a round in playoffs, then you win the Western Conference and get on a run in the playoffs, so it’s coming,” said Playfair.

“The good thing for Prince George right now is Mark didn’t leverage the future to have early success. He and the owners see a window and as coaches it’s our responsibility to maximize the group to see what we can build here.

“The players recognize that there is a lot of experience in our group and that both of us have won in the past and both of us have a passion to win again. It’s an unbelievable group of players that are really committed to learning. Coaches become good coaches when players decide to learn, that’s the bottom line.”

As much as was familiar with coaching men in the pros, until he joined the Cougars, Playfair never had the chance to coach teenaged boys. He and wife Roxanne raised three sons - Dylan, Jackson and Austyn - and they were all hockey players until adulthood took them on different career paths. Dylan, 31, is an actor who stars the series Letterkenny, Jackson, 29, coaches at RINK Hockey Academy in Kelowna and Austyn, 26, is a fashion clothes designer.

“I talk to our boys lots about the situations going on with our guys and I have reference points and the kids will say, ‘When you’re acting this way, this is probably what they’re feeling,’” said the 59-year-old Playfair. ‘They’ve been outstanding to help me understand a lot. I pay attention to Mark and Carter (assistant coach Rigby) to try and figure out what the kids need and don’t need.”

While his sons were climbing the hockey ranks, Playfair was busy coaching pros and until hockey season was over he didn’t have the time to be with them like he is now with the Cougars. He’s loving it and laughing about it.

“What makes it fun is sharing some of the stories with my own kids,” he said. “We were leaving town the other day and they all wanted to stop at the 7/11 and get candy. So I phoned my kids on the bus to tell them we were at 7/11 buying candy and they were all like, ‘That’s the best part of the whole trip, Dad.”

Playfair puts in long days each day trying to make the team better and pours the same commitment to his work that got him to the NHL. The payoff for that is the success they are now enjoying.

“Mark knew I wasn’t going to come here and go half-assed, I was going to do what I do and it’s been easy to find my work ethic,” said Playfair. “It doesn’t matter what league you’re in, you still have the same ability to maximize either individuals or the team. It’s fun to see you’ve still got that juice to get up and get over here in the morning to work and do what it takes.”