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Former NHL coach in Cougars corner heading into playoffs

Jim Playfair from Fort St. James is helping prepare the Prince George Cougars for a spring hockey run
Former NHL head coach Jim Playfair of Fort St. James has been helping coach the Prince George Cougars this season now that he's between jobs in the NHL, after three years with the Edmonton Oilers.

Jim Playfair is not officially listed as an associate coach of the Prince George Cougars and that’s just the way he wants it.

After 25 seasons as a professional hockey coach, one year removed from teaching the game to Connor McDavid and the Edmonton Oilers, Playfair is between jobs, taking a break from the NHL hot seat to help his friend, Cougars head coach and general manager Mark Lamb, get the most out of a promising group of aspiring pros.

It’s a part-time gig for Playfair and the Fort St. James resident is never far away. He’s quite enjoying his return to the junior hockey scene for the first time since he left it as a graduating WHL defenceman 40 years ago.

Playfair got to know Lamb six years ago when they were both in Arizona coaching their respective teams in the Phoenix Coyotes’ organization. Playfair started working with the Cougars in October, when he knew he wasn’t going to be coaching this season in the NHL.

“In watching them play you can consistently see good team structure,” said Playfair. “This team is over the hump of being out of the playoffs for long consecutive blocks of time and now they expect to be a good team and they expect to win and they expect to be in the playoffs. The team is moving in the right direction and the players that come here see the value of playing here.”

Playfair is confident hockey fans will return to fill CN Centre..

“We’re all the same, we want to watch a winner,” he said. “ Ownership made the decision to go and invest and spend the time and energy and resources to give the team a chance to win consistently and once the fans see that it’s not a one and  done, they’re going to come back because they love hockey and they’re going to support local sports.”

He says the onus is on the players to give fans a reason to pay to see them play.

“These guys have to earn the right to get the people to come back and they have to do it through hard work and do it over and over, and I think they’re well into that mindset,” he said. “They should be able to expect fans to come back when they win. You won’t see a team in this community, in my opinion, that’s going to win rounds in the playoffs and be top-10 in the league and not have people come and watch.”

Playfair, a former Portland Winterhawks defenceman,  left his home in Fort St. James in 1980 at age 15 to play junior A in Fort Saskatchewan and hockey has been his livelihood ever since. He followed his older brother Larry to Portland, where he helped the ‘Hawks win the WHL championship in 1983, the year after he was drafted 20th overall by the Edmonton Oilers.

In eight seasons as a pro, his NHL playing career spanned 21 games with Edmonton and Chicago. He captained the Indianapolis Ice to the Turner Cup IHL championship in 1990 and retired two seasons later at age 29, slowed by degenerative discs in his back and an eye injury.

At 30, he started coaching and bounced around the ECHL and IHL for six years until the Flames hired him in 2000 to take over their AHL club in Saint John, which led to the Calder Cup that season. Darryl Sutter took him on as an assistant coach in 2003 and he was part of Calgary’s run to the Stanley Cup final in 2004.