Playfair's dues paid in full

ERIC FRANCIS -- Calgary Sun

, Last Updated: 10:48 AM ET

Those close to Jim Playfair know he wasn't just handed the coaching reins of the Calgary Flames last week -- he earned that chance thanks to the hard work and dedication that have been hallmarks of his life at the rink and away from it. Sun columnist Eric Francis recently sat down with Playfair at his south Calgary home to talk about the personal tragedies and career triumphs that have shaped the new NHL head coach.

Four years after his youngest brother was killed in a car crash, Jim Playfair 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, Playfair remembers 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."

No longer could Playfair attempt to be the type of physical defenceman his older brother, Larry, had established himself as a Buffalo Sabres mainstay.

Four years earlier, the Edmonton Oilers had selected Playfair 20th overall, prompting one of his five brothers to call the house with early morning news that shocked everyone. Sharing a room with younger brother Dennis in the basement of the family's Fort

St. James, B.C. home, Playfair took a call from Glen Sather every small-town Canadian kid dreams of.

"We all believed we could play in the NHL because Brian (Spinner) Spencer came from our town and he did it," said Playfair. "We didn't know the path we'd have to take, though."

Two weeks later his 'path' took a serious detour when Dennis died in a car crash. Dennis, a top young hockey prospect himself at age 15, and three of his pals had been racing home after a night of drinking when the vehicle rolled off a dirt road and killed him instantly.

Hearing a trio of sirens wail by as he lay in bed, Jim and his father drove to the scene where they learned Dennis was dead.

"I went from such a high to a low," said Playfair of the saddest day of his life.

"It was not only devastating for our family but for the whole community. To lose a 15 year-old boy in the middle of me getting drafted. Two days later, it's a graduation for the whole community of 30 kids and a week after that it's Larry's wedding.

I think Dennis taught all of us this isn't a dress rehearsal. This is the real deal. It's important you max it out and get after it and go."

That's exactly what Jim and the rest of the Playfairs have done. Taking cues from their father who worked hard as a village superintendent most of his life, all four of Playfairs' brothers and his sister are all tremendously successful in their own rights.

Augmenting Playfair's work ethic is a discipline that has seen him make several sacrifices on his way to winning a Turner Cup championship (IHL) as a player, a Calder Cup trophy (AHL) as a coach and now head coach of the Calgary Flames.

For the first five years of his pro career he vowed to remain single, ensuring his focus wasn't skewed in any direction other than the rink.

However, after meeting his future wife, Roxanne, while training in Prince George one summer, his strong family beliefs were quickly cemented. Yet, again, after being married in 1990 they did their best to ensure their three sons would be born in the summer when he could be there for them.

An emotional man who remembers crying the day his mother presented him with an album of photos and clippings commemorating his life, Playfair's sentimental side has had him documenting his boys life for the last ten years in the form of a daily journal.

"The day they get married I'll give it to them and say, 'This is your life from a little boy until now through my eyes,' " said Playfair, fiercely proud of Austyn, 9, Jackson, 12, and Dylan, 14, who all play hockey.

"My kids have made huge sacrifices. They've lived in Dayton, Michigan and Saint John while I coached there and had to go make new friends and find their own way in the world.

I appreciate that."

Winning the IHL crown with Darryl Sutter as his coach, the two have shared a bond that intertwines similar philosophies on hockey and family, which gave Sutter the confidence to announce last week he'd handed Playfair the coaching reigns to the Flames.

"It's just like my brother Jeff (a logging truck driver) who missed a load of logs to pull over and listen to the press conference with my mom, sister and other family members (announcing Jim as coach) -- they all found a way to be a part of it," said Playfair, whose most cherished moments are spent with his family and friends at the cottage in Fort

St. James where every night ends at the fire pit. "That's what you have to do to be a good team -- you have to have family values and good work ethic. That's what the Sutters have and what I've been brought up with and what our team has grabbed onto."

Although forever striving to learn and be better, he knows better than anyone hockey is not a life or death situation.

He's been through his share of that already.


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