Jessey Astles has worked long and hard and thrown a few punches to earn his reputation in the Western Hockey League. Now that he has added an offensive upswing to his game, he is even more dangerous.
In his first season with the Tri-City Americans, the rugged forward has had seven fights. But on the flip side, he has 11 goals and nine assists for his most productive year in the WHL where the goals outweighed the fights.
(General manager) Bob (Tory) and I had always talked about Jessey, said Tri-City coach Jim Hiller. We liked him when he played against us in Kelowna. We knew he was physical and we knew he skated well. I think we were surprised in training camp to see he had pretty good offensive capabilities, as well. Those were our initial impressions. He has turned himself into a dangerous offensive player, adding that to what was already his strength, which is a big strong guy who creates space for people.
Astles, a 6-foot-2, 205-pound winger from Coquitlam, British Columbia, started his career in the WHL with Kelowna. He was a sixth-round bantam pick of the Rockets in 2008, and played three seasons with Kelowna.
The Rockets traded Astles to Saskatoon in 2012. He played one season with the Blades.
Last June, Tory gave up a sixth-round pick in the 2014 WHL bantam draft to Saskatoon for Astles. He would have been one of 12 overage players going back to the Blades, and he knew a trade was in the works.
In the end, the deal has benefited both parties.
When I got traded here, I heard it was a good place to come play, Astles said. The fans are wild, which I love. Being here, just being given a chance, is a big thing. Bob and Jim have given me a chance. They have been playing me a lot, and when you get that, the scoring and points start to come. Ive been more aggressive and wanting it. Im coming to an end here in this league and I want to go out with a bang. Thats what Ive been trying to do. Some games its been working. Im just going to keep it up.
Astles has been productive all season, but as of late, his game has risen to a new level, leaving Hiller wishing he could get another year from the rugged forward.
You wish he was around longer. I know his teammates do, Hiller said. With our young team, hes had a better opportunity for a bigger offensive role. We see him shoot, skate and make nice passes, too. He shoots it as hard as anyone in the league and as hard as most pros. He can really fire the puck.
Just ask Tri-City defenseman Riley Hillis, who took an Astles shot to the foot in practice and now is sidelined with a hairline fracture. Or Spokanes Matt Sozanski, whose leg absorbed a shot by Astles in a game last Saturday and he had to crawl to the bench.
If you do get in front of it and it hits you, you are going to pay for it, Astles said of his shot.
As much as Astles is enjoying the new dimension to his game, his reputation as a bad-ass has followed him from Kelowna to Saskatoon to Tri-City. In 179 career games before joining the Americans, Astles had seven goals, 11 assists and 284 penalty minutes.
Hes earned a fair amount of respect with his physical part of his game during his career, Hiller said. I say earned, because that is not given, it is earned. Hes gained a lot of respect in the way he plays the game, as well. Our guys respected him right out of the gate.
With 43 career fights under his belt, Astles has earned his due.
I dont want to call myself the toughest guy in the league, but I have fought a lot in this league and a lot of players I have played with say I am feared because of the type of game I play, Astles said. I love a tough, rugged, gritty game. That is my style. I used to call myself an enforcer, but once I was given a chance to play more, I kind of got away from that.
But he still can be counted on to defend his teammates.
Thats part of my job to watch out for the young ones like Ty (Comrie) and the smaller guys we have, especially the skilled guys like Bri (Brian Williams), Astles said. Anything happens in scrums, Im always the first one there to take care of them. When I do come in, everything just stops. I like to take care of my teammates. Im sure they would do the same.
Seattles Mitch Elliot, who has fought Astles twice this season, said they are similar players.
We have a mutual respect for each other, Elliot said. Its not that we hate each other, we do what we do for our teams. Its nice to know a guy like Astles has your back. You feel safer, like you have a bodyguard or a policeman. I think any so-called heavyweight in this league has that reputation. People dont tend to take liberties too often.
Mitch is totally right on that, Astles said. I have fought him twice and both times we have tapped each other good job. We know what we have to do. Our intentions arent to hurt the guys we are fighting, but it is still a fight. When a good fight happens, its over. Mutual respect between the fighters. Even the top scorers have a ton of respect for the fighters.
There are times, though, when some players dont know to leave well enough alone.
Prince Georges Jari Erricson took on Astles during the second game of the regular season. He suffered a concussion and has played just one game since.
I remember the whole thing, Astles said. I made a hit on Klarc Wilson, (Erricson) came in and grabbed me and asked if I wanted to fight him. I said sure. I made a big hit, I had to back it up. When a fight like that goes on for a long time and I was still feeling punches from him, I kept going. My intentions werent to hurt him. I hit him hard, and in the right spot. I wasnt fighting him just to hurt him.
While fighting has gotten a bad rap in hockey the last few years, Elliot doesnt seeing it dying off any time soon. We are a stabilizing influence on the game, said Elliot, who has 51 career fights. When fighting gets drawn out of the game, cheap shots happen and the respect among players decreases.
That wont happen on Astles watch.