Jackson Playfair stood in the visitors dressing room at Comcast Arena in Everett last Friday taking in the sights and sounds of his new team.
Playfair, 19, who spent 11⁄2 years with the Spokane Chiefs before a trade last week sent him to Spokane’s biggest rival — the Tri-City Americans — accepted his new jersey, No. 24, with an open mind.
“They have me wearing my brother’s number from back in camp,” said Playfair, whose younger brother Austyn signed with Tri-City in August. “He wore it in for me. It’s nice to be able to step in and put it on. It was a change, something I didn’t think I would be doing, but I’m happy to do it. I thought my chest might burn a bit from the logo, but it was all good. It fit right.”
Playfair is one of two new additions to the Americans, who revamped their roster at the WHL trade deadline last week. Also joining the Americans, who are back on the ice Friday in Seattle, is defenseman Josh Thrower, 17, who was acquired from Calgary.
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As the new came in, four familiar faces said good-bye — veteran forwards Connor Rankin (to Calgary) and Marcus Messier (to Spokane), and defensemen Wil Tomchuk (to Prince George) and Jeff Hubic, whom the Americans sent down to the Melville Millionaires of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League.
“We have a pretty good run over the last seven years,” said Tri-City general manager Bob Tory. “We have been very fortunate. This has been a tough year with the injuries, but we have never used injuries as an excuse. We had that long losing streak, which was a 10-year record, and that didn’t make me happy. There were some things going on with the culture within the room that weren’t acceptable. From my standpoint, when that happens things have to change.”
And change they did. The Americans moved four 19-year-old players, got one back in return in Playfair, and added Thrower. After all the moves, the Americans’ average age is 17.83 — making them the youngest team in the WHL.
“We have improved the team and gotten younger,” Tory said. “We weren’t a high-scoring team. Those guys weren’t putting up the kinds of numbers that were necessary. Hopefully when we get (Mitch) Topping and (Parker) Bowles back, that makes us better. Getting Jessey Astles back Saturday made a huge, huge, difference.
“Both Jackson and Josh played good games and physical games. In-your-face type of hockey, and that’s what we need to do. I saw a lot of good things both Friday in the loss and Saturday. We don’t expect miracles, but we do expect a high compete level and to get the team back to where we’ve been the last few years. We weren’t heading that way with the group we had. Changes needed to be made.”
After two games with the Americans, Playfair was starting to feel at home as he headed into a full week of practice.
“The guys just opened their arms and let me in from Day 1,” Playfair said. “They are a great group of guys. You can tell they are tight knit, and it’s nice to be able to step in and pick up where I left off in Spokane. I thought they may make me sit in a corner by myself or something, but they let me squeeze in.”
While he is making friends with his teammates, Playfair knows his next step is earning the respect of the Tri-City fans, who for so long haven’t had a kind word to say about him.
“It’s kind of nice to have the boos turn into cheers,” he said. “I hope to get the fans on my side. I hope they don’t hold a grudge for the time I spent in Spokane.”
Since he came from the Eastern Conference, Thrower said he will have a harder time adapting to the pace of the game in the Western Conference than winning over the fans.
“The first couple of games, it was different — a real eye-opener,” Thrower said. “I feel it is a whole lot quicker down here. You have to make decisions right away and they are pressuring you a lot more than they would in Calgary’s division. The defense here is really solid. I feel I can fit in the mix and play with anyone. I feel like I can make a bigger impact in a division like this. I’m looking forward to finishing off this year and the rest of my career with the team.”
Playfair said it was nice not to be the only new face in the dressing room.
“I flew into to Seattle on Friday night and Bob and Stu (Barnes) picked me up and took me to the rink,” Playfair said. “We got there a few minutes before the other guys. When they got in, I saw a couple of the guys roll in. I said a couple of apologies for games past. There was an awkward period there. Then Josh showed up.
“He grabbed me and we talked a bit. There are a couple of routines the guys have we weren’t quite sure of with warmups and such. I kinda stuck with him so I didn’t look like an idiot. It was nice not to have to go through it by myself.”