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Playfair eager to begin Chapter 2 as AHL head coach

by Lindsay Kramer
On June 5, Calgary named Jim Playfair head coach of the Abbotsford Heat, its new affiliate that will join the American Hockey League in 2009-10.

Playfair came to town for a get-to-know-you day, met the front office and local media, shook hands and smiled a lot. He could have easily scooted out the next day and gone back to Calgary, where he had been a Flames assistant coach, to rejoin his family and continue his summer vacation.

But the next day the Heat had a little open house going on, where fans could come in, check out the new building and choose their seats. So Playfair decided to hang around for part of that promotion to let prospective ticket-buyers know he stands behind the product in which they are investing.

"It was a neat process to see the excitement in the community," Playfair said. "From day one, we're in this together. That's all part of the challenge. By doing this right the first time, you can set up the future of the franchise for years to come. When it's brand new, that's what makes it neat."

It figures that Playfair would bring such enthusiasm to the marketing side of the organization. New challenges tend to stir that emotion in him, and "Mr. Ticketmaster" is one of the few titles he hasn't worn during his long stretch with the Flames.

Playfair's appointment as head coach of Abbotsford completes a strange and circular career path with the Flames. Playfair has been in the organization since he was named head coach of the Saint John Flames on Aug. 10, 2000. He spent three seasons in that position, and during the 2000-01 season, he took Saint John to the Calder Cup.

Playfair joined Calgary in January 2003 as an assistant coach, a position he held until being named the Flames' head coach for the 2006-07 season. Since 2007, Playfair has held the position of associate coach with the Flames.

While going to the minors for a second time in the same organization might seem like a backwards step, Playfair argues differently. He said he sees himself as a head coach, and being slotted at that level in the AHL can only help.

"I think if you're a good enough coach and someone who can help the organization win, they are going to come find you. This is strictly about becoming a head coach again, getting the details in place of becoming a head coach again," said Playfair, 45. "You can lose some of that as an assistant coach. That's just the whole structure of managing the practice, managing the dressing room, managing the bench. The whole rhythm of your decision-making goes into hibernation when you are an assistant coach."

And how long might it take for Playfair to find the right beat as the bench boss again?

"It better take one period," he joked. "It's not a time frame issue. It's more an issue of getting everything up and running again."

Contract leverage -- Hershey forward Alexandre Giroux has an equipment bag full of reasons spurring him on as he posts one of the greatest offensive seasons in AHL history.

The veteran is bolstering his bargaining position for summertime contract pursuits. He's still stung by what he said were doubts from others about whether he was fast and strong enough to find the back of the net in the pros. Most immediate, of course, is the Calder Cup title that a series victory against Manitoba would bring.

But one motivation that would seem to be most obvious is nowhere in the equation, Giroux said. In his last finals, with the Bears against Hamilton in 2007, the dangerous finisher was shut down without a point in a five-game loss.

"I think if you're a good enough coach and someone who can help the organization win, they are going to come find you. This is strictly about becoming a head coach again, getting the details in place of becoming a head coach again."
-- Jim Playfair

"I think I was playing pretty good hockey. I just didn’t score those last five games," Giroux said. "I didn't think about that one second. I didn't question myself, that I didn't play well."

Giroux has removed that topic from discussion in these playoffs. He has 14 goals, which, when added to his 60 during the regular season, is a combined high in AHL history. He's moved into 17th place in career AHL playoff points (72) and is tied for 13th in goals (35).

Those numbers help further distance Giroux from the start of his career, when he was a fourth-liner with Grand Rapids in 2001-02.

"When you are younger, you play to not make mistakes or make your coach mad," Giroux said. "You don't want to put your team in trouble. You want to get more ice time. When you get older, you learn to play smarter. You know what you need to do defensively. Your offensive skills take over."

Texas home for Climie -- Regardless of whether rookie Matt Climie ever becomes a star goalie, he's already on his way to becoming a Lone Star netminder.

Climie played three games for Dallas this season before getting shipped to Houston for some playoff action there. Dallas has already re-signed him for 2009-10, and if he doesn't make the Stars he could very well play with that team's new affiliate in Austin, Texas.

That's a lot of two-steppin' for a goalie who before this season had never played in Texas.

"I love the Texas weather in the winter time," said Climie, a native of Leduc, Alberta, who played college hockey at Bemidji State. "I can't complain about that too much."

Climie's new deal at least gives him something of an anchor after a 2008-09 season that tested his ability to remain ready for anything. He played in 42 games for Idaho of the East Coast Hockey League, and went 2-1-0 in three games with the Stars.

Dallas loaned Climie to Houston for the playoffs, where he became an insurance policy liable to be cashed in on short notice. His first three playoff appearances all came in relief, and Climie gathered himself quickly enough to stop all 25 shots he saw in that action.

His first start fell into his lap in Game 5 of the Western Conference finals against Manitoba. With the Aeros facing elimination, Climie made 45 saves in a double overtime win. The magic then ended with a 3-1 loss to the Moose in Game 6.

"There hasn't been a year I played on more than one team before this year," Climie said. "It was crazy for a while, that last month and a half, two months. I appreciated it as a great opportunity. I was definitely pleased with my performance. As a goaltender, you are always proving yourself. You always want to leave that good taste."

Around the AHL -- Greg Gilbert, head coach of the Toronto Marlies for the past three seasons, has been let go by the organization. ... When Manitoba beat Hershey, 3-2, in Game 5 on June 9 to stay alive in the Calder Cup finals, the Bears became the first team to lose on home ice with a chance to close out the title since Hamilton in Game 7 of the 2003 championship vs. Houston. Home teams had been 46-12 all-time with a chance to win the Calder Cup. ... Michal Neuvirth's 3-0 shutout of the Moose in Game 3 on June 6 marked the first shutout by a home team in the finals since Chicago’s Pasi Nurminen blanked Bridgeport in Game 3 in 2002. There had been four road finals shutouts since. ... Hershey captain Bryan Helmer has played in 116 career AHL playoff games, overtaking Jody Gage for third place in league history. ... Manitoba’s total attendance through 10 postseason home games at the MTS Centre stands at 101,092. The Moose are the second team in AHL history to draw more than 100,000 fans in a single postseason, after Philadelphia in 1998 (106,641). ... The Bears are 14-2 this postseason when scoring at least one power play goal, and 1-4 when held without a man-advantage marker. ... The AHL raised $2.38 million during the 2008-09 season for donation to various charities and relief funds across North America. Additionally, AHL teams gave back to their local communities through numerous activities, including nearly 2,000 visits by players and coaches to schools, hospitals, libraries and other locations and nearly 3,000 more mascot appearances. More than 200,000 game tickets were donated to local charitable groups.

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