Although the offensive forward leads the Manitoba Moose in goals and is second on the team in assists this season, that special scoring touch — and the respect that comes with it — hasn’t always been easy for him to find in an up-and-down professional career.
In fact, since deciding he would dedicate his life to pro hockey at the age of 14, Jaffray has been battling nay-sayers with the same intensity he shows opposing defencemen.
“When I was 16, I was with the Red Deer Rebels (WHL) and I was the last cut in training camp,” he remembers. “Then luckily I got traded in the summer to the Kootenay Ice. Once you make the team as a 17-year-old, and you have a good season, you know you’re in. When you’re at that time of your life, you just have to put up the points.”
Despite being overlooked in the WHL draft and completing his junior career without an NHL selection, Jaffray graduated to the East Coast Hockey League (ECHL) in 2002 and proved his scoring skills could translate to pro hockey.
“I’d never seen an ECHL game or an AHL game on TV so I didn’t really know how I was going to match up against everybody,” he says. “It just makes you train that much harder in the summer and spend a couple extra hours in the gym because you don’t really know what to expect.”
In his first year with the ECHL’s Roanoke Express in 2002-03, Jaffray led the team in scoring with 34 goals and 51 assists in 64 games.
“I went into my first year in the East Coast and had a really good year, got rookie of the year, and that’s when I thought maybe I can do something with this. I thought I’d have a great chance in the AHL.
“And anything can happen in the AHL,” he adds. “I mean, injuries up top and contracts up top — it’s all up in the air. I’ve seen some crazy things happen.”
In his rookie season with Roanoke, Jaffray experienced the call-up firsthand, filling a spot in the Norfolk Admirals’ line-up for two mid-season games. It was an eye-opening experience, the 25-year-old says.
“East Coast is a totally different game than the AHL. The first couple years I was up and down, with a couple games in Norfolk and six, seven games in Wilkes-Barre. It was frustrating because I’d go from the top-end guy in the East Coast to a fourth-line guy in Wilkes-Barre or Norfolk.
“I was used to playing the power play, used to playing shorthanded,” he says. “Then you’re limited to a role with two or three shifts a game and playing with players that maybe aren’t as offensively gifted as you’re used to playing with. I think it was just a matter of waiting it out, waiting for your chance.”
That chance came with the Cleveland Barons in 2004.
“When I got called up to Cleveland, I got a couple points in my first couple of games and I got a chance to play with some really good players,” Jaffray remembers. “I ended up playing with Ryane Clowe and Marcel Goc, who are both up with San Jose now and are both playing really well. It’s a matter of taking advantage of your opportunities. I certainly did when I was up in Cleveland, and although things didn’t work out there, better things happened in Manitoba anyway.”
After being traded to Manitoba in late February 2005, Jason posted eight points in 14 games to close out the regular season. A successful Moose career wasn’t going to come easily though, as the Olds, Alta., native failed to make the club’s playoff roster.
“It was certainly frustrating. I was always known as a good offensive guy and I thought, ‘Well maybe I have to learn both ends of the rink a little bit better.’ Obviously (then-head coach) Randy Carlyle’s a great coach, and he wasn’t seeing something in me.”
Determined to secure a spot with the club in 2005-06, Jaffray capitalized on the chances he was given and excelled under the guidance of Alain Vigneault, who is now the bench boss of the Vancouver Canucks.
“He really gave me a chance,” Jaffray says. “I think things really turned around when a couple of our centermen went down hurt with (Rick) Rypien and (Nathan) Smith, and I got a chance to play center… It’s a little bit tougher game and it helps you learn the game a little bit more too.”
In his first full season with Manitoba, Jason tallied 12 goals and 35 assists in 73 games, good for third spot on the Moose leaderboard. Only 43 games into the current season, Jaffray has already doubled last season’s goal contribution and leads the league in game-winning goals with six.
What has made the biggest difference in his game this season? Confidence.
“I think confidence is the big thing when you come up from the East Coast to the AHL,” Jaffray explains. “You’re used to being the top-end guy in the East Coast and then you come up and you’re thinking, ‘Well, these guys are a whole league better than me,’ and it’s kind of in the back of your mind: ‘Can I score up here?’
“I think it was like the second or third game of the season against Toronto when I scored the two goals in one game, and I thought, ‘Wow, I can really be a goal scorer in this league.’”
From the WHL, to the ECHL, to a top-line spot in the AHL, Jaffray has faced his challenges with ferocity. But does he have his sights set on proving himself at the NHL level?
“I’d be lying to you if I said [the NHL] wasn’t in the back of my head. I’d love to have that NHL contract, I’d love to be able to have that in my back pocket so if someone did go down hurt up there, and you are the best player playing down here at the time, I’d love to have that opportunity.”
For a player who has made a career out of turning opportunities into successful seasons, Jason Jaffray knows a little adversity goes a long way, even at hockey’s highest level.