Dad's back at work, just in a different way

Brendan McCarthy
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Injured IceCaps' captain Jaffray rejoins the team

St. John's IceCaps captain Jason Jaffray (left) hasn't been on the ice with teammates since undergoing season-ending neck surgery two weeks ago. But having traveled to Pennsylvania with the team for the next three games of their second-round series against the Wilke-Barre/Scranton Penguins, the gritty 30-year-old hopes to be able to contribute in some small way. - Telegram file photo

Kennedy Jaffray asked her mom to call her dad because she needed to speak with him right away. Jason Jaffray was in Winnipeg, recovering from spinal fusion surgery and five-year-old Kennedy decided what she had to say her father couldn't wait until they were reunited in their Alberta home.

"I didn't want my little girl to see me the way I was, to see me laid up in a hospital, barely able to walk for awhile, and wearing a big neck brace," said Jaffray, the St. John's IceCaps' captain who underwent the surgery about a month after his season was ended by a hit during a March 28 game in Norfolk, Va.

But Kennedy had known what had happened and obviously had been thinking it. So she asked her mom Michelle to punch in the phone numbers that would connect her to her dad and then she took the handset to her room for a private conversation.

"Dad, I need to have a serious talk with you," she began and then asked her father to quit playing hockey.

"She went 'You got two really big owies in the last two years.' That's what she calls (getting hurt)," said Jaffray, who lost almost all of the 2010-11 season to a serious knee injury.

"She said 'Dad, when I get owies, I just quit doing what gave me the owie. So I think you should quit hockey.'"

Moms and dads everywhere will recognize this kind of moment. You don't know whether to laugh or cry and usually get caught somewhere in between. Your insides go mushy and you tingle as if you had just had just touched your finger to a light socket. But as the goosebumps subsided, Jason Jaffray, that 30-year-old leader of rough-and-tumble men who had just been floored by a five-year-old girl, responded.

"What would Daddy do if Daddy quits playing hockey?" he asked.

And Kennedy, displaying a precocious awareness of mediation and compromise, suggested something that she believed might make them both happy.

"You could come play hockey in my town, then you wouldn't have to travel in Winnipeg and St. John's."

It was, as Jaffray suggested "pretty cute at the time."

There was also a poignancy to the conversation, because Jaffray had indeed already considered the possibility of not playing hockey again.

"When somebody is talking about cutting into your neck, yeah, you think about it, if just for a little bit," he said. "It's not something you're very comfortable with. So there was always that thought in the back of my head "I'm 30 years old. Do I have any other options?"

Probably not if he wanted to play hockey again, according to specialists he had seen, including Robert Watkins, the Los Angeles doctor who had performed similar surgery on star NFL quarterback Peyton Manning.

"The doctors all said there are a lot of people who walk around day-to-day with the same injury and don't have problems other than maybe some burning sensations at the end of their fingers and that's not the end of the world," said Jaffray.

"Dr. Watkins in L.A. said I didn't have to have the surgery if I didn't want to, but that nobody was going to clear me to play hockey again unless I was symptom-free for six months."

So Jaffray went under the knife in Winnipeg just over two weeks ago, surgeons cutting through the front of his neck to get at a herniated disc and replace it with a piece of bone harvested from his hip.

"That's actually the most painful of the two (areas of surgery) right now. You have neck surgery and it's your hip that hurts," he said with a smile as he described the operation.

"They took the herniated disc that was pushed into my spine and they took that bone from hip and put in place of that between the C5 and C6 and they screwed in a plate over top of that. Within six months. it's supposed to fuse."

Jaffray wears a neck brace to prevent the neck rotation that, for example, naturally occurs when someone behind you calls your name. And he's doing his best to follow all medical advice, although he says his doctors probably would have been upset with him had they seem him in his Winnipeg hotel room, jumping up in down with delight after watching, via streaming video over his computer, Derek Meech score the overtime goal that gave the IceCaps their first-round series win over the Syracuse Crunch.

Jaffray couldn't help it. He still feels so much a part of the team.

There is, admittedly frustration built in to that emotion. After all, six weeks ago, when the hit by Admirals defenceman Radko Gudas knocked him out of that game in Norfolk, Jaffray's biggest concern was a split lip and he figured that with a day off, he'd be back playing against the Admirals in a rematch.

It wasn't until he had an MRI and reported some tingling in his finger ends that the medical alarm bells started sounding and he found himself on a path that ultimately led to the operating room.

Jaffray will not be able to resume skating until mid-summer at the earliest and could be looking at a delayed start to next season. Some might suggest it would be easier for him to stay away from hockey - or at least his hockey team - in the interim, otherwise he might be like the kid who finds a clear glass wall between him and a carnival.

"To be part of one of the best teams in the league all year long and build up to this time off year people get excited for ... (then) to have to sit out and watch this is painful for myself, especially because I pride myself on being a good playoff player and playoff performer," said Jaffray Friday as the IceCaps practised at the Mohegan Sun Arena in Wilkes-Barre preparation for tonight's Game 3 of their AHL Eastern Conference semifinal with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins.

"But there never was a point where I didn't want to be around the team," continues Jaffray, who had flown into St. John's late Wednesday and then joined the IceCaps for a Thursday charter flight to Pennsylvania, site of the next three games of the best-of-seven series.

"When you have a serious injury like this, that's what keeps you sane ... being around the guys, being in the dressing room, helping out any way I can.

"If it means going over power-play video with the guys or just being in the dressing room, supporting them after games just having my face around ... it might help a little bit.

"I've played a lot of playoff games, been through a lot of playoff runs over the years and hopefully, my leadership can be used in this run."

bmcc@thetelegram.com

Twitter@telybrendan

Organizations: IceCaps, Winnipeg hotel

Geographic location: Winnipeg, St. John's, Alberta Norfolk, Va. Los Angeles L.A. Wilkes-Barre Norfolk Pennsylvania

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