The truth is Jason Jaffray didn’t know if he was going to play at all during the 2019-20 season. Already he knew he was in the twilight of his career and facing an uphill battle if he was going to return to play out the final year of his contract with the German League’s Red Bull Munich. He had skated in just 17 games the season prior, his time limited by a March hip surgery, and with his 38th birthday on the horizon, Jaffray was starting to weigh his options.
Before he decided one way or another, though, Jaffray wanted to be sure. He wanted to make the decision on his own, not have it influenced by his health and what his body was trying to tell him he could or could not do. So, he packed his bags, said goodbye to his wife and two children and jetted off for the Red Bull Academy in Salzburg, Austria this past summer. He wanted to put in the hours necessary to get back to 100 percent. Once he was healthy, he felt he could make a choice with more clarity.
“That took until middle of October until I felt I was able to get back out on the ice and take contact and get into games. Nov. 1 was my first game back and instantly I felt like I was back to 100 percent within a couple weeks,” Jaffray, who scored 10 goals and 20 points in 33 games across all competitions, said. “I was able to provide offense, I was playing on the power play, penalty kill, averaging 20 minutes a game again.”
Still, Jaffray knew the clock was ticking. After a career spanning 50 NHL games, more than 600 AHL games, more than 140 ECHL contests and upwards of 200 games overseas, it was time. And roughly two months ago, he made the call. Speaking with Red Bull GM Christian Winkler, Jaffray made it clear this was his final campaign, that retirement was his next step. But with Munich surging and a sure-thing to make the post-season, the organization made the decision to sit on the news. It wasn’t made public. They wanted to wait until the timing was right.
Ultimately, it was decided that the franchise would announce Jaffray’s retirement in the days ahead of Red Bull’s first post-season tilt. And the timing seemed perfect. It would provide the organization a great way to send off a player who had spent the past five seasons in Munich, who had scored more goals for the franchise over that span than any other player and who had appeared in more than 200 games for Red Bull. It was going to give the team, not to mention the fans, reason for added emotional investment entering the post-season, the chance to offer Jaffray support as he pursued the perfect ending to his career with a DEL championship held high above his head.
But then the coronavirus outbreak threw a wrench in those plans. Just as suddenly as it appeared he was going to get the chance to pen a final chapter in his career, it was taken away.
“They announced it on the Monday. The following day, the Tuesday, is when the league was cancelled. They cancelled the league just as Game 1 of the playoffs was about to start due to the virus situation in Germany,” Jaffray said. “And it's really been a whirlwind week ever since. We went from being the No. 1 seed and being favored to win in the playoffs and me thinking I could have a fairytale ending to a career to not playing at all.”
Over the next few days, Jaffray had an exit meeting with the team, did his best to pack up the apartment he has called home for parts of the past five years, handed off what he could to teammates that might need it and was whisked away back to Canada. After only a brief stop upon his return to fill out paperwork and answer some questions relating to his whereabouts amid the coronavirus outbreak, Jaffray found himself homebound and in a 14-day self-quarantine. During that time, he quickly found the silver lining – valuable time with his wife and kids, from whom he has been away for much of the past season – and he acknowledges that cancelling the DEL season was the right decision, a prudent choice in the interest of public health and safety. But Jaffray is upfront about the personal challenge the season cancellation has presented.
“Two months ago, when I decided it was going to be my last season, if you told me that I wasn't able to play the playoffs, I probably would have thought twice about telling my GM that it was going to be my last year,” he said.
And most difficult about it is that Jaffray’s mindset was that he was going to get to have one last run with Red Bull, where he had helped establish a winning culture and was part of the franchise’s three-peat from 2015-16 to 2017-18. The first of those titles was the first in Munich’s history. And Jaffray believed he had the chance to end his career in a style, skate into the sunset. That’s where his head was. Instead, unwittingly, Jaffray’s career ended with Red Bull’s final regular season game. His last game in Munich had been days earlier, and those in attendance hadn’t been made aware that Jaffray wouldn’t be back.
“That's the toughest part I had with it,” Jaffray said. “Not knowing that it was your last game, not knowing it was the last time you were going to lace your skates up and play in front of a crowd. It's still tough for me to think about when it comes to that side of it, because you want to know, you want to know when it's your last game, you want to appreciate it.”
He can’t go back and get that now, though. That moment is gone. And chances are there will be others like Jaffray, players who won't get the sendoff they deserve in the wake of league cancellations. To be sure, there are more important things in times such as these, but that only takes so much sting out of an unfortunate ending to a career. But there is still a chance Jaffray, who intends to stay in the game in some capacity and could even be back in an off-ice role with Red Bull by next season, can have one last moment.
“I'm hoping to be able to return sometime next season and better be able to say some goodbyes to some people I didn't really get to see, thank them for the five years,” Jaffray said. “Not even just management, but players and the front office staff that put a lot of work in and made my life and my family's life over the past five seasons.”
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