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From playing the game to building the game — and a family

Friday, November 20th
From playing the game to building the game — and a family

It’s a familiar refrain for anybody who’s played a video game produced by EA Sports: “E-A Sports — It’s in the game!”

Jackson Playfair has lived that life, quite literally as a former ECHL player whose digital avatar was included in the 2020 edition of the sport’s most premiere simulation. Now, he helps create the video game as an associate producer on the popular NHL series developed in Vancouver, British Columbia.

The last year and a half has been a whirlwind for the 26-year-old, as he has not only changed careers, but also experienced the joy of fatherhood, all in the midst of a worldwide global pandemic.

Let’s start from the beginning.

The forward joined the Orlando Solar Bears in mid-February 2019, making his professional debut in a 14-game stint after wrapping up his university hockey career for the Dalhousie University Tigers.

“I was lucky - when I got down there, there was already a great group of core guys - younger first-year guys that meshed with the older group of guys,” Playfair said. “You could tell it was a good room.”

Over the next month and a half, Playfair relished the opportunity.

“The best part for me overall was just the fun of being able to wake up every day and play hockey, go to the rink, practice and enjoy being around a group of guys,” he said.

For a cup of coffee in pro hockey, Playfair had some memorable experiences, notably his parents — mother Roxane and father (and Edmonton Oilers associate coach Jim) — being able to watch one of his games.

“That was awesome,” Playfair said, reflecting on the Feb. 21, 2019 game against the Norfolk Admirals. “Through [his father’s] career and my career, our schedules conflicted. I was always very understanding that he was pursuing something for our family, but it’s still hard - you want your mom and dad to watch all of those moments.

“We were playing Norfolk - I was playing with Otto Somppi, who’s 100 times more skilled than I was; I was just trying to keep up with him out there. I remember we had a line rush, it was a three-on-one, and I looked over to my right, and Otto was opening up for a one-timer and I look to the back door, and Akim Aliu is driving the back door, so all I’m thinking in my head is the last thing I’m doing is shooting this puck!

“I’ve got a guy who’s going to be playing in the NHL in a couple of years opening up for a one-timer and one of the best skating defensemen driving the back door — I’ve just got to make some sort of half-decent play, and as I’m trying to process this, I get squeezed out to the wall and at the last second I snapped a shot that beat the goalie short-side — and I looked back and my parents were right there in the section right in front of me, so it was pretty cool to get to sneak one in in that game that they were able to watch and have them there to celebrate with me.”

Playfair began his pro career with a five-game point streak, and ultimately finished the year with a productive 10 points (5g-5a) in 14 games. 

The 2019 offseason came and went with Playfair re-signing with the team for training camp that fall, but as training camp went on and more players were added to the roster, the forward began to see the writing on the wall that he would be the victim of a numbers game.

When he was delivered the news that he would not be part of the team’s season-opening roster, he had a difficult decision to make: he could uproot himself and his fiancé Jess DeSousa and try to latch on with another team and live the nomadic — and uncertain — life of a minor-league hockey player, or he could move on to the next stage of his life.

“It was one of those conversations, where as hard as it was, the realization set in that the life I wanted to have was not going to come from playing hockey anymore. And that’s not a conversation you want to have with yourself and your family. So I went home that day to the apartment there in Orlando, broke the news to Jess, and she was ready to pack up and ready to go wherever the next stop was, but at that point I was able to see the family I was building, and knew from growing up what it meant to pursue that — to go week-to-week or month-to-month to a different city, and where our life was at, that wasn’t what I wanted to do —  so at that point we drove back to Edmonton, and I started to look at everything.

“I tried looking at some scouting work, or potentially working with the team in Edmonton, and one day I was actually just on an open job website and saw something come up with EA Sports and it happened to be in the NHL department, and I had enough of the requirements to at least throw my hat in the ring. I reached out to some people I knew and applied for the job and one thing after the next fell into place.”

In an ironic twist, when Playfair was a member of the Solar Bears, the team’s practices held at the RDV Sportsplex Ice Den were just across the street from one of Electronic Arts’ offices, which is known for producing the Madden NFL series.

“I remember seeing it there, and I never made it there while I was in Orlando. I’ve always loved playing video games. It’s been my getaway from hockey when I’ve been busy. It’s funny how that ended up working out - even in my interview I told the guys I was interviewing with that I was down in Orlando playing hockey, and the studio was right across the street from our practice rink, so it’s kind of cool how it came full-circle.”

Playfair is part of the team that oversees the Hockey Ultimate Team vertical, and it’s a constantly-evolving piece of the video game’s user experience. Playfair’s background as someone who played professional hockey has been an asset for the young associate producer, who celebrated his one-year anniversary with EA on November 18.

“That was where I was able to bring some expertise into the group,” Playfair explains. “For our mode, we’re the only mode in NHL that does daily content updates. We build essentially different events that go up weekly or bi-weekly with the different group of players that match the events. Our event that’s running right now is ‘Dynamic Duos,’ so we release players that were great duos in the NHL - Henrik and Daniel Sedin; Eric Lindros and John LeClair, and those types of pairs of players, so a lot of it is looking at stats of old players that would work for our different designed events.”

The environment has been comforting to Playfair as he’s transitioned from a playing career to a regular nine-to-five job.

“EA has been a great company to work for and they treat their employees very well,” Playfair said. “I’ve always heard going to school that your first or second job is something that doesn’t exist or something you’d never think you’d do. This is my first career job after hockey. I’m very lucky to be in the position I am with a young family during this crazy time.”

The timing for all of this change — including the birth of Playfair and DeSousa’s son, Calihan James Playfair in January — appears to have come just at the right moment.

“Looking back on it, it was a blessing that we were able to get our ducks in a row and settled down before that, and it was a lot easier for us to go through that as a young family rather than scrambling.”

Through it all, the love that Playfair has for his son and fiancé has been constant.

“It’s a crazy experience to go through fatherhood and that process. From the moment he was born you just experience an entire new thing, that every day you get to learn little things and watch this person develop.

“And Jess has been incredible from day one - from me pursuing what I’ve wanted to pursue to the 20-hour car rides across North America - she’s been awesome. We’ve been together for a long time now. Going through [Calihan’s] birth and that whole process, I think every dad out there feels similar — you feel useless. You just want to be supportive and not get in the way, and from that point on it’s been incredible.

“[Having a child] is something that you love so much and it’s learning and understanding, and letting your child explore the world. He’s a smart little cookie, so he’s walking and trying to get into trouble. Jess is the true definition of a superstar when it comes to [parenthood] - I would not be able to go through this without her, that’s for sure.”

Playfair served as the guest for this week's episode of Bear Tracks — listen below for the full interview!

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