The last thing that you want to hear from your coach when you are a professional hockey player is that you will be a healthy scratch. Since his retirement from the NHL though, NHL Alumni member Jason York can embrace that phrase with pride. Along with his co-host Steve Lloyd, Jason helps to keep hockey fans in the nation’s capital up to date on the Ottawa Senators, as well as all the news from around the NHL as part of The Healthy Scratches on Ottawa’s Team 1200 radio station. .
With 757 games played as a defenseman in the league, York is very knowledgeable about the ins and outs of the game and the media world has taken notice. Along with his radio work, he writes a weekly column every Sunday in the Ottawa Sun and appears on Rogers Sportsnet as an analyst and commentator.
An Ottawa native, Jason explained that the transition from professional hockey player to radio host and media member is an ongoing process. While still a member of the Boston Bruins, he began working at the Team 1200 on a part time basis during the Ottawa Senators playoff run in 2007. The opportunity opened the door to the radio world and once he retired, York became a respected member of the Ottawa media on a full time basis. Knowing the importance of teamwork and team chemistry, Jason and fellow ‘Healthy Scratch’ Steve Lloyd, entertain and inform their audience every weekday afternoon from 3 to 6pm.
“I think Steve and I have a pretty good thing going; he’s very knowledgeable and he does his homework,” Jason said. “For a guy that didn’t play professionally, he knows a lot about the game and I think that’s something I really like about working with him. We can have a conversation and we think along the same lines and have a lot of the same views about the game - what we like and what we don’t like. Which is bad sometimes, I find we agree too much on things. To make radio interesting you have to have some disagreements, so sometimes we’ll just make some up!”
I asked Jason if being part of the media, covering the Senators locally and the NHL as a whole on Sportsnet, allows him to feel that he is still part of the hockey world. His answer surprised me in a way, but it highlights how difficult it is to make that transition to ‘Life after Hockey’.
“A lot of people say that to me, but to be honest, that’s really not important to me,” he confided. “My honest opinion is that once you are done playing, you’re really not part of the hockey world any more. When you are a player and you are in the dressing room you are part of the hockey world. Once you are done playing, you’re an outsider.”
“That’s the thing I think a lot of guys have a hard time with - you lose that team atmosphere, you lose going to the rink. I talk to a lot of guys and ask them what they miss most and they all say being around the guys. I don’t remember a lot of the specific plays I made when I played, but I remember a lot of the good times and the funny things we did off the ice. It’s that team camaraderie and being part of a group that when you’re done, it’s over. That’s why guys love the Alumni events so much.”
Growing up in Ottawa, Jason’s favourite player was a fellow Ottawa native, Doug Wilson. While most kids in the area were fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs or the Montreal Canadiens, he liked the look of the Chicago Blackhawks uniform and being a defenseman himself, he cheered on Wilson because of his hard slapshot and his style of play. Being a fan of Wilson though did not influence his own style on the ice.
“When I played, I kind of just played the game,” he reminisced. “I didn’t play for any other reason except that it was fun. I played a lot of outdoor hockey - that was probably my biggest passion as a kid. I would go out and play a lot on the outdoor rinks and that was how I spent most of my time.”
Selected by the Detroit Red Wings in the seventh round (129th overall) in the 1990 entry draft, it was difficult to break into the NHL in an organization with a strong veteran presence throughout their lineup. The AHL is a quality league though and some of his teammates on the Adirondack Red Wings included future NHLers - Keith Primeau, Mike Sillinger, Kris Draper and Aaron Ward. I asked Jason about the value of spending time in the AHL, perfecting his skills before entering the NHL as a regular - did it help his game?
“Well, yes, but nobody wants to be in the AHL, they want to be in the NHL,” he said with a laugh. “I was a seventh round draft pick, so I had to leapfrog a lot of guys in Detroit’s organization. Not just the guys in Detroit, but the guys in the minors as well that were first, second and third round draft picks. It’s pretty competitive - you are on a team, but at the same time, you are trying to beat these guys out. They are trying to get to Detroit before you do. You’re in a team environment, but there is a lot of pressure. You can let it get to you or you can rise above it.”
“There’s some luck involved for a lot of guys too; the right place at the right time, winning, losing. If you look at what is going on in Ottawa this year, there are a lot of guys on the Senators now from Binghamton because those guys won a Calder Cup in Binghamton. Part of the reason that I was able to make the jump to Detroit, was because I won a Calder Cup in Adirondack. That can really make your stock as a player rise if you win in the minors.”
“It’s funny,” he continued. “When you look back at your career, one of the things I remember from the minors was being coached by Barry Melrose. He used to say, ‘All you guys are complaining about being in the minors and how much you hate it, but when your careers are done and you’re playing in the NHL, you are going to look back and say this was some of the most fun you ever had as a player’. He was right - when you get to the NHL, it’s such a business and there is a lot more at stake.”
After playing in only 19 games with Detroit during his four seasons with the organization, Jason and teammate Mike Sillinger were traded to the Anaheim Mighty Ducks. It was with the Ducks that he was given the opportunity to become an NHL regular, playing in 79 games during his first full season on the West Coast (1995-96). Shortly before the start of the 1996-97 season, he was traded once again, but this time it was to his hometown Ottawa Senators. It was an interesting time to play in Ottawa; after years of being at or near the bottom of the league standings, the franchise was starting to turn a corner and becoming a playoff calibre team.
“It was a little bit nerve-wracking at the beginning, after I was traded from Anaheim. I was happy there, young and playing in Southern California. It was a pretty cool franchise and who wouldn’t want to play in Southern California? The year before I came to Ottawa, there was a Sports Illustrated article on the worst franchise in all of pro sports and it was about the Ottawa Senators. So when you come to a team like that and if it doesn’t win, then usually they just keep making changes until the changes are done. So, as a player you never really get established.”
“It was good though,” he recalled. “I came to Ottawa and there were a lot of young guys that were looking to make a name for themselves. We had a lot of young players coming in at that time - Daniel Alfredsson and Wade Redden were coming into their own, Yashin was getting pretty good and Shawn McEachern was an experienced veteran, so we had a lot of good guys - we had a good group! I ended up staying in Ottawa for five years and we kind of established an identity for the team with five playoff appearances in a row. We played some pretty good hockey and for me, I kind of got established as an NHL player while I was there.”
With a solid reputation as an NHL defenseman, Jason returned to Anaheim as a free agent for the 2001-02 season. After playing in 74 games with the Ducks that year, he was traded for the third time in his career and was off to Nashville to join the Predators. After playing in Ottawa, I wondered what it was like to play in a city that many call a ‘non-traditional’ hockey market. Jason was quick to point out that he really enjoyed playing there and that the fans in Nashville are all good people and very supportive of their team.
“That was probably the most fun I had in my career,” he said. “There are some good, good people in Nashville and Barry Trotz was one of the best coaches I ever had. I’m not talking technically, but he just knows how to treat players right in order to get the most out of them. That was a great experience and the General Manager, David Poile, created a real family atmosphere on that team. The kids would always be around during the games - they had a big room for the wives to have the kids there during the games and the kids were always welcome in the dressing room. I can remember my boys coming in and sitting in my stall with me and we’d have family skates with the team too.”
“Nashville kind of gets a bad rap for being a non-traditional hockey market, but I think it’s a really good place to play. The people are not as knowledgeable as Ottawa hockey fans, but they have a good loyal fan base there. The guys that play in Nashville, everybody will tell you the same thing, they love playing there!”
one of the lucky few to don the worst 3rd jersey in NHL history!’
“Oh yeah, it’s the Anaheim ‘Wild Wing’,” Jason said with a laugh. “I also wore the mustard uniform in Nashville too - we took a lot of heat for that one!”
After the NHL lockout that wiped out the entire 2004-05 season, Jason found himself on his way to Lugano to start the 2005-06 season in the Swiss Elite League. While in Switzerland, he took part in the Spengler Cup, representing Canada in the annual tournament hosted by HC Davos during the Christmas holidays. By the end of the hockey season, Jason and his teammates were lifting the championship trophy in the Swiss league and much like winning the Calder Cup in the AHL, he said that it was a very special moment in his hockey career. The season ended on a high note, but it did not start of that way.
“When I first went over, I wanted to be in the NHL and I wasn’t happy, so I kind of went over there a little disgruntled,” Jason Acknowledged. “As I spent more time there, I started to really appreciate it and really enjoying the grassroots part of the game.”
“I remember we went over and practiced up in the Alps in Switzerland. The coach brought us up to this rural Swiss village. We were playing in the top level of the Swiss Elite League and I think this was one of the Swiss B League places, where they would practice. It was an outdoor facility - just an outdoor rink with a little restaurant and bar overlooking the ice. And this rink, it was like it was cut right out of the mountains. The sun was shining down on the ice, I remember coming out of the dressing room, and it was just awesome! Our goaltenders actually had sunglasses on during the practice because the sun was so hot on the ice and kind of blinding them. Just to be up there for a couple of days, skating up in the mountains; it was so much fun to be practicing outside.”
“Looking back,” he continued. “I kind of wish I had stayed. It was awesome to come back to Boston the next year and play for an Original 6 team, which I thought was wonderful, but I’ll tell you, when you are in Switzerland, the quality of life for an older guy and playing less games is great. It’s good for your family over there too with great schools and great fans. Looking back on my career, that was arguably the most fun I had - winning that championship in Switzerland.”
“Going to the games in Switzerland, I remember being so much more relaxed. Being able to just go out and play the games. There is not as much pressure there as when you are in the NHL, but you find yourself missing that pressure too at the same time. I always like to compete against the best and play against the best - you can’t replace that and it’s something everybody strives to do. But, it was nice to play for that year in Switzerland.”
Returning to the NHL for one more season as a member of the Bruins after his year in Switzerland, York was bothered by persistent knee injuries. Speaking with a surgeon at the end of the 2006-07 season, he was told that he would not be able to work out in the gym as he had throughout his career. He would not be able to train properly, using the exercises needed to be prepared for the physical toll associated with being a defenseman in the NHL. As Jason explained in our interview, his body just wouldn’t cooperate with him any more.
“My last year in Boston, I kind of new it was the end. To be able to play every day, I had to take anti-inflammatory medication and I was thinking ‘this can’t be good for me’. That next summer, getting into the weight room, I just felt that the wear and tear on my body wasn’t going to allow me to play. I was going to go over to Europe because it is a little easier to play over there but with my kids involved with minor hockey, something inside of me just didn’t want to move the whole family again and I decided to stay in Ottawa.”
“I kind of struggled with the decision all that year and then the next year. I still had a ton of offers to play over in Europe and I struggled with it some more, whether to try playing. I was skating to stay in shape, but I was thinking it would be tough to play in the NHL and I knew in the back of my mind that my body wouldn’t be able to do it. I always said I wanted to be able to throw a ball with my kids and skate on the rink with my kids and do things like that.”
Now that his playing career is over and he has settled in to his life after hockey in radio, print and television, Jason has become a proud member of the Ottawa Senators Alumni. As the Senators organization celebrates its 20th anniversary, he is part of a new generation of players helping many charitable causes in the Ottawa community.
“I think we’re seeing a lot of the younger guys that played for the Senators becoming involved now. When they first started the Alumni, the Senators were a pretty young franchise and they didn’t have a lot guys that actually played for Ottawa. Now you are starting to see guys like Todd White, Shaun Van Allen and Patrick Lalime coming back to Ottawa. There are a lot of guys now that played for the team, so I think that moving forward, for events and stuff, there will be players that the people can identify with and I think that will be good for the Alumni and the charities.”
Life in the NHL is physically demanding and Jason's
comment that he wanted to be able to skate on the rink with his kids says it all - there is a life after hockey to consider. He has embraced the new opportunities that have come his way, and with his family and friends by his side, new adventures are right around the corner for the Team 1200’s Healthy Scratch.