The normal trajectory of a star’s NHL career is pretty clear: once you’ve reached your peak as a player, you move slowly down the lineup, until you’re playing limited minutes on the fourth line or third-pairing defensive spot. Eventually, the team you’ve signed with gently pushes you to the edges of the roster, and then you get released and you announce your retirement.
However, there are veteran players who fight that trajectory, and leave the league on their own terms. And while one of those NHL players choose to start riding into the sunset, some of them stick around, believing they still have something meaningful to contribute. Maple Leafs forward Jason Spezza is one of those guys. Now a versatile winger/center for the Maple Leafs, Spezza has contributed very well in limited minutes (just 12.15 minutes per game) so far this season, scoring one goal and adding two points in Toronto’s first four games of the year. One of those points came on The Leafs’ power play, which was powerless last season, so you know Buds head coach Sheldon Keefe had to be happy with him for that.
But it isn’t only Spezza’s on-ice activities that have made him who he is. Spezza is considered one of the most eloquent and friendly players currently active in the NHL. If you interview him (as I did last this summer, after he’d just completed a heavy-duty workout), you become instantly enamored of his charm, his eloquence, and his genuine ability to connect and engage with his interviewer.
For instance, when I first met Jason, he had yet to be drafted by the Ottawa Senators but was a world-renowned prospect playing for the Ontario League’s Mississauga IceDogs. We met for the first time when The Hockey News ownership treated its employees to a day in the rich people’s box at Woodbine Racetrack in suburban Toronto, and Spezza was in attendance. Although Spezza was mobbed by grown men seeking an autograph, he was incredibly gracious, signing his name for every THN employee, and he stayed a while longer to sign autographs for everyone who’d want one.
Spezza certainly didn’t have to do that, and I can think of about a dozen up-and-coming NHL stars who would’ve left those autograph seekers in the lurch and slipped away before you had a chance to engage with them.
Ep 12: Biting, Montreal, COVID, and Penguins Sale Updateby Full Press Coverage on December 1, 2021 at 5:52 pm
Mike, Jim, and Chris […]
But Spezza was different. Maybe it was because he grew up with a dad (Rino Spezza) who coached him in his formative days. Perhaps it was because Spezza was mature beyond his years. Whatever the case, Spezza never failed to endear himself to the fans and media of his team. In Ottawa, when he started out with them in the first 12 years of his NHL career, he was a beloved member of the team that made it to the Stanley Cup Final in 2007. But the fact the Senators failed to win that Final was a huge letdown to Sens fans, and they clamored for change in order to get another run to the Cup Final again.
Spezza was not part of that change – at least, not until the 2013-14 campaign, his last with Ottawa. Spezza still scored 23 goals and put up 66 points that year, but he had grown exhausted under the microscope Canadian teams played under, and he requested a trade out of Canada’s capital city. That request was granted in time for the 2014-15 season, with the Sens shipping him out to the Dallas Stars in return for winger Alex Chiasson, then-prospects Alex Guptill, Nicholas Paul, and Ludwig Karlsson. And Spezza thrived in Dallas, scoring 33 goals and 63 points in 75 games in the 2015-16 season. He was definitely on the back nine of his amazing career, but Dallas found ways for him to contribute away from the first-line center position. Spezza score 33 goals and 66 points in 76 games, on a team that preferred defense over offense.
Small wonder, then, that the offensive-minded Spezza chose to depart from Dallas in the 2019-20 season, and sign a league-minimum, one-year, $700,000 contract with his hometown Maple Leafs. In his first year in Toronto, Spezza missed a handful of games due to injury, but he still scored nine goals and 25 points in 56 games. And last season, while still on a relatively bargain-basement salary, Spezza was better on the offensive front, posting a 10-goal, 30-point performance that helped the Leafs win their regular-season divisional title. Toronto’s players were arguably most upset in their first-round collapse against Montreal because of the fact they felt Spezza down. Knowing your team’s veterans only have one or two more kicks at the Cup, you want to win for them. And the Leafs definitely wanted to win for Spezza, who is now 38 years old.
Spezza came into Toronto’s 2021-22 camp in as good a condition as he’s ever been. He’s been training like a maniac to make sure Father Time gives him a break in competition. And he’s just one of those guys you can’t help but cheer for as you see all the work he puts in, just to stave off the aging process for as long as possible. This is why media members often choose to be happy for individual NHLers, rather than rooting for any team in general.
Personally, I’d like Spezza to stay in the Leafs’ organization for years after this one, either as a player or a coach. You want to do something for a Toronto guy who is giving his all to the hometown team he clearly loves, and you ultimately want to see him hoist a Cup in Blue & White. Here’s hoping Spezza gets the glory he seeks.