When it comes to Jason Spezza’s career, everybody is an expert, even little Sophia.
“ SHHHHOOOOOOOOOOTTTT!” his 20-month-old daughter shouts when the Ottawa Senators play home games at Scotiabank Place.
“She hears the crowd,” Spezza says with the chuckle that is as much a part of him as those throat-catching passes that can run the gamut from brilliant to bizarre.
He hears it, too. “Shoot the puck!” they scream from the stands. “Get rid of him!” they’ve screamed on the radio. “Bench him!” “Trade him!” It is the price a gifted and adventurous player must pay when playing in front of 20,000 general managers.
But lately, they more often cheer, especially this past week as the once tumbling Senators went into Florida and returned home with two victories, a renewed grip on that slippery playoff position and a stunning seven points for Jason Spezza that rocketed him, briefly, to the No. 2 spot in the NHL scoring race.
“Jason has obviously been leading the charge for us,” captain Daniel Alfredsson says.
“It was a nice week,” Spezza adds, “especially with my dad around.” (Rino Spezza was one of many fathers joining the Senators’ warm-weather road trip.)
“No matter how old you get, you still like to play well in front of your dad,” the son says. “We’re all big kids anyway, and you’re always trying to impress your parents.”
Spezza, 28, has been impressing his parents and others since he won a cute-baby contest in Mississauga and his picture landed on the front page of a Toronto newspaper. He was on posters as a toddler, doing commercials for Minute Maid at four and a model for Woolco and K-Mart at six. He had an agent before he scored his first goal, but once he did start playing hockey, he was, again, an instant star. So precocious was the young Spezza that he was allowed to become an underage junior at 15. Tall, with astounding reach and vision, he was a playmaker so skilled he was projected as Canadian hockey’s next superstar.
At 18, he went to the 2001 NHL draft certain he would be taken second – behind Russian teen sensation Ilya Kovalchuk – but uncertain as to which team would take him. The New York Islanders held the No. 2 pick, but then general manager Mike Milbury let it be known that he was open to offers. Four teams were thought to be talking with the Islanders: Boston Bruins, Pittsburgh Penguins, Florida Panthers and Ottawa Senators.
The Senators’ GM at that time, Marshall Johnston, knew he had to make a deal that involved the talented but unpopular Alexei Yashin, who seemed forever to be holding up the cash-strapped Senators for more money.
“I was really nervous,” Johnston remembers. “There was no way we were going to re-sign him. If we did, I could feel the rope around my neck on Parliament Hill.”
Johnston wanted defenceman Zdeno Chara in return and Milbury agreed, also adding utility forward Bill Muckalt. Johnston pitched for the draft pick as well, but knew he would back down if Milbury considered it a deal-breaker.
“I didn’t sleep a wink that night,” Johnston says. “Mike called at 7 a.m. and we agreed to the deal.”
Spezza’s parents were told that night that he’d be going to Ottawa, but they kept it from him so that their young son would properly “experience” the excitement of draft day. He was ecstatic when Ottawa chose him – Canadian team, close to home – but soon after was crushed. At training camp, they told him they were returning him to junior.
“This is a men’s league,” Senators coach Jacques Martin said at the time, “and he’s still a boy.”
It was a tough time for Johnston as well. He knew his coach was so defence-oriented that Spezza would instantly be in Martin’s doghouse. He also knew the franchise was crumbling and they could ill afford to sign Spezza. When he asked the teenager into his office and told him, Spezza sobbed for half an hour. Next day Johnston flew to Toronto to tell Rino face-to-face, and the father was equally upset. Jason Spezza, for the first time in his life, wasn’t the star of the moment.
When he did make the team, his buccaneer play made Martin – and many in the stands – cringe. Blind passes, end-to-end rushes, stick-handling until pucks were lost, and the team crushed his hopes again by sending him to Binghamton to play in the minors.
“The lockout,” Johnston is convinced, “was a godsend for Jason.”
With no NHL, Spezza spent the 2004-05 season in Binghamton, won the American Hockey League scoring championship, was named league MVP, matured and regained his confidence.
“I would like to have played my first couple of years,” he says today. “It was tough going through the growing pains of that.”
But he got through them. And by 2007, Jason Spezza was centring what was considered the top line in hockey – Spezza, Alfredsson and Dany Heatley – and the Senators went all the way to the Stanley Cup final before losing to the Anaheim Ducks.
The years since have been somewhat tumultuous in Ottawa, with the Senators last year deciding to rebuild. The youngster, Spezza, was now the veteran, heir apparent to Alfredsson, who, at 39, may have but one or two seasons left to play. They hold equal court in the dressing room, with Spezza as comfortable in the spotlight as he was a quarter century ago as a child model.
Spezza thinks of himself as more of “a team player” these days – fewer blind passes, less gambling, but still creative – and is convinced his personal success this year has been but a happy result of the overall team play.
Whatever it is – new coach in Paul MacLean, deft tweaking by GM Bryan Murray, the reborn play of Alfredsson, Jason Spezza shooting more – it has worked more than not this season, the recent wins picking the team up from a losing streak that had reached seven games and, once again, quieting the fans of Scotiabank Place.
“It’s good to have passionate fans,” Spezza says. “It’s part of playing in a hockey market and it’s part of the positives and negatives that come with that. If you’re playing really good, you’re a hero, and if you’re not, you’re a dog.”
Having known the doghouse, he much prefers the penthouse.