Scoring goals is nothing new for Jason Spezza. He has more than 350 of them over his appreciable career. The one he netted on Saturday was so special, however, that he snatched the puck as a keepsake.
“It was a bit of a childhood dream to score a goal for the Maple Leafs,” the 36-year-old says Monday. “It definitely meant more to me than a lot of others. I saved it and will throw it in my collection.”
It is Spezza’s 17th year in the National Hockey League, but his first in Toronto and the first where he has watched more than he has played. He knew his would be a supporting role when he joined the team last summer, but it has taken time for him to adjust. A month into the season, it is easy to see he is growing more comfortable.
No matter the circumstances, his face is always the brightest in the locker room. He is fast with advice to younger players – in this case, all of them – and quick with a smile. He punctuates conversation with laughter.
He carries with him the self-awareness and wisdom that comes with longevity in professional sports. Not everyone has it. Those that do are special.
“This is a different challenge for me, but nobody is bigger than the game,” Spezza says as he sits in front of his dressing stall at the practice rink in Etobicoke. “I think I am fortunate to still be playing.”
He could have signed as a free agent elsewhere, but chose Toronto. He grew up in the city’s suburbs and cheered for the Maple Leafs. His uncle George, who played against former Detroit Red Wings captain Steve Yzerman in his youth, brought him to his first game at the team’s old arena, Maple Leaf Gardens. He worshipped one-time Leaf stars Doug Gilmour and Felix Potvin. He listened to and watched every game he could.
“Not every one of them was on [television] when I was a kid,” Spezza said. Across from him in the locker room, Gilmour’s stall is preserved for posterity.
He has earned almost US$90-million playing hockey, but accepted a league minimum US$700,000 this season. It was more than about coming home again.
“If the team wasn’t as good as it is, I wouldn’t have pursued it,” Spezza says. “I think this team is really good.”
Toronto has won just seven of its first 15 games and is eighth in the Eastern Conference. It has mostly struggled against better opponents and fattened up on also-rans. The Los Angeles Kings (5-9) are next up at Scotiabank Arena on Tuesday night.
Spezza played a significant role in the weekend’s 4-3 victory at Philadelphia. He had an assist on the Maple Leafs’ first goal, tied the game at 2-2 in the second period and scored during a 22-player shootout. It was easily his best performance thus far and came with John Tavares, who is expected to return on Tuesday, sidelined with a broken finger.
“I am proud to be here and am fighting to stay in the lineup,” Spezza says. “It is nice to contribute, and I am hoping to build off of that. It is a different kind of challenge for me, but I think I can add a lot. I feel I am getting better each night.”
He has 358 goals and is only 11 points shy of 1,000 over 1,154 games – in the regular season and playoffs combined – dating back to 2002. His ascension to NHL stardom was determined from the time he began to play in the Ontario Hockey League as an underage 15-year-old. That was in 1998. His two youngest teammates on Toronto’s roster, Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner, were one-year-olds then.
Spezza was chosen second over all by Ottawa in the 2001 NHL entry draft and played for the Senators for 11 seasons. He has spent the past five years in Dallas, has been a captain and has been on teams that reached postseason 10 times. It bothered him when he was benched for the season opener, but he has shrugged it off nicely.
He has yet to win a Stanley Cup and knows the clock is continuing to click away.
In 2007, the Senators lost to the Anaheim Ducks in a five-game Stanley Cup final. Last year, the Stars were beaten by the St. Louis Blues in double overtime in Game 7 of the second round.
“After we lost and I saw St. Louis win the Cup, I felt farther away from it than I ever have,” Spezza says. “It really stung. Then I signed with Toronto and now I have hope again.
“When you are young, you think you are going to get a shot at it in the playoffs every year. I am more desperate now.”
The Maple Leafs have lost in the first round in each of the past three years but more is expected now. They have struggled, but are only 15 games into an 82-game season.
“Some teams click from the first day and some teams take longer,” Spezza says. “There is no timeline. You know when you are a well-oiled machine. We have had tastes of it, but haven’t done it consistently enough.
“We don’t know yet what a good game feels like.”
As he nears the end of his career, Spezza works hard to keep a spot on the team. On nights when he hasn’t dressed, he has worked out beneath the arena until minutes before the game.
“It has become a necessity for me,” he says. “It is a separating factor and keeps you around the league a lot longer. I’m trying to slow down the curve.”
He knows his place on the Maple Leafs, and he is fine with it.