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ST. JOHN’S, N.L. — This is how old Jason Spezza happens to be: Auston Matthews was three when Spezza was the second pick in the 2001 NHL draft.
Mitch Marner was five when Spezza scored his first of 332 goals. Six different men have coached the Maple Leafs in his time in pro hockey, dating back to the late Pat Quinn.
And this is how experienced he is: Spezza is father to four daughters. The rest of the Leafs roster, combined, have three children, and that includes the recent addition to the John Tavares family. Spezza broke into the lineup of the Ottawa Senators in the same season in which Mike Babcock began his NHL career coaching the Mighty Ducks in Anaheim.
That long ago.
And now here, near the finish line, the one-time star with career earnings of more than $87 million, the 18th-highest-paid player in hockey history, is playing a bit part with a somewhat undefined role with the Maple Leafs. And he’s smiling on his way through training camp — maybe his last camp — because that’s what Spezza always does.
Ron Hainsey is gone to Ottawa. Patrick Marleau has gone home to California, and who knows where, hockey-wise. The old guys from the Leafs’ dressing room have moved on.
Spezza has inherited the role of sage around the dressing room and maybe even on the ice. The Leafs aren’t sure how much he has left, but mostly they’ll settle for the occasional faceoff won, some power-play time, some centring the fourth line, moving up in the lineup if need be on occasion.
Spezza has played 1,065 games in the NHL, averaged 70 points a season over 16 years.
Once, he had as many as 92 points, which is more than Tavares has ever scored.
Once, he had 71 assists in a season: Last year, Marner had 68. That’s the kind of skill he had to display along with his length. Production-wise, he’s been where many of these young Maple Leafs hope to go — with one thing missing. He’s played for the Stanley Cup. Like them, he hasn’t won. And he yearns to have that championship ring.
“I think about it all the time,” Spezza said in a lengthy interview. “That’s why I’m still going. That’s why you want to change your role. You want to stick around, you want to keep playing. When you haven’t won it and you’ve played this long, it becomes all you think about.
“You just wonder (looking back) what could you have done differently? What could you have changed? What adjustment could you have made? Got close a couple of other times. Those three years we had (in Ottawa), we were knocking on the door and probably should have won a few years, and just didn’t get it done.”
Now he comes to Toronto as the lowest-paid player on the Leafs. A homecoming, really. He’s already made the big money and, by hockey standards, this is the small money now. But none of this is about money.
It’s about a game he loves and can’t leave. It’s about finding a way to win with the team he grew up watching. We started hearing about Spezza as a minor-hockey whiz kid some 20 years ago. We saw him all those years with the Senators, all those interviews while he rode the exercise bike. Now he’s a sound voice of experience on a team that doesn’t have a lot of it.
“It’s a challenge for me to find a role here and be part of such a young, exciting group … It’s a challenge, and that’s fine. I understand that.”
It’s hard for a professional athlete to be great and then pushed to the fringe. It’s more than an adjustment. Some can’t do it, consumed with what used to be. Some can’t adjust to going from first line to fourth, from power play to press box. Some get angry, some play the blame game: Athletes aren’t known for being particularly self-aware.
Spezza seems to understand the process better than most especially from what he’s already played through the past five seasons in Dallas.
“This doesn’t happen overnight,” he said of dealing with his hockey mortality. “You go through a lot. You demand a lot of yourself. I’ve produced my whole career and you have high expectations of where you’re at and where you should be in the lineup.
“Now, I’ve played that role for a couple of years and I feel comfortable doing it. It basically comes down to: Do you want to keep playing, or do you want to hang on to the old days? I want to keep playing.”
There isn’t much Spezza hasn’t seen in his pro career. He played with Hall of Famers and future Hall of Famers such as Dominik Hasek, Daniel Alfredsson, Marian Hossa and Zdeno Chara in Ottawa, among others. He played with Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn in Dallas. He knows what it is to be surrounded by young talent.
“These guys (here) are elite, elite young players,” said Spezza.“They’re barely over 20. We’ve come into a window here where the team has a chance to win and get over some past failures.”
And he wants to play whatever part he can in making a difference.
“It’s different,” said Spezza. “You learn to judge your game differently than you did in the past. You get used to producing every night and having a big role and, as you get older, you have to kind of judge yourself on different things. You have to look around the room sometimes and see who needs to get picked up that day. Your role sort of broadens. You have to focus on your game and make yourself ready to go, while thinking of the bigger picture.”
But first, a pre-season game on Tuesday night against Ottawa. The first step on a new team and maybe one last season for Spezza.
After 16 years, it’s one shift at a time, one pre-season game at a time.
One more shot at glory.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019