This was a man who teammates as soon as dubbed “Bob McKenzie” for his obsession with all the pieces that went down within the league — each final objective, each transaction (huge or small), each final participant and prospect. No one who knew Spezza properly will likely be stunned to see him make the bounce from participant, one who probably leads to the Hall of Fame, to particular assistant to GM Kyle Dubas within the Maple Leafs entrance workplace.
“He’s gonna be a GM as soon as he hangs up the skates,” childhood pal, former teammate and longtime NHL opponent Trevor Daley as soon as mentioned.
“He always knew everything about everything around the league,” former Ottawa Senators teammate Erik Karlsson mentioned in an interview final yr, “what was going on in Europe, all these random things that myself, (I) didn’t really feel like I needed to sit and watch and keep up with.”
Added Nick Foligno, who performed with Spezza in Toronto and Ottawa: “If you had a question you went to Spezz on anything that was going on in the league. I don’t know if he has scouts or just so many buddies on other teams, but he just seemed to have the answers.”
Some guys like hockey. Spezza ate it. Slept it. Breathed it. He was all in, the ultimate hockey nerd even on the finish of a 20-year NHL profession.
“He’s a lifer,” Foligno mentioned. “I know he’s got daughters at home and I think he’s a super dad, but I’m sure that the game will always be there for him and he’ll want to be involved somehow.”
“He just has too much knowledge to offer. It’d be a waste for a guy like him not to want to stay involved.”
And so he will likely be.
Spezza and Dubas started discussions about what Spezza’s post-playing profession would possibly appear to be final summer season. Those conversations picked up once more after the Leafs’ playoff loss to the Lightning. The particular assistant position can have Spezza “observing, learning and taking everything in that he possibly can” from his spot within the entrance workplace subsequent season.
After that, the 2 sides will re-evaluate and decide what was most interesting to Spezza.
“Whether it’s scouting, whether it ends up being player development, coaching, salary cap stuff,” Dubas mentioned, “we want to give him the next 13, 14 months to really figure out and immerse himself into all facets (of the front office) and then determine what he’s best at.”
At this level, Spezza is not sure which path he in the end needs to go.
It will be simple to neglect now simply how huge of a star Spezza as soon as was. He was a No. 2 choose who as soon as destroyed the league on one of the best line in hockey: the Ottawa Senators’ omnipotent No. 1 unit that includes Spezza alongside Daniel Alfredsson and Dany Heatley.
The famed Pizza Line powered the Sens all the best way to the Stanley Cup Final in 2007. Spezza known as these days the “pinnacle” of his taking part in profession.
“It’s funny,” mentioned former Senators teammate Chris Kelly, “we were about to beat (the Devils in the second round) and it’s getting to the end of the game and I won’t say the player, but a player on New Jersey, his season’s about to finish, and he says to Spezz, ‘Hey Spezz, can you give me a stick after the game?’ That just shows the presence that he had in the league at the time, that this guy’s season’s about to finish and his main thing on his mind is getting a Jason Spezza-signed stick after the game.”
Spezza was the maestro of the road. He was probably the greatest passers of his era.
“I think any goal scorer will tell you they have their favourite,” Heatley mentioned in an interview at one level. “They’re all nice gamers; I performed with some unbelievable centremen. But he simply knew the place I used to be gonna be. It was that (unstated) chemistry, I don’t know how one can describe it. What I preferred to do, the place I used to be gonna be — (he knew). Like, there have been sure occasions I’d possibly dangle round for a break up second, only a break up second longer, or bounce to a gap somewhat faster and he knew what I used to be pondering that means.
“The other thing I will say now that I think about it. What I really liked about him for me was the pace of his passes. I mean, if I was 10 feet away, he’d lay it in there on a tee for me. But if it was cross-ice, he’d sizzle one because we had to beat the goalie to the post.”
Added Mike Fisher, one other former teammate in Ottawa: “The thing about Spezz is he has a good shot, an underrated shot, I thought. And he could use it to deceive defenders and make plays. He just had that vision, that knack for finding guys — knowing where guys were without even really having to look, it seemed. Everyone, myself included, was envious of the way he passed the puck.”
Spezza finishes his profession 5 factors shy of 1,000 — ranked 94th in NHL historical past. Adjusted for period, Spezza strikes as much as eightieth.
Only 79 gamers collected greater than his 632 assists.
Narrow issues right down to the period he performed in and Spezza had extra factors than all however 10 gamers: Alex Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby, Joe Thornton, Patrick Kane, Evgeni Malkin, Anze Kopitar, Eric Staal, Ryan Getzlaf, Nick Backstrom and Henrik Sedin.
Spezza positioned as excessive as sixth in Hart Trophy voting (2012). During his finest years in Ottawa, he most positively ranked among the many finest gamers within the recreation and may draw significant dialog sooner or later for a spot within the Hall of Fame.
A Stanley Cup in the end eluded him.
“There’s definitely a huge void in my heart and in my career without having been able to win it,” Spezza mentioned. “It’s my life’s work, hockey, and to not be able to be a champion in it is hard. But I think that will help me drive toward wanting to stay in the game, too.”
Spezza was prepared to do no matter he might to get that Cup as a participant.
After 5 seasons in Dallas, he arrived in Toronto open to filling any position the Leafs requested of him in pursuit of that championship. The Leafs’ head coach on the time, Mike Babcock, didn’t believe Spezza would actually do it; that the expert former All-Star would instantly need to muck it up as a fourth-line centre.
“There’s a role here for him but he’s gotta be able to do it,” Babcock mentioned throughout coaching camp that yr. “And so we’re going to see over exhibition whether he likes it, whether he wants to do it.”
Spezza was inexplicably scratched in what would have been his first recreation as a Leaf, on opening night time towards his previous workforce from Ottawa.
Spezza took it in stride. Didn’t complain. Didn’t pout. And earlier than lengthy, he made it clear that not solely would he do the position, he would do it properly.
Over his first two seasons with the Leafs, Spezza tallied 55 factors in 112 video games taking part in solely 11 minutes an evening. He took virtually nothing to chase a Cup together with his hometown workforce. He was an ace within the faceoff circle, taking part in the FOGO (faceoff, get off) position on the penalty kill even, and quarterback of the second power-play unit.
His faux slapper was nonetheless someway fooling dudes.
More than the contributions on the ice was the intangible stuff he introduced the Leafs off the ice. It’s what led to the Leafs bringing Spezza aboard within the first place. Dubas wished somebody round to counsel the workforce’s gifted younger stars, to level them in the precise path. He wanted somebody who had the credibility to take action.
“It’s really difficult to put into the proper context, or into words, the impact that he’s made on our facility and on our program every day, the level of care and the passion he has, not only for the game of hockey but in genuinely helping every staff member, every player, anybody that really needed any help whatsoever — in the offseason, at all hours of the day,” Dubas mentioned. “Every moment that he was a member of the Toronto Maple Leafs as a player was quite remarkable to see.”
Spezza was the chief who didn’t put on a letter.
Dubas recalled him bouncing across the meal room the day after the Leafs performed poorly in Buffalo throughout his first season with the workforce. He appeared intent on lifting up each participant, notably the younger ones.
Spezza was a fountain of information, prepared and prepared to supply steerage, reply questions, or inform tales to anybody who requested. Some teammates peppered him with questions on his glory days, how onerous it was to achieve the Cup Final.
They known as him “Vintage.” They known as him “Spezz.” They adored him.
“We go to dinner and stuff all the time on the road,” William Nylander mentioned at one level. “He’s got some good stories and it’s always a great time. And you know how good of a hockey player he is. He teaches us a lot of stuff, just stuff to keep in mind when we’re playing.”
Auston Matthews beloved chatting about sticks with Spezza, who was notoriously obsessive about each element of his gear, the sticks specifically.
Spezza didn’t simply counsel the celebs although. It appeared like each participant, even the prospects or fringe gamers who had solely a cup of espresso within the NHL, had a glowing story about their interplay with Spezza.
Dubas noticed that firsthand throughout casual summer season skates, when Spezza warmed as much as gamers competing within the ECHL. “He treats nobody differently, and was willing to do whatever he could to help them,” Dubas mentioned.
In Ottawa, Spezza noticed how guys like Alfredsson, Dominik Hasek and Wade Redden appeared out for his or her youthful teammates. He wished to do the identical, to move on what he knew to the following era.
This wasn’t a Toronto factor both. This was who Spezza was all through his profession within the NHL.
“He’s for sure one of the best teammates that I’ve ever played with as far as he has a relationship with everybody on the team,” mentioned Brett Ritchie, who performed with Spezza in Dallas. “He was older at the time, but he had a great relationship with the young guys; he had a great relationship, obviously, with the guys that were older just like him; with the coaches. Everybody loves Spezz. That’s basically what I’m trying to say. Just the ultimate teammate, really. He knows when to be serious. He knows when to be funny. He knows how to handle his own game, but he also knows how to manage his teammates — if they need a boost or if they need a kick in the butt. He just has a good feel for it.”
In Toronto, Spezza was considered one of head coach Sheldon Keefe’s chief intermediaries. The two would discuss typically on the ice after observe, Keefe getting a really feel for what the gamers have been feeling — and what Spezza considered it.
Spezza, at age 37, fought Blue Jackets defenceman Dean Kukan throughout the 2020 playoffs in hopes of rallying his workforce, and was among the many Leafs’ higher gamers throughout a disappointing postseason loss to the Canadiens in 2021.
In Game 5 towards the Lightning earlier this spring, in what proved to be considered one of his remaining NHL video games, Spezza delivered a rousing speech within the intermission that impressed a comeback.
Auston Matthews and John Tavares each say an intermission speech from Jason Spezza impressed the Leafs comeback.
— Jonas Siegel (@jonassiegel) May 11, 2022
Spezza attended each morning skate, even once they have been optionally available. He took half in optionally available practices. He was out early most days for talent work and stayed late to both work on his craft or assist others.
It was clear by the tip that, on the ice, Spezza had nothing left to offer. He had given all he might.
“I still don’t know if I’ve come to grips with it,” he mentioned of the choice to retire. “As time went on, I knew that I wasn’t going to be able to do this forever. I also want to leave the team in a good spot. You don’t want to overstay your welcome as a player either. I think there’s a lot of respect that people have for me. And you don’t want to use that and take advantage of the situation.”
Spezza discovered it notably onerous to take a seat out down the stretch this previous season, together with early within the playoffs. He wasn’t OK with not with the ability to contribute each night time, however was pleased with the best way he tailored his position and duties later in his profession — how he remained “authentic.”
“I think what I’m proud of is I didn’t really take a day for granted in this league, whether when I was in my prime or at the end when I was in a completely different role,” Spezza mentioned.
Not capturing that elusive Cup, although, would without end stay at the back of his thoughts. That was evident by his emotional response after the Leafs’ Game 7 loss to Tampa.
“That guy battles his ass off for us a lot of nights and does a lot of great things for us,” mentioned Mitch Marner, dejected after the Leafs weren’t capable of beat Tampa and get Spezza nearer to that Stanley Cup.
“Spezza gives us everything that he has all the time,” added Keefe that night time. “He’s given so much to the game and he’s continuing to work and commit every day of his life towards winning the Stanley Cup and helping our team find its way.”
Spezza will do this now together with his position within the entrance workplace.
He can in all probability take his post-playing profession in no matter path he’d like. Manager. Coach. Player improvement guru of some type.
Dubas’ hunch: Spezza was destined to stay within the entrance workplace. The two of them have been already discussing numerous gamers in latest days “and the way that he evaluates them and looks at them and discusses them leads me to believe that he has that (ability) naturally.”
The Leafs GM had seen it all through their conversations over the previous three years. “He wasn’t just content with what he saw,” Dubas mentioned.
Spezza wished to study what they — the entrance workplace — noticed.
“I think he’s gonna be spectacular (at) whatever he wants to be — if he wants to go into scouting, management,” mentioned Brian McGrattan, a teammate in junior hockey and good pal. “He’s got such a mind for it — he sees it, he sees the game, he knows the players. He can give you a full player report, probably, on a guy (from) playing him once.”
Hockey Canada would appear to have an open invitation for him if he’d prefer it.
Said Scott Salmond, Hockey Canada’s VP of hockey operations, throughout an interview final yr: “Like for Spezz, you want to coach? Come and coach with us. You want to manage? Come see what that’s like. You want to jump on the ice once in a while and work with younger guys on stuff? We did that with Ryan Smyth, we’ve done that with a lot of players, and I see Spezz as that kinda guy.”
“He’d be good at both,” Ritchie mentioned of teaching or managing. “But the way he sees each player, I think he’d be an unbelievable coach. GM, for sure too. But just the way he sees each player for what they are and how he can help certain guys, even if it’s defencemen, I can just see him being a good coach.”
Could Spezza be the following Steve Yzerman? The subsequent Brendan Shanahan? The subsequent Martin St. Louis?
Spezza appears constructed to make the leap — from star participant to one thing else solely in hockey. He enjoys the monotony, the main points and each little subtlety of the sport.
All of which is to say that Spezza’s journey in hockey is just not over. The subsequent chapter is simply starting.
(Top picture: Mark Blinch / NHLI by way of Getty Images)