Jason Spezza calmer than ever as Game No. 1,000 approaches

Dallas Stars centre Jason Spezza (90), pictured above. (Fred Chartrand/CP)

For part of the time Jason Spezza was a member of the Ottawa Senators, he lived in a grand, sparkling stone house that the locals referred to simply as “The Castle.”

Everyone knew where Spezza and his young wife, Jennifer Snell, resided. It was in all the papers. People would drive from miles around to see his west end house, snap a picture and hope to catch a glimpse of a high-profile player destined to become Ottawa’s captain, however briefly.

Children from the neighbouring public school would ring Spezza’s doorbell after school and ask him to come out and play. Jason was the Pied Piper.

Into this milieu came a 22-year-old Senators prospect from Medicine Hat named Zack Smith. In his first full season in Ottawa (2010-11, 55 games played), Smith lived with the Spezzas, learned from Jason, and reflecting today, can’t believe the couple took him in while the Spezzas were first-time parents of a daughter who wasn’t even a year old. (The Spezzas now have four daughters).

“Today, I think, why did he even do that?” Smith says, as his Senators prepared to meet Spezza and the Dallas Stars at the Canadian Tire Centre Monday.

Smith and his wife, Brittany, have a new daughter themselves, Rae Siena, just two months old. Smith tries to imagine bringing a 19 or 20-year-old Sens rookie into his home right now, but can’t fathom it – despite the fact his daughter is already sleeping through the night.

As oblivious as a young hockey player can be, Smith lived what he called an “independent” life at Spezza’s. Yet he learned from his then 27-year-old teammate and mentor about living like a pro. One night in Florida, Smith was a healthy scratch. In his own words, he was “pouting, feeling sorry for myself,” and figured Spezza would pump him up.

Afterward, Spezza came in and said to Smith, “did you watch the game?”

Yeah, Smith said. He’d watched it from the dressing room, on TV. This was the point where Smith expected Spezza to say, “it’s OK, you’ll get back in there.”

Instead, Spezza said bluntly, “you’ve got to watch from the press box. You see the whole game up there.”

Lesson learned. A night out of uniform is not a night off.

“He was in his dad role,” Smith says, marvelling at Spezza’s timeless love of hockey. Spezza is one of those players who watches games in his spare time, knows the stats leaders. Others, like Smith, see home as a refuge away from hockey.

Now they’re both veteran NHL centres on their respective teams, each with something to prove.

Spezza, 35, and six games away from milestone game No. 1,000, is trying to reinvent himself under a new head coach, Jim Montgomery, after experiencing a crisis of confidence while in the dog house of defensive guru Ken Hitchcock last season.

Smith, 30, was put on waivers during the Senators’ pre-season, but has rebounded to play a big role for coach Guy Boucher’s young club.

As an opponent, Smith continues to learn from his old housemate, especially in the faceoff dot.

“It still frustrates the hell out of me taking faceoffs against him,” Smith says. “You can’t move his stick. He also weighs, like, 235 pounds.” (Spezza is listed at 6-3, 215).

“I hated even taking faceoffs against him in practice,” Smith says, “he’s just like a bull on a stick. Your wrists are sore after taking a few against him.”

Smith jokes that he wasn’t quite able to learn the Spezza deep toe drag, or the end-to-end rush, through several players. Oddly enough, that signature Spezza style, sweeping and fluid, with risky back passes, won him enemies and friends in hockey, but is back in vogue under his new coach.

“With Monty coming in, I’m in a role I’m more accustomed to,” says Spezza, traded to Dallas from Ottawa on July 1, 2014. “I had a really motivated summer and I feel it’s given me a bit of life.”

Under Hitchcock, Spezza’s 13:00 time on ice was the lowest of his career since he played 12:40 on average as a raw 19-year-old rookie in 33 games for Ottawa in 2002-03. His 26 points in 2017-18 were also a career worst, except for partial seasons in 2002-03 and 2012-13.

In the summer of 2018, Ottawa’s second-overall draft pick of 2001 felt he was at a “crossroads.”

“You either step up the next year, or you get pushed away,” he says. In Toronto, Spezza punished himself on the ice with high performance trainer Andy O’Brien (Sidney Crosby’s trainer) and longtime stickhandling guru Jari Byrski.

“I’m still out there stickhandling with the 15-year-olds,” Spezza laughs. “I think I skated more this summer than ever. Because I didn’t play much last year, I had a bad year, I felt I had to put the time in on the ice.”

Montgomery recalls his early dealings with Spezza, who seemed overly concerned about pleasing his new coaches, sweating details away from the puck. Montgomery’s words were music to his ears.

“I told him, to just play his game,” Montgomery says. “And a big smile came on his face. You can see him start to assert himself offensively, and his confidence growing. He has that swagger that everybody saw every game in Ottawa.”

Playing on a line with Russians Alexander Radulov and Valeri Nichushkin, Spezza was wheeling against his former team. On a first-period power play, No. 90 took a pass from Radulov and quickly slipped it through to defenceman John Klingberg, who buried a wrist shot for the Stars’ first goal. The Senators battled back, though, and prevailed 4-1 on goals by rookies Max Lajoie and Brady Tkachuk and veterans Mikkel Boedker and Smith (empty net).

Once anxious about these return trips, Spezza hasn’t looked this relaxed in years. Ottawa – where he was often a whipping boy for disgruntled fans, and was captain just one season (2013-14, as the Canadian between the era of Swedish captains Alfredsson and Karlsson) – conjures mostly good things now. As he approaches game No. 1,000, he is hearing from more and more ex-teammates.

Still, he prefers to look forward. With 892 points, he’d love to play long enough to record 1,000. An unrestricted free agent next summer, Spezza isn’t worried about the size of his next contract.

“I’m not playing the game for money at this point,” Spezza says. “I just want to be a real contributor to the Dallas Stars. We’re playing a style of hockey that really suits our club … I just want to contribute and have a role. That’s my biggest focus.”

One Ottawa writer asked Smith about the possible scenario of Spezza returning next summer to the Senators as a free agent. It seems like a long shot. Fantasy league stuff. But Smith sees the merit.

“He would be awesome, especially with the young guys here,” Smith says. “He’s a great leader, and I bet a lot of young guys in our room grew up idolizing a guy like him, the way I idolized Jarome Iginla.”

RAZOR TRIBUTE – Fittingly, the Senators waited for Spezza and the Stars to arrive to air a video tribute to former Senators goaltender Ray Emery, who once lived with Spezza in Binghamton. Emery, who was in goal during the Senators’ Stanley Cup run in 2007, died in a drowning accident in July. Watching from the Stars bench, Spezza showed emotion during the video, and buried his head afterwards as teammates consoled him.

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