Leafs’ Spezza fights to flatten aging curve as NHL’s pause drags on

From Sheldon Keefe's coaching debut to Auston Matthews' quest for 50, here's a quick look at all the best moments from the Toronto Maple Leafs' 2019-20 season... so far.

Back in the blissful days before the COVID-19 pandemic, Jason Spezza was already talking about flattening the curve.

In this case, as the 14th-oldest player still drawing a paycheque in the world’s top hockey league, Spezza was focused on a personal nemesis rather than a societal one: The aging curve, and delaying the inevitable physical decline every top-level athlete comes face to face with eventually.

“Yeah, I have to work,” Spezza said in November. “When you’re young you work to get better, when you’re old you work to stay the same. That’s what you’re doing; you’re trying to slow down the curve.

“I put a lot of effort into my preparation.”

That’s even more important now than it was then — with the 2019-20 NHL season on pause for the foreseeable future, and the Toronto Maple Leafs forward intent on not letting these be the circumstances that bring a premature end to his career.

So it should come as no surprise that when Spezza checked in with reporters from self-isolation Tuesday, he’d long since come up with a plan to make gains during a period where the novel coronavirus has kept him and at least 95 per cent of NHLers off skates for six weeks (and counting).

“The way I’ve approached it is we should be in better physical shape in terms of off-ice strength,” said Spezza. “You try to almost approach it like summer training at this point, where you’re just worried about building up strength.”

As an eternal optimist, he is clinging to the belief that the NHL will find a way to complete the paused season.

But as an engaged and well-informed member of the NHL Players’ Association, he almost certainly understands that there’s a chance it won’t be possible.

That scenario would require him to sign another contract and return for an 18th NHL season to continue playing, which is just fine with Spezza because he already had his heart set on that anyway.

Less than two months from his 37th birthday, he maintains a child-like affection for the game. Natural ability propelled him to exceptional player status in the Ontario Hockey League and becoming a No. 2 draft pick in the NHL, but without dedication and determination he never would have surpassed 1,100 career games this season.

Whether because of injuries, or the harsh realities of the business, or the relentless grind of a life lived and judged in public, the flame often burns out for players. But it still burns brightly for Spezza, even after experiencing his fair share of all those things.

“Hockey’s not work to me. I enjoy the challenge,” he explained. “I’m in it for as long as I can be until I can win a Stanley Cup. That’s something that I dreamt of as a kid and I would love nothing more than to do it here in Toronto.

“I feel like we’re building things with this club and I want to be a part of it.”

There’s absolutely no reason to believe he won’t be back with the Leafs for at least another year.

Even in these uncertain times, when Spezza is among 126 pending unrestricted free agents heading into an NHL off-season unlike any we’ve seen before, it’s hard to imagine a scenario where he wouldn’t bring value to his hometown team.

Playing on a league-minimum contract in 2019-20, he was fourth in assists per hour, fifth in points per hour and sixth in goals per hour among Leafs players at 5-on-5. The team also produced more than 52 per cent of the expected goals when he was on the ice.

Spezza carved out a useful role under Sheldon Keefe, an in-season coaching replacement and contemporary who once edged him out to claim the OHL’s rookie of the year award. Keefe valued the veteran’s ability to maintain possession of the puck, but also his composed presence on the bench and in the dressing room.

The graceful way he handled getting scratched by former coach Mike Babcock for the Leafs’ home opener didn’t go unnoticed by teammates. Nor did the enthusiasm he brought to the rink and his willingness to dive deep on any topic pertaining to the game.

“I sat next to him in the locker room and picked his brain a bunch and he is a hockey mind,” said Zach Hyman. “You can ask him any question about hockey, and he’ll give you an answer for it.”

To further illustrate that point, former Dallas Stars teammate Ben Bishop said he often leaned on Spezza for scouting reports on opposing players. The goaltender found those sessions invaluable and doesn’t think he’s ever had a teammate who watched more hockey in his downtime than Spezza.

“That guy knows more about probably guys that aren’t even on the NHL scouting list right now,” Bishop said earlier this season. “He knows everybody’s (stick) curve, everybody’s tape job and all the whole nine yards. Spezz and I would always bounce stuff off each
other, and I’d see some kid I’d never heard of.

“Spezz would know who he was and know what he did and where he’d like to shoot.”

The secret, if we can call it that, is buried in those details.

Spezza flattened the curve by maintaining a quenchless thirst for knowledge and consistently operating from a place of gratitude.

His commitment to staying the course is something we could all learn from at a time like this, and it’s something the Leafs will need when they’re playing games again.

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.