ST. JOHN’S, N.L. — Deep down, Jason Spezza knows this could be it.
There’s a chance this is his final season in professional hockey.
The biggest reason he’s here in training camp with the Toronto Maple Leafs — playing on a league-minimum $700,000 contract near the end of a career that’s netted him almost $90-million — is because the game has left him with some unfinished business.
“There’s one thing missing from my career and it’s winning a Cup,” said Spezza. “I feel like this team has a great chance to do it.”
That and that alone is how he’ll measure the success of this season, the 17th where he’s pulled on a NHL sweater.
On a personal level, he’s trying to delay the inevitable.
Spezza, at age 36, is now the fourth-oldest forward under contract to an NHL team. Last season he was the 14th-oldest forward to play in the league.
These are stats he’s aware of and help explain the urgency he feels to carve out his specific niche with the Leafs. The clock is ticking. He views himself as a potential “Swiss Army Knife” for head coach Mike Babcock — a veteran who can win key faceoffs, distribute on the power play, kill penalties, move up the lineup when injuries hit and help mentor those around him.
“I hope to have a good year and be a part of the team here and grow with some of these guys,” said Spezza. “If I keep feeling the way I feel physically I think there’s a job for me and I’d like it to be here for a little bit. I don’t plan on bouncing around too much.
“I’m not trying to break the bank at this point of my career, I’m just trying to play on a good team and be a part of something kind of cool.
“I don’t think it’s my last year.”
Spezza wants to make a strong first impression by dialling in his special teams assignments early in pre-season and had some encouraging moments in Tuesday’s 3-1 loss to the Ottawa Senators at Mile One Centre.
He saw time on both the power play and penalty kill, and had a hand in creating a couple scoring chances at even strength.
Even with his credentials as a former No. 2 overall pick and a longtime No. 1 centre, Spezza still has something to prove in the coming weeks.
There were candid conversations with Babcock and general manager Kyle Dubas about expectations before he signed in Toronto on July 1 and he’ll need to demonstrate he can meet them.
“There’s a role here for him but he’s got to be able to do it,” said Babcock. “And so we’re going to see over exhibition whether he likes it, whether he wants to do it and go [from there]. So we’re just in the process of feeling him out and he’s feeling us out right now.”
The father of four daughters seems like an ideal role model to throw into a young dressing room, especially with the departures of trusted voices Patrick Marleau and Ron Hainsey over the summer.
Spezza has seen it all.
He understands the demands and expectations Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner are shouldering. He can speak with authority about the importance of seizing on opportunities like the one the Leafs have this season. He is also a hockey encyclopedia who, according to former teammate Ben Bishop, watches as many games in his down time as any active player in the league.
“He’s a really smart hockey mind. He’s one of the most caring guys you’ll meet,” Bishop told Sportsnet during a recent interview. “If there’s a rookie that comes up from the minors, Spezz is the first one to go sit next to him and talk hockey. Just a contagious personality you want to be around.”
The love for the game has never left him. He’s even learned how to embrace the challenging days that come along with the job.
“I love the intensity of it, I love the challenge of trying to get ready, I love the challenge of being 36 and trying to reinvent myself a little bit,” said Spezza. “I like hanging out with the guys, the banter in the room, the practices. I don’t know if I’m a little bit crazy, but I like the grind of it.
“I kind of appreciate the grind.”
This will be its own unique challenge.
Coming to play close to home in what will almost certainly be a limited role and trying to be a good influence on a group looking to win a Stanley Cup despite not previously having even won a playoff series.
“You have to not ride the roller-coaster so much when you’re one of those teams. You need to try to be steady,” said Spezza. “Really you’re just going to get judged on the success you have in the playoffs. You have to make sure that you’re playing good hockey and creating good habits.”
There is still some regret about the way everything played out way back when in Ottawa, where Spezza centred one of the best lines in the league with Daniel Alfredsson and Dany Heatley for three years coming out of the 2004-05 lockout but couldn’t get the Senators to the top of the mountain.
He still thinks about the loss to Anaheim in the 2007 Stanley Cup Final “all the time.” It’s part of what keeps him going today.
“Those three years we had there, we were knocking on the door and probably should have won,” said Spezza. “We were a perennial powerhouse for a few years and didn’t get it done.
“You don’t want to see that happen again.”