TORONTO – To understand what it means to the Toronto Maple Leafs that Jason Spezza picked a fight, chucked his gloves and started throwing rights at Dean Kukan’s face with the season looking lost Friday night, you should know a few things.
You should know that Spezza, 37, grew up a Leafs fan in this city and that he agreed to skate minimal minutes here for the lowest amount of money the club could legally agree to pay him.
You should know that already this week he’s watched some of his ring-chasing contemporaries, like Henrik Lundqvist and Patrick Marleau, get kicked out of the Eastern Conference bubble with, quite literally, no fanfare.
And you should know that he has four daughters aged 10 and under: Sophia, Nicola, Anna and Julia. Sometimes he reads them children’s books authored by Zach Hyman.
When Spezza kissed his girls goodbye and moved into a hotel so close yet so impenetrably far away in order to play “road” games like Game 4’s 4-3 stunner over Columbus, they understood why their father would be FaceTime-only for two months, best-case scenario.
“They know Daddy’s got a dream,” Spezza said. “Trying to win a Stanley Cup as a Maple Leaf is something I dreamed of as a kid.”
This isn’t sacrifice. This is choice. This is opportunity, perhaps one last.
So, it wasn’t that Spezza got caught up in the emotions of Elimination Night that he fought for just the seventh time in an NHL career that spans 1,207 games. It was that — after watching the Maple Leafs give up six unanswered goals in the series — he was trying to inject some emotions.
No way the young guys who affectionately nicknamed him “Vintage” and picked his brain for face-off tips could possibly feel as desperate as the old fourth-liner with no job security for 2020-21. But he could help them come close.
“Just trying to spark the guys,” Spezza explained of the five-minute major, which drew a chorus of stick slaps from the bench. “Just trying to show some desperation and have some pushback. Without the crowd, you don’t have that. Just trying to create some emotion and play the role that I’m in. Trying to get everyone going.”
Hey, maybe the Maple Leafs’ all-stars wouldn’t have thrown down their historic three-goal, three-minute, goalie-pulled comeback without Spezza’s calculated bit of barbarianism. We’ll never know.
We do know the effort of Spezza’s fourth line — which topped all units by generating 78.57 per cent of shot attempts 5-on-5 — made a tangible impact in the most important game of the year.
“Jason Spezza just did not want our season to end today. He played with that level of urgency. You see the fight. That’s playoff hockey,” said coach Sheldon Keefe, unprompted.
“That’s a guy not wanting to go down — literally — without a fight.”
Hyman, who slammed the tying goal with 22 seconds left in regulation, recently revealed that he and his new bride are going to have a baby this winter. The winger said he wouldn’t hesitate to call “Spezz” in the middle of the night for parenting tips.
Seeing that fight meant something to Hyman. Spezza got the boys going. Somehow, with less time on the clock, the group’s belief in a comeback was better in the second intermission than the first.
“He wants it more than anybody,” Hyman said. “He was a first-line player throughout his career, an all-star, Hall of Famer — and now he’s playing on the fourth line and he’s willing to drop the gloves and give our team momentum when we’re down.
“He’s a real leader on our team, and he’s a huge part of our team. We all love him.”
Game 4 was Spezza embracing his new role — critical bit player in the Leafs’ 19-act drama — to an extent that seemed almost impossible in October.
To think: Spezza was healthy-scratched on Opening Night against Ottawa because former coach Mike Babcock believed he wasn’t really interested in being a fourth-liner. As Toronto’s roller-coaster season clattered and dipped, Spezza was at risk of being waived due to a salary-cap crunch.
Yet some well-spaced forward injuries kept his dream on life support, and a coaching change secured more ice time. Do you believe fate?
As Keefe has tinkered with his fourth unit in this series, benching Frederik Gauthier and Pierre Engvall for games, Spezza’s presence has been steady, valued.
Spezza has gone out of his way to chat with quiet 18-year-old Nick Robertson, closer to Sophia’s age than his, because he remembers what it’s like being an OHL phenom wedged into an NHL playoff roster and just yearning to belong. This week he’s ditched the game-day suit and tried to embrace the young Leafs’ fashion-forward attire.
Now that he’s found a niche, he doesn’t want to crawl out.
“This is a time when experience really pays off. You can be calm in pressure-packed situations, and I’ve always had good playoff performances,” Spezza said. “This is kind of what you envision — being a piece of a good team and having to be a leader.”
What you don’t envision is three straight 6-on-5 goals, an overtime win and being on the fun side of an 0-3 comeback 21 hours after being on the wrong side of one.
“I’ve never been a part of anything like that,” said Spezza, 17 years deep. “With the firepower we have with these guys, the way they can put the puck in the net, we’re never out of it. There’s a great sense of belief in our group.”
Sophia, Nicola, Anna and Julia couldn’t be there Friday to press their faces to the glass and watch one of the most exhilarating moments of Dad’s career. But the good thing about the bubble? It’s see-through.
“They’ll be watching the games a little more eagerly because they know what has gone into it,” Spezza said.
“That’s what families are for – you lean on each other in difficult times.”
A close look at Jason Spezza this morning pic.twitter.com/rOGsRRA5Dz
— GTHL Hockey (@GTHLHockey) August 8, 2020