Maple Leafs’ Spezza cherishing fan support, chance to chase Stanley Cup

Sheldon Keefe, John Tavares and Mitch Marner discuss what the annual Maple Leafs outdoor practice at Nathan Phillips Square means to them, and how special of an experience it is to interact with fans and bring them back to their roots.

TORONTO — Jason Spezza is of the vintage where his early hockey wasn’t all of the organized variety. He actually grew up skating on some of the 50-plus outdoor rinks around the city.

“Lots of memories from the outdoor rinks in and around Toronto,” he said. “Lots of time outside.”

It was getting out in the open air and having a few laughs that he most cherished about Thursday’s Maple Leafs practice in front of a large gathering of fans at Nathan Phillips Square.

In fact, this is part of what drew Spezza home for his 17th NHL season.

Fans watch the Toronto Maple Leafs during an outdoor three-on-three game at Nathan Phillips Square in Toronto on Thursday, January 9, 2020. (Nathan Denette/CP)

The one-year contract he signed for a league-minimum $700,000 brought him close to family and provided a cherished opportunity to chase the Stanley Cup, but it also gave him a chance to live life inside the NHL’s largest fishbowl. To rekindle an allegiance he built as a kid and abandoned as a top draft choice who became a star in Ottawa.

To experience an afternoon where a significant number of citizens abandoned their day-to-day responsibilities in order to ride the subway alongside the Maple Leafs or watch them skate beside city hall.

“I’ve been around the league for a long time so I know how strong the Leafs fans are, but going to the visiting arenas and seeing all the fans, that’s something I’ve never experienced, said Spezza. “So that’s pretty cool to see the support we get all around the league and really it motivates you to want to do well because it shows that something can be pretty special if we can continue to win.”

After a tumultuous start that saw him scratched by former coach Mike Babcock for the home opener, Spezza has carved out a niche for himself here. He gives Sheldon Keefe a reliable right-handed faceoff option — basically the only one on the roster. And he’s been surprisingly productive in a depth role, producing 2.31 points per hour to rank third among regular skaters behind Auston Matthews (2.59) and Ilya Mikheyev (2.44).

Toronto Maple Leafs defenceman Martin Marincin, left, Maple Leafs centre John Tavares, back centre, and Maple Leafs defenceman Cody Ceci, right, watch the puck fly over the net during an outdoor three-on-three game at Nathan Phillips Square in Toronto on Thursday, January 9, 2020. (Nathan Denette/CP)

During Wednesday’s 4-3 loss to the Winnipeg Jets, Spezza was even successful on his shootout attempt — making him 2-for-2 in the skills tiebreaker this season.

Not bad for the NHL’s fifth-oldest forward and one of his team’s lowest-paid players.

Especially when you factor in that Keefe believes Spezza’s most significant contributions come in ways that can’t be quantified by statistics. Stuff like the presence that comes with having nearly 1,100 NHL games on the resume, or the institutional knowledge gathered while spending nearly half of your 36 years in pro hockey.

“The experience to me is the biggest one,” Keefe said. “Experience in the league, experience in various situations, experience in relationships with the officials. Just an older guy.”

Kasperi Kapanen, one of Spezza’s wingers, calls him the “brains” of a line with Pierre Engvall.

Spezza has been around the NHL long enough that he played against Kasperi’s father, Sami. And he still possesses the ability to create room for his speedier wingers by drawing defenders towards him in the middle of the ice before distributing the puck.

“It’s a huge honour to play with a guy like him,” said Kapanen.

The honour flows both ways.

Spezza remembers taping his father Rino’s old brown leather goalie pads as a kid to look like those of Felix Potvin. He recalls the excitement that came with Doug Gilmour’s arrival in Toronto and the team’s back-to-back runs to the conference final in 1993 and 1994.

He understands the connection between the team and the city after growing up in Mississauga, and at least has some idea about the unique chance the current-day Leafs possess with a strong roster that has reversed course after a choppy start.

“[He’s] just a great example, I think, around the locker-room,” said Leafs captain John Tavares. “For a guy that’s been highly touted for a long time, has had a great career, was a go-to guy for how long and really came in accepting a lesser role and understanding the opportunity here.

“For a lot of us … he really sets that example that these opportunities don’t come very often and he really believes in this group.”

He’s the kind of guy who finds an easy smile even when they take practice outdoors on a chilly January day.

When the sands of time are slipping through your fingers, and you’re still living out your childhood dream, there is no such thing as inconvenience.

All Spezza sees is a chance to make more lasting memories.

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