Why NHL’s restart means everything to Maple Leafs veteran Jason Spezza

Morgan Rielly had a goal and two assists, and Alexander Kerfoot scored twice to help the Maple Leafs to a 4-2 win over the Canadiens in their return to NHL action.

TORONTO — Nineteen wins for No. 19.

That’s what stands between Jason Spezza and an elusive Stanley Cup.

Of course, you don’t get as deep into your career as the Toronto Maple Leafs forward without learning about the value of staying in the moment. Especially entering the playoffs.

“One step at a time,” Spezza said on a recent Zoom call with reporters, when the topic of a potential storybook finish to this strange season was raised.

Spezza is a compelling figure at the dawn of a qualifying-round series with Columbus. It was this specific opportunity that prompted the 37-year-old to take a hometown discount while signing with his hometown team, and the unprecedented circumstances brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic have since forced him to leave wife Jennifer and their four daughters at home while moving into the NHL bubble a short drive away.

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Throughout hockey’s pause Spezza has “stepped up,” in the words of Leafs head coach Sheldon Keefe, taking an active role in the return-to-play discussions with the NHL Players’ Association and becoming an even more trusted voice among teammates.

“He’s a veteran player in the league and he’s experienced a lot of different things. And he’s a guy that’s passionate about the game and he’s also passionate about his game and his career and having another shot to compete for the Cup,” said Keefe.

Spezza has lived a full hockey life: As the much-hyped prospect who once made his playoff debut in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Final, as the No. 1 centre on a team that fell short in the Stanley Cup Final, as the well-travelled veteran still finding a way to contribute to a post-season run despite a limited role, and many other things in between.

That’s why the Leafs measure his impact by much more than goals and assists. It should come as no surprise, for example, that Spezza made it a point to speak with 18-year-old Nick Robertson at least once per day during summer training camp or that he stayed out well after a recent practice to feed Robertson passes for extra work on his one-timer.

“He’s one of the most caring guys you’ll meet,” Ben Bishop, Spezza’s former teammate in Dallas, said earlier this season. “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.”

There are two things that keep Spezza coming to the rink with a smile on his face each day no matter what personal circumstances he may be dealing with:

1. A child-like love for the game
2. A burning desire to lift the Stanley Cup

And not necessarily in that order.

On the topic of the Cup, he can serve as something of a cautionary tale for 22-year-old Auston Matthews, 23-year-old Mitch Marner and 24-year-old William Nylander. Spezza played in Game 7 of the 2003 Eastern Conference Final before his 20th birthday and was Marner’s age when he helped the Ottawa Senators reach the Cup Final four years later.

The Senators were a force with him, Daniel Alfredsson and Dany Heatley each in their primes together. And yet they never managed to be the last team standing.

“He really just is a great voice within our team through his experience, and not all positive experiences,” said Keefe.

“I played on great teams early on and you think they’re going to last forever and then you realize that things change,” Spezza said in September. “Those three years we had there [in Ottawa], we were knocking on the door and probably should have won. We were a perennial powerhouse for a few years and didn’t get it done. You don’t want to see that happen again.”

As for what he might contribute now, know this: Back in the weeks before he’d even played his first game with the Leafs, Spezza was already talking about the role a fourth line can take on in the playoffs. He’d scored a couple big goals during Dallas’ run to the second round in 2019 and pointed to how Boston and St. Louis — the most recent Cup finalists — each found strength from the bottom part of their rosters.

“I think when you get to the end you need it,” he said.

So under these most unusual of circumstances Spezza will try to help tip the scales in Toronto’s favour. As a steadying hand, sounding board and dressing room dad. As a depth forward who will give it all he’s got for each precious shift Keefe gives him.

More than 17 years into his NHL career, Spezza is all-in on this restart. He will make do with regular FaceTime calls with daughters Sophia, Nicola, Anna and Julia, and adjust a pre-game routine that can no longer include a stroll through the city to grab a coffee.

And he will savour an opportunity decades in the making.

“Obviously being in Toronto would be extra special to win because of the support we get from the city and me growing up here,” said Spezza. “I’m definitely chasing a dream.

“To try to win a Stanley Cup as a Maple Leaf is something that I dreamed of as a kid.”

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