Smiling with a grin of justice, Maple Leafs’ Spezza has suspension reduced

Toronto Maple Leafs centre Jason Spezza (19) skates in front of Minnesota Wild centre Rem Pitlick (16) during the first period of an NHL hockey game, Saturday, Dec. 4, 2021, in St. Paul, Minn. (Andy Clayton-King/AP Photo)

VANCOUVER – The irrepressible smile on Jason Spezza’s face, his constant tinkering and examining of hockey sticks, and the jump in those 38-year-old legs at every practice and morning skate would tell you otherwise. But one had to start wondering if the suspended veteran’s presence on the Toronto Maple Leafs’ road trip through COVID-hit Western Canada was even worth it.

Originally, Spezza’s six-game ban for kneeing Winnipeg defenceman Neal Pionk in the head was set to run its course following Saturday’s game in Vancouver. But Thursday’s postponed stop in Calgary meant Spezza would’ve been ineligible to play in the tour’s final stop, in Seattle Sunday, too.

With no runway to save games, had Spezza’s appeal reached the less-than-speedy process of an independent arbitrator, his only hope was Gary Bettman.

The commissioner seldom overrules his own department of player safety in these matters, but he did so Friday, acquiescing to the #FreeSpezza hashtags and reducing the forward’s ban from six to four games.

He’ll play Saturday, smiling the grin of justice. (Provided the game goes on, of course.)

“The conduct at issue was a serious, but isolated, aberration from Mr. Spezza’s consistent style of play over nearly two decades,” Bettman wrote in his eight-and-a-half-page report from Tuesday’s 75-minute “in-person” (Zoom) appeal hearing attended by 16 people.

“A four (4) game suspension is sufficient to ensure that the conduct will not be repeated.”

Two factors swayed Bettman here.

First: Spezza’s previously pristine record over 19 seasons and 1,295 games (including playoffs), during which he’s never received so much as a warning from the DPS, caused Bettman to give Spezza “the benefit of the doubt in terms of his intention.”

Second: The severity of Pionk’s concussion, diagnosed by a Winnipeg Jets physician, only caused the defenceman to miss three games, two of which would’ve been missed in anyway due to Pionk’s suspension for kneeing Toronto’s Rasmus Sandin earlier in the same game.

Colour us surprised here, because the commissioner is generally reluctant to overrule his own employees in these matters.

But Bettman nailed it.

Clean track record or not, Spezza was right to get dinged for a dirty hit. Six games was excessive. Four games sits better.

Now, in his conclusion, Bettman was careful to not criticize DPS chief George Parros’s original decision, citing that Parros didn’t have the benefit of knowing how quickly Pionk would heal up at the time.

Still, there is a feeling that Parros missed the mark here. Time and resources were spent to correct it.

A source from an uninvolved NHL team called the six-gamer surprisingly steep and wondered if Spezza would’ve been penalized as harshly had he played in a lower-profile market.

Being head of player safety is a thankless gig, and Parros has been at it for five seasons now. His predecessors, Stephane Quintal and Brendan Shanahan, only lasted three each before moving on.

In light of the Spezza situation, we couldn’t help but flash back to a reflection Shanahan made just last month, prior to that controversial Jets-Leafs game.

“It is a hard job,” Shanahan said. “I think there is a time limit on how long you can do that job.”

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