Maple Leafs support Spezza's appeal, but must 'press on' after suspension

Toronto Maple Leafs forward Jason Spezza (19) skates during the first period against the Buffalo Sabres, Saturday, Sept. 21, 2019, in Buffalo, N.Y. (Jeffrey T. Barnes/AP)

TORONTO -- The way Jason Spezza practised Tuesday morning is the way he always practises.

Smiling and laughing with his Toronto Maple Leafs teammates, you’d have no idea the veteran was only hours away from a significant suspension.

Spezza was slapped with a six-game ban midway through the Leafs’ win over the Columbus Blue Jackets for kneeing Winnipeg Jets defenceman Neal Pionk in the head Sunday.

Through his 19 years and 1,203 games in the league, this marks the first time the 38-year-old Spezza has faced supplemental discipline.

And he is appealing the Department of Player Safety’s ruling.

“Look,” coach Sheldon Keefe said Tuesday night. “I think everybody in this room, everybody in the game knows the character and integrity that Jason Spezza has through his entire career. We do and always will support him. He’s going to weigh his options that he has in this process.

“But from our perspective, it's important that we just press on here. That’s all we can do.”

Spezza’s initial appeal will arrive on the desk of commissioner Gary Bettman, who seldom overrules his own safety department. Next, Spezza and his camp could take their objection to an independent arbitrator.

These steps take time, and Spezza is available to return to action for the Leafs on Dec. 19 in Seattle.

During Spezza’s in-person (Zoom) hearing, the Maple Leafs argued that (a) this was not kneeing, (b) Pionk was eligible to be checked on the play, and (c) Spezza could’ve delivered a legal check had Pionk not fallen further toward the ice before contact.

Player safety agreed only that Pionk was eligible to be hit. Even so, the department maintains that the onus is on Spezza to get lower to deliver a clean hit and avoid head contact.

Player safety described Spezza’s actions as “reckless and retaliatory” for Pionk’s knee-on-knee hit of Rasmus Sandin earlier in the game, describing the Spezza hit as a “forceful retribution on a player who is in a vulnerable position.”

The department also weighed Pionk’s injury; the Jets announced the defenceman is in concussion protocol.

Though they disagree with the ruling, the Maple Leafs wish to avoid excuses or finger-pointing while Spezza sits.

“We’ve got to have guys come in and play and accept more responsibility,” Morgan Rielly said. “And I think we’ve got the depth to do that.”

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