TAMPA – Not all prime-time players are in their prime.
Not all heroes wear capes.
Not all leaders wear letters.
On the 82nd game of the greatest regular season in Toronto Maple Leafs lore, with this new wave of dipsy-doodling, double-windmill-celebrating superstars scratched for rest reasons, 38-year-old Jason Spezza found himself wearing an “A” on the sweater of the team he rooted for as a boy.
In vintage fashion, he downplayed the honour, the role.
“At this point in my career,” the former Ottawa Senators captain said that night, “I think you lead without letters.”
Spezza, 38, has been backing that up since he landed home.
There was a very real possibility of the Leafs ballooning an early 2-0 Game 5 deficit into a 3-2 series hole and a chance for the mighty Tampa Bay Lightning to eliminate them on home ice Thursday.
But when Toronto’s skaters filed into the home dressing room sullen and trailing, the eldest among them piped up. Fourth-line and occasional healthy-scratch status be damned.
Spezza delivered a rousing message imbued with tough love. Stern but encouraging. A slap in the face and a pat on the back, all at once.
Every one of his teammates since has spoken about the impact of an intermission pulpit that caused them to listen up and sparked them into action.
“It was pretty much everything. He let us know what we need to do. And then he was also very positive and talked about the group that we had in here. I thought it was it was a great speech, and he got us all going,” Michael Bunting said. “He's a leader in our in our room, and he's very vocal. Everyone listened to what he had to say."
“When he talks, everybody listens. Personally there, I listened. And I think the boys responded well,” added Jack Campbell, whose relationship with Spezza dates back to their Dallas days.
Spezza also made a point of speaking with the goaltender during the pivotal game’s first TV timeout. The details of that conversation neither friend wants to make public, but the impact was tangible.
Campbell locked in and allowed but one goal over a 53-minute span, allowing the Leafs time to breathe, reset and mount a memorable, critical comeback.
“Anytime there’s encouragement going on in the room, which we’ve had a lot of this year, it’s been great,” Campbell allowed. “We never looked back.”
A level of trust must be earned among teammates. Then you can lean into that.
Spezza has learned this over 19 seasons, 1,248 games and 995 points in the regular season, but more so over his 95 cherished playoff games and the heartbreak he suffered to Anaheim in 2007 after a point-per-game run to the Stanley Cup final with Ottawa in which he logged nearly 21 minutes a night… and came up Cup-less.
“Sometimes you have to say things that are maybe uncomfortable, and sometimes you have to positively reinforce things, and I think that’s all part of the process of being on a team,” Spezza says.
“I was very fortunate to be a young guy that was a top pick to go to a good team. So, I had Daniel Alfredsson, Chris Phillips, Wade Redden. Chris Kelly was a guy I learned a lot from, even though we’re the same age. He’s a very stoic leader that speaks up at the right times. Very fortunate to come to good teams that were knocking on the door.”
Late-career Spezza has taken the bare minimum in salary and lineup clout to remain on the doorstep.
He’s adapted. He’s humbled. He’s rallied.
He’s desperate in the best way possible. To the point where a laugher, not a fighter dropped the gloves with Columbus’s Dean Kukan in the 2020 playoff bubble in a grasping attempt to spark life in the boys.
“Everything that you go through becomes part of your experience and part of your story and part of what you call on in difficult moments. Spezz has been around longer than anyone,” Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe says.
“Spezz has a lot of history to him. He’s been through a lot. He’s seen a lot. And he also knows that he doesn’t have a lot of time left. So, he's all-in.
“He’s all-in when he gets his chance and his opportunity, but he’s also all in to help push the others to try to get to where we need to get to. So, he’s doing everything he can to try and will our team to success.”
Why didn’t Keefe alter his fourth line after Game 4’s disappointment? Because it came down to a choice between Kyle Clifford or Wayne Simmonds or Spezza.
In words and deeds, it would be difficult to argue that anyone wants this chance more than Spezza, whose playoff beard ratio is beginning to lean more salt than pepper.
He represents frantic urgency and patient wisdom all at once.
It’s such a beautiful and potentially heartbreaking thing to see play out.
Ask Patrick Marleau or Joe Thornton or Henrik Lundqvist.
“You try to learn from mistakes from the past — that’s what we’re trying to do. But we’re also a different group. Guys are at different points in their careers. Guys have matured,” Spezza says.
“But also, we’ve moved forward. And this is a new version of the Toronto Maple Leafs.”
The Spezza Speech may become A Thing. But it’ll become an even bigger thing if the young men who respect him can follow it up by playing .500 hockey or better in games 6 and 7.
“We earned the feeling of the crowd getting behind us like that, and it was special. It’s something that when you leave the rink after a night like that and you see the city behind us, I think that should fuel you to want to play more hockey games,” Spezza says.
As he talks, it’s evident that young Senators top pick with the goofy chuckle is all game face. All business.
“Now that we’re here, we can’t let the moment slip away.”