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TRAIKOS: Maple Leafs’ elder statesman Spezza eyes Stanley Cup as he heads into what could be final season

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The man with the goofy grin and amusing that he appears to have borrowed from Kawhi Leonard was speaking the opposite day about what it’s like for a veteran hockey participant heading into what is perhaps his remaining season opener.

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“You bear in mind being 9 earlier than Christmas? It’s sort of the identical feeling,” mentioned Jason Spezza. “It’s pleasure, it’s a bit little bit of nerves. It’s a enjoyable factor. It’s a brand new season forward, new horizons, new challenges, it’s a cool feeling to have a brand new season start. It doesn’t get outdated.”

Spezza is 38 years outdated. However watching his boyish face mild up on the considered one other season taking part in the sport he loves, he looks like somebody who nonetheless believes in Santa Claus. In spite of everything, he nonetheless believes the Toronto Maple Leafs can win a Stanley Cup.

If he didn’t, he most likely wouldn’t have signed for yet one more season on the league minimal.

And but, if the Leafs are going to recover from the hump this yr and advance to the second spherical of the playoffs — and past — they’ll must squeeze extra than simply the naked minimal out of their oldest participant.

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With Auston Matthews nonetheless nursing his surgically repaired wrist, Spezza was elevated to the highest power-play unit for Wednesday’s dwelling opener towards the Montreal Canadiens. That’s, in fact, along with the various different roles he fills for the Leafs, which vary from centering the fourth line to entering into the occasional scrap to being a sounding board for coaches and gamers when instances are robust.

No matter it takes to get Spezza the one trophy that has eluded him throughout a Corridor of Fame-worthy profession. And no matter it takes to maintain him taking part in a sport that he’s not prepared to surrender on.

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“There’s a line from Wayne Gretzky that goes one thing like, ‘My dad instructed me if I labored arduous as a child, I’ll get to play as an grownup.’ That’s Jason,” mentioned Stan Butler, the hockey lifer who was Spezza’s first junior hockey coach and twice had him on the world juniors for Canada. “I simply love the man. I like his character. He’s an incredible soldier. He’ll mainly do regardless of the crew must do to win.

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“Individuals say to me on a regular basis, ‘They’re bringing him again once more? What a waste of cash.’ However he’s one of the best funding going,”

Certainly, it’s troublesome to criticize a fourth-line ahead who had 10 objectives and 30 factors whereas incomes $750,000 final season. Blame whomever you need for the way the Leafs blew a 3-1 sequence result in the Habs within the playoffs. However with three objectives and 5 factors in seven video games, Spezza produced way over Mitch Marner or Auston Matthews did.

And he did it whereas averaging far much less ice time.

Jason Spezza (right) has brought veteran savvy and a good attitude to the Maple Leafs. USA TODAY
Jason Spezza (proper) has introduced veteran savvy and an excellent perspective to the Maple Leafs. USA TODAY

“I hope he wins,” mentioned Butler. “I actually hope he does. He’s a fan favorite. He might most likely be mayor of Toronto, that’s how well-liked he’s. When he says he would play hockey without cost, he’s not joking. However I don’t assume he’s executed after this yr. To get him to cease taking part in, they’d must tie him up.”

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Both that or they’d have to rent Mike Babcock to educate the crew once more. It was Babcock who moderately famously benched Spezza two years in the past for what ought to have been his first sport in a Leafs uniform. The Mississauga, Ont., native, who grew up a Leafs fan, had bought a non-public field for the event, with household and buddies attending.

However in a transfer that gave the impression to be directed at GM Kyle Dubas and should have been born out of spite, Babcock made the veteran a last-second, wholesome scratch.

“It was selecting on him when he did nothing unsuitable,” mentioned Butler. “Spezza was only a particular person to ship a message. I’m positive Babcock didn’t need to signal him. And he was going to indicate it. However Jason dealt with that the best way he handles every part. It bugged him lower than it bugged different folks.”

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That’s the advantage of having Spezza round. Like Joe Thornton, he has a knack for reducing the temperature and maintaining issues mild. However not like Thornton, there’s a degree of desperation to Spezza’s sport, one which we noticed when he dropped the gloves in a momentum-changing scrap towards the Blue Jackets in 2020.

It doesn’t matter that he doesn’t put on a letter on the entrance of his jersey. Spezza is as a lot a pacesetter as John Tavares. He’s the bridge between the teaching workers and the gamers. The man Sheldon Keefe turns to when deciding whether or not the crew wants a swift kick within the butt or a delicate pat on the again.

He’s additionally the bridge between a pissed off fan base that’s questioning what — if something — is completely different about this yr’s crew.

“We don’t know,” mentioned Spezza, “however it’s a brand new alternative. There’s going to be no solutions to those questions because the yr goes on, so we simply have to remember what’s in entrance of us and preserve entering into small blocks and preserve constructing as a crew. And once we get to the tip, we will play.”

It’s the identical technique that Spezza has relied on to get him up to now in his prolonged profession. As Gretzky as soon as mentioned: You’re employed arduous so as to play.

mtraikos@postmedia.com

twitter.com/Michael_Traikos

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