Growing up, Jason Spezza loved the Maple Leafs. How could he not? Here was a kid born and raised in Toronto, a boy who excelled at hockey and honed his amateur game in the area before NHL stardom came calling and he embarked on a fantastic professional career that's now lasted 14 seasons. When you're a member of Leafs Nation as a child, that's bred into your bones and remains there regardless of where life's road moves you.
And now, at the age of 36, Spezza has come home to Toronto and signed a one-year, $700,000 contract to play forward with the Leafs. His family, needless to say, are beyond thrilled. And a player who has always been one of the most affable, intelligent people in the sport sounded pret-ty stoked to be wearing Blue and White - and, hopefully, help push the franchise to new heights.
"I'd spoke with a few teams, and I was looking for a good fit on a good club," Spezza told Toronto media Monday, the first day of unrestricted free agency. "Once I talked with (GM) Kyle (Dubas) and with (Leafs head coach Mike Babcock), I felt this was a good chance to work out, and I could be a good complementary piece to this team and hopefully get us to a point we can get over the edge and win a Cup, so it made sense on a lot of different levels for me."
Spezza made his NHL debut with the Ottawa Senators in 2002, and went on to play 11 seasons with the Sens before he was dealt to the Dallas Stars on July 1, 2014. That's where he remained until today, but as the years have gone on, Spezza's role has evolved. He may not be able to generate 30 goals and 80 points a year as he did in his younger days, but Spezza is wise enough to understand how things change for players, and he's fully on board with a different role as a Leaf.
"I'm going to be a complementary guy to a lot of these young players," Spezza said. "Most likely I'm going to play on both special teams, and I'm good on faceoffs, on second power plays is something I can help. I've played power play my whole life, and feel really confident in that…the league is about depth now, and you see the teams that played to the end, you needed all four lines."
Spezza and the Stars took the eventual Cup-champion Blues to seven games in their second-round series last year before losing to St. Louis. And although the post-season didn't begin ideal-ly for him, Spezza produced three goals and five points in 11 playoff games, and he found himself motivated to prove he still had ways to contribute. That motivation remains within him now that he's a Leaf, and discussing his role with Babcock prior to signing his new contract gave Spezza a clear picture of what the team expects of him. And for Dubas and Leafs management, Spezza's experience - especially in regard to playing on a young, talented team seeking to make the next step - made him an ideal match for Toronto.
"(He) just seemed like the perfect fit," Dubas said of Spezza Monday. "He's sort of lived through, early in his career in Ottawa, a team (with) very high expectations, (a) very good young talented team with a strong core. Having someone that's gone through that - (that) went to a Stanley Cup Final - can serve as a mentor to our guys on the fact that, though you think your team is ex-tremely good and you're going to be doing this for a long time, the window can close and not to take anything for granted."
Again, with talents such as Auston Matthews and John Tavares in Toronto's top-two centre roles, Spezza won't be looked to for major minutes and big offensive numbers. He's aware of the change in roles, and he's delighted that his hometown team sees great value in what he brings to the table.
"I definitely have a little bit of a chip on my shoulder," Spezza said. "I think that I was surprised to be scratched the first couple playoff games, and I think I took it on as a challenge…In talking to Babs, he's willing to work with me and help me transition my game to that bottom-six role where I can be a good complementary player. That excited me…coming to play for a guy as demanding as him could help me play a little bit longer, and that's what I want to do."
"He's a guy still in search of a championship," added Dubas. "His skill set, his ability to make plays to our talented forwards, his proficiency on faceoffs, all of that, and that he's from here and was willing to come here for the (league) minimum (salary) just in the spirit of things, just made it a great fit for us."
With 1,063 career regular-season NHL games, 583 assists and 915 points to his credit, Spezza doesn't have to prove anything to anyone. He's had a spectacular hockey career. He's a father of four young girls now. He's going to have a small army of friends and family at the Scotiabank Arena for every Leafs home game. And he's going to be wearing the same jersey he grew up mezmerized by.
"It doesn't seem real, to be honest," Spezza said of joining the Leafs. "My family is very excited about it, I grew up a Leafs fan…Dougie Gilmour, Wendel Clark, those are my guys growing up. I remember watching (their playoff) run, I would've been 10 years old. That's kind of the prime of your fandom as a kid.
"Just to have the chance to put on a Leafs jersey is going to be pretty special for me."