OTTAWA - Jason Spezza's status as the resident whipping boy for a lot of the Ottawa Senators' troubles isn't keeping him from playing a big part for Reebok Hockey.
The equipment manufacturer announced Tuesday that it's enlisted the 25-year-old centre among its ranks, joining other NHL stars such as Sidney Crosby, Pavel Datsyuk, Roberto Luongo and Martin Brodeur to market its products.
In addition to wearing and marketing the company's gear, Spezza will be involved in "future development and insight into how we design products," said Len Rhodes, general manager of Reebok-CCM hockey.
In the new year, he'll also be part of Reebok's global marketing campaign entitled Your Move, which currently features athletes such as NHLer Alexander Ovechkin, soccer star Thierry Henry and tennis star Jelena Jankovic.
Although terms of the deal weren't disclosed, it's fair to say the Toronto native won't need the kind of hand-me-downs he used early in his hockey career.
Speaking at a suburban hockey store, he recalled his early days when he'd use sticks left over from the junior career of his uncle, George Spezza, who played in the Ontario Hockey League with the Peterborough Petes, Kingston Canadians and Toronto Marlboros.
"I was never one to wear much new equipment when I was a kid. I always had used skates and one batch of sticks that I think my uncle took from his junior team and I used those for a lot of years," he said with a laugh. "So now to be getting paid to wear equipment . . . it's funny how things turn in a big circle."
Spezza's turn with the Montreal-headquartered firm won't be his first stint as a poster child.
As a one-year-old, his image adorned the poster for the Toronto run of the Broadway musical Baby. By five, he'd graduated to shooting a fruit-drink commercial and, a couple of years later, was modelling for Canadian department stores.
He's also endorsed an Ottawa jeweller and, more recently, was the cover athlete for the NHL 2K8 video game.
Among Senators fans and some hockey pundits, he's also the poster boy for the Senators' early season woes, especially after longtime defenceman Wade Redden joined the New York Rangers in the summer.
With a 7-9-4 record, Ottawa sits in 12th place in the Eastern Conference heading into Tuesday night's games, and in laying blame for the slow start, much of it has fallen at the feet of Spezza, who's also off his usual pace with 16 points (seven goals, nine assists) in 20 games.
Spezza, however, said he's fair game for the criticism, particularly after he inked a US$49-million, seven-year contract extension last fall.
"You're going to take a little bit of heat. It's just part of it," he said. "I think I've always had high expectations for myself, so I try and not pay too much attention to the outside, but it's hard to totally not hear what's being talked about. I think we just want to win as a team and I'm a key part of it and I wouldn't want it any different."
New Senators coach Craig Hartsburg called Spezza out over his play earlier this season and Spezza admits he hasn't been at his best.
The Senators' playoff hopes depend on their investment paying off down the road, much like the company he's just entered into a deal with.
"At times I've felt real good, at times I haven't," Spezza said in evaluating his performance at the quarter pole. "It's kind of been like the team - up and down. I definitely expect to kind of raise my play here the next little bit and get better and better."
Spezza was one of the last proponents of wooden sticks in the NHL and his deal basically signals that he's joined the composite brigade, although not without careful deliberation.
"I was just real comfortable and I don't like change too much . . . but I had some problems with my sticks a little bit last year and nobody seemed to really want to make high-end wood (sticks) anymore," said Spezza, who experimented with a one-piece model in the summer, but has since reverted to a wooden blade on a composite shaft. "I could never even go to that jump before."
Spezza is a self-admitted gear head and the opportunity to have input into equipment was a big selling point to him, rather than just jumping into any deal that would send money his way.
"That's another reason why I wanted to sign on - to be able to give input," he said. "I'm pretty particular, I know what I want and I know what I like.
"I've already talked to some of the guys at the factory about my sticks. It always seems to be a work in progress but by establishing relationships with the company, you can get the most consistent stuff and at the end of the day, that's all I'm looking for, stuff that makes me happiest and makes me play the best."