Dallas Stars center Jason Spezza will face the Ottawa Senators for the first time Tuesday after asking for and receiving a trade last summer from the city where he played 11 seasons, the last of which as captain.
Spezza told reporters Monday he's glad the first time he will face his former team is in Dallas rather than Canadian Tire Centre. He will return to Ottawa with the Stars on Jan. 29. Spezza had 687 points in 686 games for the Senators.
"I don't think it's that bad them coming here. It kind of feels like it's on your turf," said Spezza, who has seven goals and 22 assists in 41 games for the Stars. "Going to Ottawa is going to be strange for sure, walking into the building and walk into the visiting room and all that.
Center - DAL
GOALS: 7 | ASST: 22 | PTS: 29
SOG: 86 | +/-: -7
"It's nice to catch up. I saw some of the guys [Sunday] and I'll catch up with a few more guys. It's different when it's on your terms and in your rink. It'll be different when I go back to Ottawa though, for sure."
Spezza said the timing is fortunate too because he's had half of a season to make the transition to playing with a new team. He is grateful for the distance afforded over that time that has allowed him to feel much less an Ottawa Senator.
"It's nice that it’s January. I'm a Dallas Star now," Spezza said. "I feel like these guys are my teammates. You get tight, you get on the road, you become part of the team. If it was November, it would probably be a little different, you're still kind of finding your way around. I think I was fortunate the game's not being playing until January. It's more I was excited to see the guys coming into town. There's some guys I played with for a long time over there, so it was nice to catch up just to see where they're at."
Spezza, a player Senators fans seemed to either love or hate because of his risky style of play, asked for a trade last summer and was accommodated by the Senators one season after succeeding Daniel Alfredsson as captain.
The 31-year-old was traded to the Stars on July 1 along with forward Ludwig Karlsson for forward Alex Chiasson and prospects Nick Paul and Alex Guptill and a second-round pick in the 2015 NHL Draft.
"The guys in the room, I think, understood where I was coming from. I don't think I shocked anybody that was close to me," Spezza said of his trade request. "There's no real explanation other than just when you're in a place for so long, you don't win, you don't have success, sometimes it's best to part ways and try it a different way.
"I don't have the same role here that I had in Ottawa where I was playing 20 minutes a night every night. I think I'm slotted in a good spot here. It's a different challenge for me and I'm still trying to find my game a little bit being on a new team. But it's exciting coming to a new team and really having a new excitement, a new challenge, a new group to build with. It's something that's driving me now to really work on my game."
Senators defenseman Chris Phillips was part of Spezza's inner circle in Ottawa. He said he could see where the relationship between Spezza, the Senators and Senators fans was headed.
"No, I wasn't surprised [he asked to be traded] because I was one of those guys [who was close to Spezza]. I knew stuff was going on there," Phillips said. "At the same time, I was going through negotiations [on a new contract] and we were talking a lot and bouncing things off each other.
"You take the hockey out of it and he's a friend. You want what's best for your friends. You want them to be happy. The circumstances that were going on were not allowing him to be [happy] and you want to see your friends be happy."
Spezza was the No. 2 pick at the 2001 NHL Draft by the Senators and was a polarizing figure in Ottawa from the beginning.
Fans either appreciated his point-a-game production (he led the Senators three times in regular-season scoring) or filled the airwaves on the postgame shows complaining about his high-risk game and turnovers.
"I totally agree with that assessment. Right from when he started, he was a little bit the whipping boy, if you can call it that," Phillips said. "He was such a talented guy and he could make such a difference there was a lot of attention on him. At the end of the day, when you put up the points he did and play the way he did, you have to take chances. Some people didn't recognize that.
"He works as hard as anybody and he cares as much as anybody. When things go south, he cared so much and wanted to win so bad, when he got called out, it was tough for him because he put so much into it."
Stars coach Lindy Ruff said a period of adjustment for Spezza was expected and he's seen encouraging signs in Spezza's game lately.
He said Spezza has probably benefited from not being the focal point as he was in Ottawa and simply being a player, an important one, but not one who is being asked to shoulder most of the leadership load.
"I think that's exactly what we look at. We're not looking at him to be any more than that," Ruff told reporters Monday. "We're still asking him for leadership in some key areas for us. Again, being a former captain, sometimes you feel a lot of weight on you and you feel responsible a lot of time a lot more for the losses. Sometimes the captain takes a lot bigger hit than he really needs to take.
"There is a lot more of you guys (the media) in the Canadian market. The spotlight always shines brighter. Sometimes it becomes a little overbearing. You're captain of the team. … I think for him it's been a little bit refreshing."
"I have a big responsibility to be a good player every night here and be a leader. I'm still trying to support [Stars captain] Jamie [Benn] as much as I can," Spezza said. "As soon as I got here, they told me they didn't bring me here to just be another player. They want me to lead too. I knew that. I wish I would have had longer with the 'C,' I guess, it was kind of a bad year, a one-year term. It is what it is. It didn't bug me. It was kind of building, I guess, needing a change."
Spezza signed a four-year contract extension with the Stars in November with a reported annual average value of $7.5 million. Dallas (18-16-7) has earned at least one point in seven of its past 10 games.
"It's been exciting. We've got a great group. We feel like we're a team that's still young and building and doing a lot of good things now," he said. "Personally, I'm still trying to find my way a little bit. It's a big adjustment when you're in the same spot for so long. For the most part, it's been really good. Now we've hit the halfway point, the comfort level is that much more. Everything is more familiar. You feel like the system is automatic and starting to find you niche on the team."