Stars center Jason Spezza has been in town for a few weeks skating with some of his teammates, but this past Saturday he was on the ice with a different group. Spezza hosted a hockey clinic at the Dr Pepper StarCenter in Frisco for kids who have received grants from the Jason Spezza Scholarship Fund.
"It was great," Spezza said. "It's fun to see it all come together. It's been a work-in-progress for us now all of last year. To get to have the day come and see kids and see how excited some of them were, it's definitely a nice feeling."
Spezza started the scholarship fund last season, personally pledging $50,000 over 2015-16 and 2016-17 to help provide monetary assistance for ice-time, academy classes, league programs or equipment to children who cannot afford to play hockey due to adversity or financial restraints.
Texas Land & Cattle has pledged $300 for every point Spezza records during the regular season in 2015-16 and 2016-17, contributing $18,900 for Spezza's 63 points last season and then adding another $6,100 to match his $25,000 for the season.
"[Hockey] is [expensive]. It can be financially challenging, and we were lucky to have Texas Land & Cattle come and help double the support and just be on board," Spezza said. "They've matched and been a big supporter in this, so it's nice when you have passionate people behind you to kind of help bring things along."
Spezza spent more than an hour on the ice Saturday with the children, answered some questions after the on-ice session and then signed autographs and posed for pictures with the kids and their families. So far, 67 children have received grants from Spezza's scholarship fund.
"For me, it's just giving kids an opportunity to play the game," Spezza said. "Hockey's been a huge part of my life, probably all of my best childhood memories were on the ice and going to tournaments. Even to this day, it's an escape for you. When you're on the ice, you have no problems and you just kind of play and worry about that. To just give kids an opportunity was my thought, being relatively new to Texas, trying to grow the game a little bit and then kind of share the joy you can get through the game of hockey."
Following a quiet offseason in the Toronto area, Spezza was among the early arrivals in Frisco to begin skating and working out in preparation for the season. This will be his third season with the Stars, who acquired him from Ottawa in July 2014.
"It feels like home for me now," he said. "Year one, there's all getting your feet wet and kind of figuring things out. Last year I felt significantly more comfortable and this year it feels like home. Family's settled, kids are in the same school, and we have friends, so it's nice to kind of get back and get going."
Training camp opens in a little more than a week in Cedar Park. Anticipation is high around the Stars and so are the expectations after a strong showing in 2015-16.
"You can sense the urgency around the rink, you can sense through Jim [Nill] and Lindy [Ruff], just the push to try to make us better," Spezza said. "And as players, we have to recognize that we have a good team, and you can't take anything for granted. It's hard to keep good teams together. I'm excited."
The Stars have lost several veteran players from last season's team, and Spezza said he, Jamie Benn , Patrick Sharp , Johnny Oduya , Dan Hamhuis and others will have to help fill the gaps.
"You lose a lot of veteran guys, and that is tough to replace," Spezza said. "It puts the onus on [us] to make sure that we are being good veterans helping the guys out and helping some of the younger guys along."
The Stars have added a veteran on defense in Hamhuis and another veteran at forward in Jiri Hudler , but there will be an injection of some youth into the lineup. Center Radek Faksa and defenseman Stephen Johns gave the Stars a boost down the stretch last season and should be regulars in 2016-17. Other younger players are expected to crack the roster as well. Spezza sees that as a positive.
"If you look at the playoffs with Pittsburgh, they win with so much of those kids coming up and flying around. And Tampa kind of had the same thing going the last few years," he said. "I think it is important to keep your core veterans in place and have the temperature of your room dictated by the veteran guys, but those young guys can definitely spark some energy through the team. There's a lot of internal competition when you have those guys, and that is good."
The Stars are coming off a strong 2015-16 season, finishing with the best record in the Western Conference and coming up one victory short of a trip to the Western Conference Final. Spezza said the Stars are in a good position to take another step, but they'll have to push the issue.
"In the league now, you really can't sit on your laurels. You have to move forward," Spezza said. "We have to come with urgency in the first ten games, just like we did last year, because if you get yourself behind it does become a tough league to play in. There's no reason we can't have a team that can do really good things. … We feel like we're in a bit of a window here, we have to try to win."
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Hockey League or Dallas Stars Hockey Club. Mark Stepneski is an independent writer whose posts on DallasStars.com reflect his own opinions and do not represent official statements from the Dallas Stars. You can follow Mark on Twitter @StarsInsideEdge.