Jason Spezza  
 


For the typical hockey prodigy, life in the NHL begins with teen stardom on a lousy club. Not so for Jason Spezza, the precocious center of the Ottawa Senators. Drafted by one of the league’s top teams, he found himself relegated to the bush leagues when lesser talents were competing for the Calder Trophy on perennial also-rans. In a classic case of “Star, Interrupted,” he sat and stewed for two long years until his coming-out party in 2003-04. Now Jason is poised to take his place among the game’s most dynamic young stars. This is his story…

GROWING UP

Jason Spezza was born in Brampton, Ontario on June 13, 1983. His parents, Donna and Rino, produced twin siblings, Matthew and Michelle, three years later.

Jason came from a hockey-playing family. His father was a goalie in the Juniors and competed against the likes of Wayne Gretzky in the 1970s. His uncle, George, played for the Toronto Marlboros and Peterborough Petes a few years later but neither was regarded as NHL material.

When Jason was one, the family began house-hunting. Donna found a perfect place in Brampton, but Rino talked her out of it. Brampton is outside the territory covered by the Metro Toronto Hockey League. Instead, the Spezzas moved to the Toronto suburb of Mississauga.

The family got behind Jason’s hockey playing in a big way, teaching him, testing him, and keeping his head in the game. He joined his first organized league at three. As it became clear that he had a special talent for the game, they began to prepare him mentally for the long road to the pros. Don’t worry what others think or say about you, Jason was told again and again. Believe in yourself, be a good person, and everything will work out. Jason took this message to heart, and put himself to sleep each night picturing himself skating in the NHL. He rooted for the Maple Leafs, and hoped to wear Toronto Blue some day, like hometown heroes Doug Gilmour and Dave Andreychuk.


 
 

Although Jason was better than other kids his age, he was not recognized as a hockey prodigy until his early teens. Rino always had him competing against older kids, and he often got lost in the shuffle. While this helped accelerate his hockey development, it often left Jason on the outside looking in at awards banquets. At a 1990 event, he was one of the only kids on his team who didn’t receive a trophy. He wept afterward, but a year later he carted off a truckload of hardware in the same league.

What Jason lacked in stature as an under-age player, he made up for by studying the game and being the most prepared player on the ice. By his 10th birthday Jason knew more about hockey than most of the adults who gathered to watch him play.

Agents began calling the Spezzas after Jason turned 13. A hockey coach’s dream, he had all the tools, a willingness to learn, a sense of team unity, and a solid work ethic. He was also a really nice kid. This “total package” irritated some of the area’s other top youngsters, and they demonstrated their jealousy after Jason won a Toronto-area skills competition. When his skating coach, Toronto-based Jari Byrski, posted a group shot of the competitors in a plexiglass display, someone scratched the surface where Jason’s face was. After Byrski replaced the plexiglass, someone stuck gum over Jason’s face. He took this all in stride, telling Byrski it was their problem, not his.

Byrski was crucial to Jason’s early development. Among other coaching techniques, he put the youngster through complex European skating drills to increase his speed and agility.

Jason began his Bantam hockey career in 1997 with the Toronto Marlboros, and in his first season was named the organization’s Player of the Year. The teen dominated play whenever he took the ice, scoring 53 goals and adding 61 assists in 54 games. Aiding his development was a growth spurt—Jason shot up to more than six feet tall during the campaign. His long reach enabled him to freeze smaller defenders, and then explode past them for scoring opportunities. He did not have blinding speed, but he had a deceptive fifth gear which caught defensemen by surprise. When double-teamed or squeezed along the boards, he flicked passes to speeding teammates. At age 14, he was a handful, to say the least.

Jason’s favorite move was turning a 1-on-2 into a 1-on-none. He would take the puck right at two defensemen, and as they converged on him, he would slide the puck into their skates. When they looked down, he would swerve around them, reach back and collect the puck, and then continue on to beat the goalie.

That spring, Jason was befriended by Daniel Tkaczuk, captain of the Ontario Hockey League's Barrie Colts and a first-round draftee of the Calgary Flames. They practiced and played together, and developed a strong bond. Though four years Tkaczuk's junior, Jason’s skills were equal to his buddy's. In fact, at 6-1 and 190 pounds, he was clearly ready for the OHL, despite being a year under age. League rules allow 15-year-olds to suit up as long as they play in their hometowns.

In 1998, Mississauga was awarded an OHL expansion franchise, the IceDogs, but the Spezzas decided to sell their home and move to Brampton, which had also received an expansion team. The family agreed that this was the better organization. Owned by Trivial Pursuit inventor Scott Abbott, the Brampton Battalion was coached by highly respected Stan Butler. Even though hockey legend Don Cherry owned the IceDogs, the Spezzas were concerned about coach Peter Sturgeon, who intimated that Jason probably wouldn’t be good enough to play. Cherry later fired Sturgeon.

Jason was competing against players four and five years older during the 1998-99 campaign. He starred in the Battalion’s first-ever victory, scoring the game-tying goal and setting up the winner in a 5-4 thriller against the Sudbury Wolves. Jason saw the ice better than any 15-year-old that any scout in the stands could remember. He ended up leading Brampton in scoring with 22 goals and 49 assists in 67 games—quite an accomplishment for a boy not yet ready to shave.

Actually, shaving turned out to be the highlight of Jason’s season. When he announced that he intended to have a go at his peach fuzz, his older teammates bestowed gifts of razors and shaving cream, and rooted for him as he bravely pulled the twin blades across his face.

Jason’s next big thrill came in January, when he was the youngest player ever selected to participate in the OHL All-Star Game. During the season, his personal highlight came against the IceDogs when, stationed behind the Mississauga net, he flipped the puck over the goal, and then reached around and tapped it in when it landed.

Jason was one of those players who also made his teammates better, and despite its lowly expansion status, Brampton had some decent players to pair with their young star. At the top of list were defensemen Jay Harrison and Tim Gleason. But the Battalion still had plenty of holes. For the year, they finished with a dreadful 8-57-3 record.


Doug Gilmour, 1992 Pro Set

 

 
 

By season’s end, Jason had grown almost two inches. His feet were now size 13 1/2, and he had packed on 15 pounds to his frame. Bigger and stronger, he was no longer suseptible to the intimidation tactics used against him at the beginning of the year. Towering above the competition in every way, Jason was being mentioned in the same breath as another OHL prodigy, Eric Lindros. Unlike Lindros, however, he could fade into the flow of the game and lull opponents to sleep. Then he would appear out of nowhere with the puck on his stick in front of a helpless goalie.

ON THE RISE

It was clear Jason would be the first selection in the 1999 OHL draft and ironically, that pick belonged to Mississauga, which somehow managed to finish behind Brampton. Perhaps even more ironic was the fact that, had Jason been eligible for the NHL draft, he might also have been the first player taken

Jason spent the off-season working out with Manny Malhotra of the New York Rangers and his personal trainer. He understood that his strength and stamina would be tested on a daily basis the following season, and he wanted to be ready.

Knowing he'd be playing for another crummy team in 1999-2000, Jason made his goal for the season to compete in the World Junior Championships in Sweden. Sixteen-year-olds are rarely even considered for the Canadian squad, which is populated traditionally by young stars approaching their 20th birthday. But coach Claude Julien told Jason he could try out—and he took full advantage of the invitation. During two intrasquad games, he scored four goals and dished out five assists. Julien included Jason on the team, and also welcomed fellow 16-year-old Jay Bouwmeester, a less-storied junior defenseman out of Medicine Hat. Before this pair, the only Sweet 16's to suit up for Canada in the World Juniors were Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux.

To his dismay, Jason found himself sitting for the tournament’s first two contests, as Julien decided to go with more experienced players. In the third game, against Slovakia, Jason took the ice for two power plays, and Canada scored both times, with Jason playing a key role in each goal. Canada went on to win a bronze medal, but Jason watched most of the tourney from the bench.

Jason finished out the year for Mississauga, which won just nine games under coach Rick Vaive. He netted 24 goals and added 36 assists, which earned him an invitation to tour with Team Canada on a spring exhibition jaunt though Ontario. It was the second straight year he had been honored this way. (The previous April he had become the youngest national team player in history.)

The prospect of a third straight losing season in the juniors gnawed at Jason all summer. As he again embarked on his tireless workout routine, the thought more about the NHL. Though he knew there would be some dues-paying on the way to the pros, he was more concerned that his development would be slowed if he continued to labor on poor teams. Not wanting to stand in Jason's way, Cherry agreed to trade him after 15 games. It helped that Jason’s agent, Bobby Orr, once played for the Mississauga owner on the Boston Bruins and they remained close friends. Back in the NHL's offices in New York, executives weren't crazy about the precedent this set. Give in to the demands of stars in junior hockey, they reasoned, and you’d create uncontrollable monsters by the time they reached the pros.

Figuring into the trade demand was a rash of news stories claiming Jason was no longer a shoo-in for the top pick in the NHL's spring draft. With Russian teenager Ilya Kovalchuk coming on strong, he was now the odds-on favorite to claim the #1 slot.

Cherry ultimately foudn a home for Jason on the third-place Windsor Spitfires, also of the OHL. The club paid a steep price: four players, two draft picks and cash. Jason's new coach, Tom Webster, was familiar working with superstars, having coached Gretzky when he was with the Los Angeles Kings. Webster liked the fact that Jason—like The Great One—understood you couldn’t be great without meshing with a supporting cast.

Jason notched two assists in his first game as a Spitfire and averaged nearly a goal a game for the team the rest of the way, including back-to-back hat tricks against London and North Bay. Webster was impressed with how easily Jason fit in with his his Windosr teammates, cementing his reputation as an elite-level team player. Jason, who ended the year with 43 goals and 73 assists, also put fannies in the seats. Indded, the Spitfires saw their attendance soar to more than 1,500 per game.


Eric Lindros, 1991 Upper Deck
 
 

Jason also joined Bouwmeester and fellow teen Dany Heatley on Canada’s World Junior squad, which competed in Moscow over the holidays. No benchwarmer this time around, he got to put his skills on display against the world’s best young talent, including Kovalchuk. Jason outplayed the Russian in his own backyard, and was named a tournament all-star after winning a clutch overtime draw that set up the decisive tally in Canada’s bronze-medal victory against Sweden. The difference between Jason and Kovalchuk couldn’t have been more clear—Jason was the ultimate team guy, while Kovalchuk was the flashy individualist. In all, he posted three goals and three assists in seven games.

As Draft Day neared, Jason found himself rated as the top Canadian, ahead of goalie Dan Blackburn and center Stephen Weiss. Also ranked high were Kovalchuk and two other Russians, Stanislav Tchistov and Alexander Svitov. The Atlanta Thrashers held the first selection in the draft, with the New York islanders, Tampa Bay Lightning and Florida Panthers to follow. Each team figured to strike gold, as this draft was exceptionally deep.

The Islanders, who had made headlines the previous year by selecting goalie Rick DiPietro with the first overall pick, stole the show again by trading former college star Bill Muckalt, towering defenseman Zdena Chara, and their #2 pick to the Ottawa Senators for superstar (and perennial holdout) Alexi Yashin. After Atlanta made Kovalchuk the top pick in the draft, the Senators tabbed Jason. He was delighted to join a winning franchise, though Ottawa had been bumped from the playoffs in the first round three years running.

Built on defense, the Senators featured goalie Patrick Lalime and a solid corps of defensemen that included offense-minded Sami Salo and rising star Wade Redden. The forward line was stacked with Marian Hossa, Radek Bonk, Martin Havlat, Daniel Alfredsson and Shawn McEachern, all of whom could put the puck in the net. When the 2001-02 season started, there was much debate about how close Jason was to joining this cast. He was invited to compete for a spot on the Senators, and in workouts ranged from being extremely impressive to looking totally overmatched.

Jason had all the moves a pro center needed to survive, plus a powerful shot. His defense, spotty at best, was one problem with his game. But the club figured that would improve with time, considering that Ottawa coach Jacques Martin was a defensive zealot. The main knock on Jason was that he needed to be more selfish with the puck, and feel confident that he could burn defenders one-on-one in the NHL the way he did in the juniors. He also needed to work on his positioning.

The Senators toyed with keeping Jason on the roster until the very end of camp, when they sent him back to the Spitfires for more seasoning. The deciding factor may have been his tentative play. Instead of letting his talent flow, Jason often concentrated on not making mistakes.

Annoyed at the demotion, Jason told reporters it was the worst day of his life. On the verge of tears, he said GM Marshall Johnston had made a big mistake. Johnston’s response was that the Senators did not want to repeat the blunder they had committed by promoting 18-year-old Alexander Daigle too soon.

Jason got the bad news just as he was preparing to open the season in front of friends and family against the Maple Leafs in Toronto. It was a crushing blow for a player who had never been cut from a team in his life. Predictably, Jason brooded in Windsor, and his play failed to evolve.

For the third year, he joined Team Canada for the World Junior Championships, this time with his old coach Stan Butler at the helm. Jason accompanied the team to the Czech Republic, where the Canadians scored goals in bunches. Jason, however, could not get untracked and was shutout for the tournament. His play was uneven, although he was the best player on the ice against Russia in the final. But he left disappointed like the rest of his teammates. Canada blew a two-goal lead in the second period, as Russie stormed back with three straight tallies to claim the title.

Upon his return to Windsor, Jason became the subject of trade rumors. He needed a change of scenery, and when OHL scoring champ Kyle Wellwood asked out of Belleville, the clubs got together and made it happen. After scoring 19 goals and 26 assists for the Spitfires, Jason was now a Bull. The deal rattled his cage, and Belleville’s larger, Olympic-sized rink sparked his creativity. Jason ended the campaign on a scoring spree, tallying 23 goals and 37 assists for Belleville to give him 105 points for the year—third in the OHL.

Jason added 11 points in 11 games during the Bulls’ abbreviated post-season run—they were derailed in the conference semis—and then was assigned by the Senators to their minor-league club in the American Hockey League. The Grand Rapids Griffins, in the conference quarterfinals, were happy to welcome Jason aboard. In three games against the Chicago Wolves, he found the net once.

The Senators were counting on Jason to make the team in 2002-03. The cash-strapped club was known for drafting astutely, which enabled it to post winning records year after year. But each season it needed at least one or two prospects to step up and play a contributing role.

Ideally, Jason would not only make the team, he would lead a group of Ottawa’s best young talent into a new era. Former Brampton teammate Tim Gleason was among these players. So were forwards Antoine Vermette and Petr Schastlivy, and defenseman Anton Volchenko.

Jason had time to ponder his career over the summer. After his demotion the previous fall, his father gave him four words of advice: “Get better, not bitter.” Jason began to see that the skills that enabled him to dominate the juniors weren’t enough to earn him a place in the NHL. He had great hands and tremendous vision, but his defense was still shoddy at times and he was slow by pro standards.

Jason hired a personal trainer and a skating coach. He cut ice cream out of his diet and reduced his body fat and lost weight. He rented a rink in Toronto and skated day after day with a parachute tied to his torso and backside. By the end of August, Jason was lighter, quicker and fitter. In a September tournament for rookies from Ottawa, Montreal, Tampa and Florida, he blew by the other youngsters. When he arrived at camp, he was certain he was ready for the NHL.

Ottawa already had depth at center, but Jason was given every opportunity to shine. He was often paired with Havlat, an artful winger who clicked with Jason in practice. The Senators’ new front-office regime, which included GM John Muckler and Player Personnel exec Anders Hedberg, liked what they saw from Jason. He was playing with confidence and experimenting against veteran players.

But promoting him didn't make sense if it meant five minutes a game as a fifth-line center. Martin, hardly in the midst of a rebuilding program, felt Ottawa could compete for the Stanley Cup. Keeping Jason on the roster didn't seem to serve anyone's interests.

Jason was disheartened, but not surprised. There was some speculation that Ottawa, a small-market club teetering on the precipice of financial ruin, dropped Jason to save on payroll. (He stood to collect a $565,000 bonus as a Senator). But this didn't appear to be the case. Rather, as the preseason drew to a close, Martin was putting Jason in increasingly complicated game situations, and his deficiencies were being exposed.

The Senators had a new AHL affiliate in Binghamton, which is where the club wanted Jason to burnish the rough edges off his game. This time he viewed the demotion as an opportunity, knowing it would only be a matter of time before he was recalled. He had three goals and three assist in his first six games.


Jay Bouwmeester, 2002 Topps
 
 

In mid-October, Bonk, Ottawa’s top center, injured his chest against the Hurricanes. Jason was recalled and made his NHL debut on the road in Boston. After warmups, Jason had to sit with his teammates in the dressing room for almost an hour while the Bruins held a ceremony to retire Terry O’Reilly’s number. Alfredsson, the team captain, tried to loosen him up during the agonizing delay. Still, when the puck finally dropped, Jason was ready to explode.

In the third period with the score tied 1-1, Jason collected the puck in Boston’s end and sensed Hossa getting into position on the other side of the slot. Without looking, he put a blind, backhand pass right on the foward’s stick for the go-ahead goal. Boston managed a 2-2 tie, but it did little to dampen Jason’s joy over finally getting to play.

The happiness didn’t last long. Jason’s defensive inexperience hurt the club, and he yo-yo’d between Ottawa and Binghamton five times. Martin was hoping he would be ready to excel when the Senators needed fresh legs for the playoffs, and Jason gave every indication this would be the case. The faster game in the AHL enabled him to speed up the skills that had been wasting away in the juniors. Coach John Paddock drilled into Jason’s head to keep his feet moving all the time.

MAKING HIS MARK

Jason logged a total of 33 games for the Senators, including the final 10 of the regular season. He netted seven goals and had 14 assists for a respectable 21 points. Martin benched him in the playoffs, preferring to go with more experienced players. But after falling behind 1-3 in the Eastern Conference finals against the New Jersey Devils, Muckler twisted the coach’s arm and the 19-year-old got the call with the team facing elimination.

Jason was sharp throughout the game, skating cleanly, absorbing big hits to make plays, and seeing the ice like a veteran. In the third period he, won a key faceoff to set up Havlat’s game-winner, and then put the contest away with a goal of his own, redirecting a nice pass from defenseman Chris Phillips. His play was a revelation, especially against the famously stingy Devil defense. Jason meshed with Havlat and right wing Peter Schaefer to give New Jersey fits.

The mood in the Ottawa locker room was buoyant to say the least. Prior to the game, the Senators felt that New Jersey had their number. This new wrinkle had everyone hopeful again. Meanwhile, all of Canada was saying a big "We Told You So." It was only a matter of time before Jason made his mark in a do-or-die game. Around his dressing area, the reporters were packed three deep.

The series moved to the Meadowlands, where Phillips scored an overtime goal to knot the series and send it back to Ottawa for Game 7. Unfortunately for the Senators, the Devils eked out a 3-2 win and advanced to the Stanley Cup Finals.


Radek Bonk, 1994 Classic
 
 

After the season, Jason worked out at Toronto’s Station Seven Reebok gym, owned by Gary Roberts. A fitness freak, he turned Jason on to the joy of protein shakes and regular lifting, and hooked him up with trainer Dave Ablack. Whenever Jason thought about cutting out early, all he had to do was look around the workout room, whose regulars included Doug Gilmour, Jeff O’Neill and Chris Gratton.

The 20-year-old entered the 2003-04 season feeling like a new man. The weight he had shed the previous year—baby fat, really—was back, but this time it was raw muscle. The biggest change in Jason’s game was flowed from his increased core strength. He felt faster, had more stamina and was no longer an easy guy to ride off the puck. Coach Martin still used him judiciously, limiting his ice time to around 15 minutes a game. But during those stretches Jason was one of the most productive players in the league. This fit well into Ottawa’s offensive game plan. Though still a defense-first club, the Senators won because they had three productive lines.

They also had money in the bank, thanks to new owner Eugene Melnyk, who rescued the club from extinction. The previous January, the franchise actually filed for bankruptcy.

Jason became an integral part of an offense that featured Hossa, Alfredsson and Havlat. Meanwhile, the Senators boasted two top-notch defensive pairings in Chara and Phillips, and Redden and Karel Rachunek. The addition of forward Vaclav Varada also gave Ottawa a first-class instigator. Finally, Lalime had developed into one of the NHL’s most exceptional goaltenders.

Jason finished the year with 22 goals and 33 assists despite getting about 10 shifts a game. His rating of +23 was remarkable for a player whose defensive skills were barely up to NHL star standards, which gives a sense of how effective he was as an offensive force. Other young stars like Kovalchuk and Rick Nash played a lot more, but Jason didn’t mind. He was on a club that was playing in April, while those guys were sitting at home.

But would he actually be playing? After finishing the regular season with 43 wins and 102 points (just six points out of first), the Senators took on the Maple Leafs. Jason was battling a nagging groin injury, and when the pain crept into his abdomen, it slowed him down tremendously. As a result, he was was scratched from the first two games against Toronto. To make matters worse, Lalime was also laboring with a sprained knee.

This was no recipe for success, considering that Ed Belfour was tending the opposite net. He shutout the Senators twice after Ottawa won the opener. Jason suited up for Game 3, but played sparingly. It was incredibly frustrating to make it through his first full NHL season only to hurt himself right before the postseason.

The Senators won Game 4 to even the series, but Belfour responded with his third shutout in Game 5. With their backs against the wall, the Senators eked out a double-OT win to force a seventh game. Unfortunately, Lalime picked the wrong night for one of his worst games, allowing four goals on only 11 shots in a 4-1 loss. It marked the fourth time in five seasons that Toronto had bounced the Senators from the playoffs.

Jason was a non-factor during the series, appearing in just four games. When he did play he concentrated wholly on defense, afraid that the slightest miscue would land him back on the bench. As a result, he generated no offense for the team, which went 3-for-35 against the Leafs on the power play. As the horn sounded in the season's final game, Jason doubted he would ever suit up for Martin again. He was wasting his talent in this system, and one of them would probably have to go.

Jason spent his summer as did many NHL players: wondering if they would play at all in 2004-05. With the owners looking for cost controls and the union unwilling to budge on a hard cap, the likelihood there would actually be a season grew increasingly remote. While many stars took job offers in Europe, Jason decided to return to the Binghamton Senators.

Jason took his NHL-honed playmaking skills back to the minors and dominated his AHL competition. As the calendar turned from 2004 to 2005, he was pacing the league in assists and points, and was scoring a goal every two or three games. Jason was a terror with the puck on his stick—not only able to thread passes through the narrowest of openings, but anticipating the whereabouts of his teammates. At the beginning of February, he had more assists than any other player in the league had points.


Gary Roberts, 1992 Pro Set
 
 

Jason used his return to the AHL to become a better two-way player. The sting of his postseason benching was still fresh in his mind, and the fact that Martin was finally shown the door was no consolation for the lack of PT. Jason still makes the occasional horrendous play on defense, but more often than not he does the right thing. It will be interesting to see how his improved all-around game translates to top-tier competition.

It will also be interesting to see if a further shakeup is coming in the Canadian capital. If so, it may involve Jason. There is considerable debate whether Ottawa is the right team for his talents. The club does not have the best track record developing young prospects, and the firing of Martin may not change things that dramatically.

 
 

As for Jason, his gaudy AHL numbers will either enable him to secure a permanent spot on the Ottawa roster, or convince the small-market Senators to consider trading him in a headline-grabbing deal.

Blockbuster trades have become increasingly common in hockey, and will probably remain so even after the labor situation is resolved. Still, one involving Jason might literally be a make-or-break trade—one of those deals that makes one franchise and breaks another.

 
  JASON THE PLAYER

 
 

Jason has been playing above his age level since he was three, and his talent level has always expanded to meet the challenge. His first full year in an NHL uniform was a continuation of this pattern, which suggests that he’s not too far from being an All-Star. He is deceptively quick, possesses world-class vision and passing skills, and has great hands.

Jason’s defense did improve under Jacques Martin, but he won’t be winning the Selke Award anytime soon. He has a nose for the goal, and on the right team that’s a valuable commodity. His defensive instincts should mature, and his time in the AHL has provided an excellent opportunity to work on this part of his game.

Jason is a big kid, but his size does not translate into any kind of intimidation factor. He’s just not one to mix it up. In fact, one of the trophies most likely to land on his mantle is the Lady Byng. The only question is whether the Hart and Ross hardware will rest beside it.


Jason Spezza, 2004 Upper Deck
 
 

Jason Spezza

 
   
 

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