Maple Leafs do right by Jason Spezza, give him executive role after announcing retirement
Photo credit:John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports
9 months ago
Jason Spezza’s passion for the game and his hometown Toronto Maple Leafs were on display around this time last year when he met with reporters via Zoom video conference to discuss his one-year, $750,000 extension with the club.
“All I care about is playing for a good team,” Spezza said on Jun. 17. “If I could take less (money), I would.”
Spezza referenced his team’s tight salary cap situation. Having grossed over $90 million in his NHL career over 16 seasons with the Ottawa Senators and Dallas Stars, Spezza joined the Leafs and signed three consecutive one-year, minimum-salary contracts with the club, primarily to allow them to save space for other assets.
With Toronto’s window to a Stanley Cup wide open and Spezza’s career reaching the closing stages, the value proposition on both sides made sense. But it was becoming evident this past season that the Spezza’s career was winding down. A healthy scratch at various stretched during the 2021-22 campaign and the first two games of the team’s 2022 playoffs, Spezza called it a career on Sunday in a joint statement with the club.
“Do I think I can play and help? Definitely at times,” Spezza said of the decision. “But, at 39 it becomes harder and harder to do all season and with good conversations with good people we’ve determined that this was probably the best step moving forward.”
Following his first season with Toronto, the Leafs and Spezza began talks about what the veteran wants to do beyond his playing days.
“There was an onus on us for everything he’s done for our organization to ensure we had a plan for him,” Maple Leafs GM Kyle Dubas said on Sunday.
And rightfully so.
There was the “sacrifice” that Dubas referenced last week when he signed defenceman Mark Giordano to a two-year, $1.6 million bargain-basement contract. And while players like Spezza and Giordano may not need the money, they don’t necessarily owe the Maple Leafs anything by taking substantial discounts, either.
But when Spezza joined the club in the summer of 2019, he was a consummate professional. Despite being a healthy scratch on opening night against his former club — a decision made by former Leafs head coach Mike Babcock — Spezza never showed his discontent. Later that season, the veteran helped lift the team’s spirits following a difficult loss against the Buffalo Sabres in February.
Dubas recalled Spezza taking it upon himself during the pregame meal the following night in Pittsburgh to talk to every player on the roster that he felt needed encouragement.
“I had left the room and come back and others had mentioned the same thing,” Dubas said. “So he wasn’t doing it for show, he was doing it out of genuine care to try to influence some positive results.”
During the off-seasons, Spezza spent his free time at the team’s practice facility in Etobicoke and he often volunteered his time to any player that came in for a workout or skate.
”The benefit of that if you’re a player coming in on an ECHL, AHL or two-way contract and Jason Spezza — who’s obviously someone they’ve all grown up watching and think very positively — is just willing to donate and give his time when no one would expect it, it’s pretty remarkable.”
All Spezza wanted in return was a Stanley Cup. And after 19 years he came up short of his goal.
“There’s definitely a huge void in my heart and my career without having been able to win it,” Spezza lamented. “I’ve had many sleepless nights over the course of my career wondering what I can do different and what I need to do differently and how I need to change to win a Stanley Cup and then to not win a Stanley Cup as a player is very difficult.”
While that quest for hockey’s most glorious prize is over as a player, he can still win one as an executive. That begins immediately with the Maple Leafs as a Special Advisor to Dubas. He’ll shadow and observe management for the next 13 or 14 months before narrowing his focus for the following season.
Dubas suspects Spezza could excel at player evaluation and management given adept knowledge of players across the game, he’ll get a taste of everything, (including the salary cap) before his focus narrrows next offseason.
“You think you know things but you really don’t until you get behind the curtain and I feel like I’m stepping into a situation that I don’t know a whole lot about,” Spezza said. “I’m just going to be a good student, learn and observe.”
Every player has different challenges in adapting to life after their playing days. Spezza is no different in that respect. While many endeavour to just take a break from the game, the forward love of the game is one he doesn’t want to hit pause from. The Leafs see that. And after another failed playoff run, the club owed it to Spezza to stay connected with the game immediately.
“I think that will help me drive towards wanting to stay in the game, too,” Spezza said. “It’ll never feel maybe the same as being a player but I’m going to try to win a Stanley Cup as an executive and as part of the organization now and that’ll keep me driven.”