Saturday, December 17, 2011

Spezza's Play is Once Again Magical

Jason Spezza was looking for reason -- in the midst of insanity.

The insanity occurred while the 6-3, 216-pound center from Mississauga, Ont., was stuck in the middle of seven-year, $49 million contract. At 28, Spezza was just getting by. The slick playmaker was stuck in a rut, that had included the last three seasons -- seasons of 73, 57 and 57 points.

After a summer of contemplation, Spezza recognized his game was missing something.

"I was stuck in neutral -- like a vintage car," explained Spezza. "I knew I could do better. I had to do better. When I looked back at my career I needed an injection of something. I needed enhance my skill, make myself faster.

"At my age, I needed to turn my career around. I needed get quicker."

Now, once again, Jason is playing at a 90-point pace -- like he did in 2005-06, -07 and 08, before he earned that contract that seemed to put him in hell.

On December 16, Spezza's two-goal, two-assist performance, led the Ottawa Senators to a 6-4 victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins -- his total of 12 goals and 24 assists in 33 games ranked third in the league in scoring.

Though Spezza was the top-rated player in the 2001 season, he went second to Ilya Kovalchuk. It was a gift for the Senators.

Then-Vancouver Canucks General Manager Brian Burke warned that there were great assets for each player to be picked No. 1 overall in the 2001 Entry Draft. But ...

"Anybody who passes on Jason Spezza will have to swallow real hard," he said loud and clear.

It's Spezza's playmaking magic that made Ottawa's No. 1 line of Dany Heatley, Daniel Alfredsson and Spezza so dangerous. That unit led the Senators to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2007.

Late bloomer or a natural who just needed a little more time to develop?

All I know is there aren't a lot of stickhandlers out there in this generation or any other who has just surpassed one of Wayne Gretzky's many records –- which Spezza has done, entering the Final with multiple points in his last six road playoff games. Gretzky's record of five straight road games with multiple points was set way back in 1988.

Spezza has had to deal with the pressures of similar comparisons because he was a child prodigy in Canada. The kid with the soft hands and creative mind was the subject of feature stories while he was just 13, when he made a quantum leap from peewee hockey in Mississauga to bantam. At 15, he was already off to major junior hockey and whispers had already started that Jason could be the next Gretzky or Mario Lemieux.

The can't-miss tag we often put on these phenoms didn't take as quickly as a Gretzky, Eric Lindros or Sidney Crosby. Perhaps it was because Jason was tall at 6-3 and a little gangly and the rest of the body was still trying to catch up –- similar to, say, a Joe Thornton.

Spezza is one of those high-risk, high-reward players who will try anything –- carrying the puck deftly through traffic without flinching like a high-wire star, or making one of those ooh-and-ahhh behind-the-back passes –- to make a play that could result in a goal ... and a win.

"He has magical puck skills," said scout Rick Dudley, former general manager in Ottawa, Tampa Bay and Florida and Atlanta.

However, the next scout might say Jason doesn't skate well enough. Or he doesn't shoot well enough to be a star.

Forget that notion.

"What you see is what you get with me," Spezza told me. "It's not like I came out of nowhere. People have been looking over me for years. It's like living in a fishbowl where everyone can see everything you've done and every little imperfection they've seen is magnified a thousand times."

Actually, Jason Spezza was thrown into the limelight while he was still in the cradle.

At 1, he won a baby contest. Pictures of his blond curls made him the poster boy for Baby, a Broadway musical back in the summer of 1984. It was Jason's photo that went on the marquee. A TV commercial for Minute Maid followed. Then there was modeling for clothing for Woolco and Kmart.

Those billboards he mugged for ended when he was 9 or 10 and his parents, Rino, his first hockey coach, and Donna, wanted Jason to be a regular boy ... and do the things other boys did while growing up. But there was clearly never anything regular about Spezza.

He's good at just about anything he does -- and hockey was his dream.

"It's all I ever wanted to be," he recalled. "All my time and effort was put into being a hockey player. At 15 or 16, I knew I was going to have a chance to play pro hockey. It was just a matter of how good could I be. My dad was my coach, kind of an intense guy, and he pushed me."

Creative. Almost like a chess master, looking to move the pieces around on the chess board in front of him to create checkmate. That's the brilliance of Spezza.

"He passes the puck hard, and it's right on the stick," said former linemate Dany Heatley, who has put up back-to-back 50-goal seasons playing on a line with Spezza. "From there, he is looking to go to the holes and get the puck back ... and then make the play."

It's no coincidence that Spezza's mind works on the offensive –- and it doesn't stop when he leaves the rink.

"I've got this 62-inch plasma screen in my living room –- and I used to be constantly plopping in a tape of Mario Lemieux or Wayne Gretzky or Steve Yzerman, looking for pointers. It's like homework for me," Spezza smiled. "Mario Lemieux was always my guy and that will never change. He would look around and look around and then make the perfect play. It was magical."

And the homework didn't stop there, either. Spezza is a fan of autobiographies, particularly of athletes who have that ability to be the man like Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods.

Knowing Spezza's appreciation for video, Senators GM Bryan Murray often talked about being a high-rish player on offense and more assertive on defense. Early in Spezza's career, Murray pulled out the tapes of a maturing Steve Yzerman, when Stevie Y learned how to be as important to the Red Wings on defense as he had been on offense in his first few years in Detroit. The same was true of John Muckler, when he coached in Ottawa. He told Jason Gretzky and Mark Messier had to be prodded to be all-out offensive players.

Now, after a summer of contemplation, seven seasons into his NHL career, recalled those conversations. He used the examples of Yzerman, Gretzky and Messier to speak to himself.

Jason Spezza had an earnest conversation -- with himself. He came to an out-of-the-rut solution, one that he probably should have had sooner. He needed to transformed himself into a leaner and quicker player.

Spezza finding himself in the midst of this insanity proved he still had the magic.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Iginla: A Very Special Person, An Even Better Player

The rumors started last season and Jarome Iginla overcame a slow start and carried his team on his shoulder to a near playoff with a 43-goal, 43-assist season. The rumors are back -- and Iginla turned 34 last July.

The Edmonton native has been around long enough to have Ray Bourque spend his whole career in Boston, only to welcome a trade to Colorado and retire a Stanley Cup champion. Every player looks around and begins to wonder whether he should accept a trade ... to finally win a Stanley Cup.

"Sixty games left," Iginla said the other day. "It’s a lot of season left. ... Things change so fast. Every 10 games, there’s a new storyline."

He wants to believe that the Flames nearly did it last year. He has only played for Calgary. Never really thought about it. And why should he?

Said Iginla, "My focus is totally on believing we can make the playoffs here -- on climbing back and putting a string together.

"The best way to stop the stories is to win games and climb up in the standings"

But Iginla is one very special person. He was born to greatness -- like every single name that he has on his birth certificate. At the All-Star Game in Montreal in 2009, Jarome spoke with pride. And he still speaks with honor of all those names that follow go between his given name of Jarome Iginla.

Jarome Arthur Leigh Adekunie Tig Junior Elvis Iginla.

What's in a name? At the NHL All-Star Game, you see names for all seasons, all nationalities, all world.

It seems like a mouthful for a growing up in Western Canada. Yeah, said Iginla.

"It took a long time to learn how to write it," said Iginla, flashing his patented big smile. "Just pronouncing my name was hard enough. My dad still works on it with me. I got it down except for the Adekunle part; I still have trouble pronouncing that one."

Being a little different growing up wasn't all that bad.

"It was fun growing up," he said. "People couldn't believe it, so I had to pull out my birth certificate."

Now that's unique, carrying around your birth certificate as a kid.

Hey Jarome. Elvis? Like in "The King"?

"No," he laughed. "That's my dad's name. He thought Elvis was a common name, like Mike or Mark, and he just liked the name and gave it to himself. At the time, he didn't realize it was unique. His original name was Adekunle, and people had a hard time pronouncing it. That's why he changed it."

On the ice, Jarome Iginla is a presence along the boards with his power forward body, and he's never shy about dropping his gloves to stand up for a teammate. In and around the net, he waves his stick around like a magician -- sending pinpoint passes to teammates and picking apart goaltenders with his even more on-the-mark shooting that has enabled him to reach the 50-goal mark twice (including 2007-08) and net 35 or more goals in each of his last seven seasons.

With Iginla, you get character, a leader and a great teammate. A few moments with Jarome and you can understand why the Flames had no problem naming him their captain.

The 6-foot-1, 207-pounder, who was the No. 11 pick by the Dallas Stars in the 1995 Entry Draft, was only traded back in December 1995 because the Stars had an opportunity to acquire Joe Nieuwendyk, who himself scored 50 goals twice. Nieuwendyk had helped the Flames win one Stanley Cup, and Dallas thought it was a cinch that he'd take them to at least one more -- which he did in 1999.

But there's obviously no denying the staying power of Iginla. What you see is what you get from Jarome. But what you don't see is the pride with which this champion of the NHL diversity program brings to his game.

Like most hockey players, Iginla comes from a hard-working background. Dad's a lawyer and mom and grandma are music teachers -- up-front people, with positive attitudes who love to be around other folks. You see all of that in Iginla's work ethic and in the way he deals with everyone he comes in contact with.

So, Jarome, enough with the suspense. What gives with all the names? A few moments later, Iginla had convinced me of the pride he has with his Nigerian and African ancestry by giving me the play-by-play that led to his names:

Jarome -- "My mom changed the name Jerome from "e" to "a" because she wanted it to be a little unique."

Arthur Leigh --"That's my dad's middle name."

Adekunle (pronounced Add-ah-kun-lee-eh) -- "That's my dad's name in Nigerian."

Tig (pronounced Tidge) -- "That's my African grandfather's name. It's short for Tigan."

Junior -- "That the simple one. It's short for Junior."

Elvis -- See above.

"To me, there's a lot of pride in where you come from," Iginla added. "I know I'm proud of my parents and grandparents. They brought me up to treat everyone the way you'd like people to treat you. What a great lesson, eh?"

Need more? 

"I wanted to give our kids the same unique pride that I had by giving them family names, but my wife had some objections," Iginla said. "We named our daughter Jay. Simple. Smart. Just like she is. That was good.

"When our second child was a boy, my wife said, 'No, absolutely no,' to copying all of my names. So we named him Tig. She said, 'That was hard enough.' So ...

"When we were blessed with a third child, he got the treatment. A simple Joe, followed by Arthur Leigh Elvis Adekunle Junior Iginla."

Why Joe? 

"Some of the writers in Calgary were caught off-guard a short time ago when some of my boyhood buddies were around the rink and they kept calling me Joe," Iginla roared. "That's a nickname my pals gave me when I was 8- or 9-years-old, and they didn't want to bother with the rest of the story."

Any fights as a youngster because of this story, Jarome? "No, I was a lover, not a fighter," he joked. "Seriously, I went a long way to make friends."

This time he laughed loudly and continued, "In grade school I often sold my lunch to buy video games. My mom was a single parent (Iginla's parents divorced when he was 2). She didn't cook too much. She worked a lot. But she always made sure I had a big lunch. The lunches were good, but I could do without about half of it, so I was a businessman. I changed parts of my lunch or I asked my mom to get me lunch items that I knew would be good trade material. It was great. I would trade what I didn't want for video games."

Sounds like the start of an after-hockey career as a general manager, doesn't it? 

"Well, talk about that when I can't get up and down the ice, OK?" he pleaded.

If Iginla had had his way when he was younger, he might not be an NHL All-Star or even as a hockey player. 

"I grew up wanting to be a two-sport star like Bo Jackson," Iginla said. "But the opportunities were better in hockey being from Canada. Maybe that was part of the diversity issue as well, because I started out in hockey as a goalie just like Grant Fuhr, plus coming from Edmonton I was a big Oilers fan. But I found out how difficult it is to stop the puck ... and how much I'd rather be up front scoring goals and banging players into the boards."

Great story. Jarome Arthur Leigh Adekunle Tig Junior Elvis Iginla followed the pathway his family made very unique for him, aren't we?