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.

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