DALLAS—In some ways, Jason Spezza figures Wednesday night’s return to Dallas, where he spent five seasons before joining the Maple Leafs, is going to be a lot easier than his initial return to Ottawa, where he spent his first 11.
“Going back to Ottawa the first time, there was a lot of uneasiness,” the 36-year-old forward said. “I’d been there for a long time and was really emotionally attached to the city and the team. So going back was different.
“This is more … I’m looking forward seeing people. I had a great time in Dallas.”
Spezza was the last of the Leafs to address the media after their practice on Tuesday. Always a good talker and reminiscer, Spezza wouldn’t reveal what his plans for the night before the game were other than catching up with some old “teammates and friends. Nothing special.”
But he has fond memories of his time with the Stars, mentioning forward Jamie Benn and GM Jim Nill as some of his favourite people.
“It’s really a cool sport city,” Spezza said. “I was a Cowboys fan before I went to Dallas and to be able to be around that Cowboys fever was kind of cool. The daily sports talk on the Cowboys, I indulged in quite a bit. So it was a fun place to play.”
His time in Dallas didn’t always go smoothly. Spezza started out as the team’s No. 1 centre and ended up on the fourth line. That’s a product of getting older, and of different coaching philosophies over the years.
“It was just where I’m at in my career,” he said. “When I got to Dallas, we were a team looking to make a step … (the Stars) hadn’t had any playoff success. They were trying to build a team to have a chance to win, and we did. We won the Western Conference in the regular season. We went to the second round (last spring) and we had probably two good looks at having a good chance to win.”
The Stars took the St. Louis Blue to double overtime in Game 7 of the second round before losing to the eventual Stanley Cup winners. Benn’s wraparound in the second overtime was denied, by inches, by Blues goalie Jordan Binnington. It’s a loss that still stings.
“As you get older, you realize there’s less and less chances to win, so they stick with you a little more,” said Spezza, whose Senators lost the Stanley Cup final in 2007 to Anaheim. “When you’re 25, you think that you’re gonna have a crack every yea. And when you’re 36, you realize that the chances become few and far between so, yeah, they sting a little more.”
Which brings us to Toronto, which he believes has a chance to win the Stanley Cup despite being outside of a playoff spot at the moment.
“We’re in a great spot,” Spezza said. “We’re in a position where we’ve played good hockey since Sheldon (Keefe) has come on to coach. We’ve had a bump in the road. I think it’s better to go through that now than it is to go through that in April.”
Spezza’s start in Toronto was rocky, with now fired coach Mike Babcock scratching him for the home opener. But he has his legs under him now and is a valued contributor who can play up or down the lineup, on the wing or at centre. He scored his seventh goal of the season in the Leafs’ 5-2 win over Nashville on Monday. He had eight in each of his last two seasons in Dallas.
“My game is in a really good place,” he said. “(Keefe) has done a good job of telling me what my role is. I’m just trying to execute that, and stay sharp within games. Sometimes I play more. sometimes I play less. It’s important to be versatile and help the team out that way.
“Expectations? I’m not sure what they were coming in. I just knew I could be used in different roles and was prepared for anything.”
Spezza contributes more than just ice time, Keefe said.
“(It’s) the value of having someone like that on your bench, first of all, just to speak to your team, have the confidence to be vocal and talk … And then he’s contributed for us as a player as well. We’ve had injuries and we’ve had to move him up and move them around the lineup and he’s dealt with that. He’s helped us on the power play. He’s been a very serviceable player for us in many ways.”
Get more sports in your inbox
Get the Star’s Sports Headlines email newsletter for a daily round-up of the latest big news.
Sign Up Now
There might not be a more likeable player in hockey than Spezza, in part because he knows how to treat people.
“It’s just important to treat people as people,” he said. “That’s always been something that I’ve been cognizant of. I can get into it with the ref sometimes, but I think there’s a human element to it, too. I understand that, and those guys work extremely hard, they travel, they go through a grind. And I respect that. Usually those guys love the game. That’s why they’re doing it. So you try to have a good relationship.”