A Brief History of Jason Spezza

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

By Luke Peristy


Last weekend’s announcement that Jason Spezza is to be the 8th captain of the modern incarnation of the Ottawa Senators came at the conclusion of a long and exhaustive vetting process. That it was ultimately Spezza who got the ‘C’ should have come as a surprise to no one except for Clarke MacArthur, who has spent the last three seasons with the Toronto Maple Leafs, and thus has strange ideas about just what’s expected from an NHL captain.

For Spezza, it was just the next step in a journey that began when he was a 15-year-old wunderkind forced to overcome his crippling handicap of being photographed with Don Cherry. Let's take a look back at that journey.

1998-2002: The Wonder Years

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Simply put, teenage Jason Spezza was a very big deal. At the age of 15, he was the youngest player ever to play in the OHL All-Star Game. The next year, he became the fourth 16-year-old to play for Canada at the World Junior tournament, an honour he shared with Gretzky, Lindros, and Ringo Starr Jay Bouwmeester.

However, as the above clip shows, Spezza was not without his detractors, and we can confidently identify John Bowen as the "Patient Zero" of ripping on Jason Spezza. This is the beginning of a theme that is going to run through this piece like Chinese food through Bobby Ryan. At the time, Spezza was in the middle of a season that would see him score 61 points in 52 games. Also, the 1999-2000 Mississauga Ice Dogs were legendarily terrible (9-56-1-2 record, 160 GF, 346 GA), and basically couldn't score in a game of Yahtzee. This means Spezza was directly responsible for 38% of the team's total offense as a 17-year-old, which is a little bit insane. On the other hand, apparently he didn't "take control of the hockey game", so clearly he was overrated and terrible.

The next year, Spezza took even less control of the game by putting up 116 points in 56 games and being named the top North American skating prospect going into the 2001 Entry Draft. At this point, it looked as if Spezza would be drafted either first or second overall by some horrible NHL franchise. However, fate intervened by way of a "Deus Ex Milbury". Spezza was drafted 2nd overall by the Ottawa Senators after they received the draft pick in the Alexei Yashin trade, a trade that was such a gift to Ottawa, it's a wonder there wasn't a stipulation that the team had to hire Yashin's parents in an advisory capacity.

In 2001-02, Spezza played one more year in the OHL, putting up 105 points in 53 games, and also played 3 playoff games in the AHL. He was ready for the next step.

2002-2004: Hot Prospect, Cold Coach

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While Spezza was initially blessed by not being relegated to the hockey hellscape of Long Island, forcing one of the most fertile offensive minds of his generation into development under Jacques Martin was arguably a far more insidious fate.

Fast, exciting, free-wheeling: I would not use any of these words to describe the Senators teams of the early 2000s. I think the most charitable description I can come up with is, "at least they weren't New Jersey". While Martin's system made the most of admittedly limited talent, it did not much allow for offensive creativity (read: soul-destroying drop passes at the blue line), nor did Martin gladly suffer fools who did not sufficiently backcheck. All these factors led to Martin dropping the immortal line, "He's a boy playing a man's game." in reference to Spezza in 2002. It also led to an ugly rumour that Martin was getting Ludacris to write his dis-rap tracks for him, because those rhymes were SO ICE COLD.

Anyway, Spezza put up a respectable 21 points in 33 games in the NHL, but management kept him down in the AHL for the majority of the season, effectively killing his chance to try for a Calder Trophy. He put up 53 points in 43 games in Binghamton, all the while saying things like "I'm just trying to have success at this level, but obviously the NHL is where I want to be.", and "I didn't want to be cut but it made me a better person and a better player." If that sort of relentless positivity doesn't warm your heart, you must be John Tortorella.

In 2003-2004, Spezza finally stuck with the big club where he centred Daniel Alfredsson and Todd White, because putting Marian Hossa on that line would have been super dumb. (You are the worst, Jacques Martin.) Spezza had 55 points in 78 games that year, and in the playoffs the Senators lost in 7 games to the Toronto Maple Leafs in a series where Spezza was an injured non-factor. This naturally led to a reputation as a “playoff choker”, but I argue he was just buying into the team's culture at the time.

2005-2008: It Was The Best Of Times…

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Following the 2003-04 season, two important things happened: Jacques Martin was canned like an albacore tuna, and an entire season of hockey was canceled, forcing Jason Spezza back to the AHL. In contrast to two years earlier, however, Spezza was a man in a boy's league and ran show in the A, posting a gaudy 117 points in 80 games.

When the NHL finally returned with a new salary cap that fixed all the league's problems forever, Spezza also had a new running-mate in the form of Dany Heatley. The resulting partnership caused grown men to weep openly, and the rest of the NHL to tremble with fear. As the play-making centre between Heatley and Daniel Alfredsson, Spezza put up 269 points in 211 games over three seasons while Heatley and Alfredsson also enjoyed their most statistically impressive seasons. Led by the (mostly) irrepressible "Pizza Line", Ottawa even got a little Stanley Cup run going in 2007, making the Stanley Cup Final before getting completely mangled bowing out gracefully in 5 games to a Anaheim Ducks team that was so stacked, it looked like something out of someone's NHL 08 franchise mode.

Despite the fact that he was enjoying levels of success hitherto unseen in franchise history, Spezza still continued to battle concerns about his defensive play and injuries. In 2006, he played two months with a herniated disk in his back, before having it operated on. At the beginning of the 2006-07 season, his play in the defensive zone was being openly criticized by Bryan Murray. To his credit, Spezza continued to take the criticism in stride saying, "That's just how (Bryan) is. He's completely honest with us, completely honest with (the media). It benefits me. I can accept the criticism...sometimes it's nice to have someone critique you."

If you can laugh off public criticism from your boss by saying, "Oh, that's just how he is!", you are a stronger man than I am.

2008-2011: …It Was The Worst Of Times

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It will be difficult to convey the full extent of the tragedy that was the Ottawa Senators between 2008 and 2011, but I will try. First, John Paddock played the once mighty Pizza Line into the ground in a desperate attempt to save his job. It didn't, and he's never been heard from again. Next, Craig Hartsburg lasted all of 48 games before being replaced with noted anti-sock zealot, Cory Clouston. In 2009, Spezza's buddy Dany Heatley requested a trade out of Ottawa citing “personal issues”, although ultimately those personal issues turned out to be "Dany Heatley is a selfish dink".

In addition, the team’s goaltending lineup during this time was simply epic in the extent of its impotence. Martin Gerber, Alex Auld, Brian Elliott, and Pascal Leclaire made up a veritable Murderer’s Row which made their bones savagely murdering Sens fans’ hopes and dreams.

And then, there was “When Sidney Met Jason”. Poor Jason Spezza; Sidney Crosby skates himself ragged behind the Senators net, and I think Spezza does a pretty great job of keeping up with him. It’s all Crosby can do to finally get a pass back to the point. However, Letang’s point shot gets through Brian Elliot, which happened a lot in those days, and the prevailing reaction to the play becomes, “CROSBY PWNS SPEZZA! SPEZZA SUX LOLOLOL!”. Short of pulling a knife on Crosby, I don't know what else Spezza could have done. I blame Brian Elliot (or that guy screening him), but at the time this play was considered to be Jason Spezza in a microcosm.

Throw in 38 games missed due to injury between 2009 and 2011, production that was merely “elite” instead of “The Second Coming of Gretzky”, and team performance so horrible it led to the self-immolation of Tibetan monks (Ed. note: Unconfirmed), and it’s little wonder that the public started to turn on Jason Spezza.

Trade talk reached a fever pitch in the summer of 2010. Was Spezza still making unfortunately timed giveaways? You bet that remote control you just threw into your drywall he was! For his part, the once perpetually optimistic Spezza said he wouldn’t “object” to a trade. Even Spezza’s supporters in Ottawa could only muster this compliment:

"Tremblay admits to being one of Spezza’s biggest critics initially, but said that with the arrival of coach Cory Clouston, Spezza’s work ethic has improved.
'He’s not floating as much as he used to,' she said." 

If faint praise can damn, there can be little doubt that Jason Spezza is going to hell. While this was indeed a dark time, Spezza weathered the storm, and Bryan Murray did not trade him, even as he was selling off the rest of the team like it was Trimel stock.

2011-2013: Don’t Call it a Comeback

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With expectations for Spezza and the team at an all-time low in 2011, something interesting happened: the Ottawa Senators became fun again. Playing a total of 80 games in 2011-12, Spezza put together his best statistical effort since the 2007-08 season. He finished 4th in NHL scoring with 84 points, and the surprising #PeskySens made the playoffs as an 8-seed on the back (metaphorically speaking, obviously) of a resurgent Spezza, Norris-winning Erik Karlsson, and revelatory goaltending from Craig Anderson. With the entire team playing 200-foot hockey under Paul Maclean, Spezza evolved into a player who is as responsible in his own zone and on the backcheck, as he is deadly on offense.

Last season was a moderate disappointment for Spezza as he was forced to take most of the (shortened) season off due to back surgery, and then was of limited effectiveness upon his return due to a knee injury. Luckily, most fans were too busy rending their garments over Erik Karlsson’s heel and Matt Cooke’s continued existence, so Spezza was hardly missed. In addition, the Senators still somehow made the second round of the playoffs, so next season’s expectations are now reasonably set at “anything less than a Stanley Cup is unacceptable”. It’s just like old times.

2013 - ????: Captainal Gains

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[INSERT VIDEO OF OTTAWA’S FUTURE STANLEY CUP WIN HERE. YOU HEARD ME, ALFREDSSON, I SAID STANLEY CUP. GET AT ME, BRO.]

And so, we come to last weekend. Daniel Alfredsson's traumatic departure from the team left the captaincy vacated, and as one of the team's most talented playmakers and longest-serving veterans, Jason Spezza was named captain. It doesn't seem obvious until you think about it, but that dude's really been through some stuff since he got here.

Ultimately, that’s the real story of Jason Spezza: The story of a highly touted prospect who went through tough times early, took the fans’ best shot when they started to turn against him, stuck around through some lean years, came out the other side a more complete hockey player and more mature person. Now he's been duly recognized by management for his leadership and maturity. It may not seem like such a remarkable development, but some players don’t want to stick around when things get rough. Other players have been through less adversity and decided to bail on hockey entirely. Jason Spezza’s done everything that’s been asked of him since he got to Ottawa, and he's listened to almost unceasing criticism without complaint for years. He deserves a lot of credit for his grace under pressure during his time here, and if the past 12 years are any indication of what the future holds, he’ll be a damn fine captain.

So, all hail Captain Jason Spezza. May he giggle forevermore.