Jason Spezza’s Journey From 2nd-Overall Pick to Hometown Hero

On June 13, 1983, in Mississauga, Ontario, Jason Spezza was born. He is a part of a small list of players who played in the Ontario Hockey League (OHL) at just 15 years old. Later, Spezza was drafted into the NHL, where he played for 19 years. His career suggests that the Hall of Fame isn’t out of his reach as he is one of the best players we have seen in the last 15 years.

Toronto Maple Leafs Jason Spezza
Toronto Maple Leafs forward Jason Spezza (THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Jeffrey T. Barnes)

Spezza began his career with the Ottawa Senator and later played for the Dallas Stars and Toronto Maple Leafs. Any Leafs fan would have despised his career before joining their team in 2019, given the dominant teams he was a part of while playing for Ottawa. But ever since he joined the organization, Maple Leafs fans have adored him and wished they could have watched him play for the team for many more seasons before retiring.

Spezza’s OHL Career

At the age of 15, Spezza was granted early approval to compete in the OHL, which later became “exceptional player status.” In the 1998-99 season, he represented the Brampton Battalions, posting 71 points in 67 games, the second-highest total ever for a season by a 15-year-old after John Tavares’ 77 points. Spezza played for both the Windsor Spitfires and the Mississauga IceDogs for portions of the following three seasons. With the two teams from 1999-2002, he scored 131 points.

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He returned to the OHL after the Senators selected him with the second pick in the 2001 NHL Draft. After playing the first 27 games of his final season with the Spitfires, he played with the Belleville Bulls in the second half of the season. He finished the season with 105 points after scoring 60 points in 26 games while playing for the Bulls. Spezza scored 11 points in 11 games during the club’s playoff run, which they eventually lost to the Barrie Colts in the second round. Barrie would advance to the final before losing to the Erie Otters.

Ottawa Senators

As mentioned previously, the Senators selected Spezza with the second overall pick in the 2001 NHL Draft, behind Ilya Kovalchuk, who was taken by the Atlanta Thrashers. The Ottawa Senators traded Alexei Yashin to the New York Islanders in exchange for Zdeno Chara, Bill Muckalt, and the first-round pick (Spezza). Spezza and Chara contributed significantly to Ottawa for many years. Spezza made his NHL debut in 2002-03 and appeared in 33 games, scoring 21 points. However, he spent most of that season in the American Hockey League (AHL) with the Binghamton Senators, where he collected 54 points in 43 games.

Jason Spezza Senators
Jason Spezza, Ottawa Senators (Icon SMI)

Spezza established himself as a mainstay in the Senators’ lineup during the 2003–04 campaign, playing in 78 games and scoring 55 points. Due to the NHL lockout, which caused the season to be postponed, Spezza spent the entire season in the AHL. He demonstrated that his talent level was too high for the minor levels by scoring an astounding 117 points in 80 games. For the following 10 seasons, Spezza’s Senators were one of the best teams in the NHL. He spent a portion of the 2012-13 season with Rapperswll-Jona in the Swiss National League due to a second NHL lockout.

Spezza played for Ottawa for a total of 11 seasons, and in addition to Daniel Alfredsson, Dany Heatley, Wade Redden, and Chara, he is one of the greatest players in the history of the team. After 11 seasons, he was traded to the Stars in 2014-15; he participated in a total of 686 games, tallying 251 goals and 436 assists for 687 points. Sadly, despite being at the top of the league nearly every season while playing for Ottawa, none of the greats who played there were ever able to win the Stanley Cup.

Dallas Stars

The NHL was shaken up when Spezza and Ludwig Karlsson were moved to Dallas on July 1, 2014. Nick Paul was the centrepiece of the deal heading the other way to Ottawa, along with Alex Chiasson, Alexander Guptill, and a 2015 second-round draft pick, which was used to choose Gabriel Gagne with the 36th overall choice in the draft. Spezza signed a four-year contract extension during his debut season with the Stars, with an average annual value (AAV) of $7.5 million. Sadly, even with his immediate impact on the club, they were unable to make the playoffs.

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He scored 63 points in 75 games during his second campaign with the team, helping in the team’s rise to the top seed in the Western Conference. Unfortunately, during his five years with the Stars, neither he nor the team enjoyed postseason success. After five years and 379 games with the team, Spezza’s contract expired in 2018–19 at 35 years old. He scored 228 points during that time and decided to leave the squad in order to sign with another team before the 2019-20 season.

Toronto Maple Leafs

On July. 1, 2019, Spezza decided to return home and signed a one-year contract for the veteran’s league minimum of $700,000. He was a lifelong Maple Leafs fan and was thrilled at the chance to finish off his playing career by donning the blue and white. In 58 games during his first season with the team, he scored 25 points. Later, Spezza signed two additional extensions with the Leafs, both for the veteran’s minimum and swiftly won over the team’s faithful. He played for the team for three seasons, scoring 80 points in 183 games. He was the team’s go-to player, whom everyone could count on, often going above and beyond to assist the younger guys during practice and even came to training camp early to help the coaching staff.

Jason Spezza Toronto Maple Leafs
Jason Spezza, Toronto Maple Leafs (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Despite his time in Toronto being short, he had a few memorable performances. He fought Dean Kukan, a defenceman with the Columbus Blue Jackets, in the play-in round of the 2021 Playoffs. As a result, the Leafs scored three goals in three minutes to level the game, which they later won in overtime. Unfortunately, they were unable to beat the Blue Jackets, but Spezza’s efforts were appreciated. The second significant event for Spezza during his time with the organization was one that possibly could have sparked a rivalry between the Winnipeg Jets and Maple Leafs.

He hit Jets defender Neal Pionk in the head after Pionk hurt teammate Rasmus Sandin, setting up fights between the two teams. Spezza later received his first career suspension, which he successfully appealed to have reduced from six to four games. Many people admired Spezza throughout his time in Toronto, and after the team’s 2022 Playoff defeat to the Tampa Bay Lightning, Spezza decided to hang up his skates and take a job as Kyle Dubas’ special assistant with the Maple Leafs. Unfortunately, Spezza retired five points short of reaching 1,000, making him the player with the most points who never did.

Spezza merits a lot of respect; he spent the better part of 19 years learning the game, and it showed. He continued to play until 38 years old and finished just five points short of accumulating 1,000 points in the NHL. He deserves to be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame and for the Senators to retire his No. 19 sweater. Although his playing days are past, his hockey career is far from over. He is now learning the management side of the sport and one day may be the general manager of an NHL team, perhaps even his beloved Maple Leafs.

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