It was the final day of training camp in September of 2001 and I opened the door to the Senators coaches' office.
There, I saw a teenaged boy with tears in his eyes, being consoled by strength and conditioning coach Randy Lee. Jason Spezza had just been delivered the devastating news that he would be returned to junior hockey – the final victim of the roster cuts made by general manager Marshall Johnston and head coach Jacques Martin.
At the time I was a fairly inexperienced member of the Senators PR department, but I knew that Spezza was not ready to deal with the media. He flatly told me he didn't want to answer any questions that morning. However, it was just past 10am and reporters were going to start trickling into the building at any moment. We made the decision to get Jason out of the rink before any cameras showed up and caught footage of him looking so despondent.
I went outside to the hallway and found that an Ottawa Citizen reporter had been the first to show up. But there was nobody else around, so I told him he needed to have his photo taken for his 2001-02 season pass, and I walked with him down to the security area. And once I did that, Lee helped escort Spezza out of the rink going the opposite way – so that nobody from the media could see him.
I don't think you could really blame him in that situation. He was 18 years old and just had the rug pulled out from underneath him. He exceled at every level when it came to hockey, so being returned to the OHL was something he never fathomed. A few hours later, Jacques Martin would make his infamous statement that Jason was "a boy playing a man's game" – and maybe it was true on that day. But it seemed like that label stuck to Spezza for his entire tenure in Ottawa, like a stubborn piece of gum at the bottom of his shoe. He was never quite good enough for some people in this market.
Even after his heroics as a 19-year-old in the playoffs in 2003 – when he scored a goal and added an assist in a must-win Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Final against the New Jersey Devils – there were lingering doubts about his ability as a player. The very next year, Jacques Martin made him a healthy scratch for several playoff games against the Toronto Maple Leafs. A trip to the Stanley Cup Final in 2007 didn't cement his status in this town, even though Spezza tied for the league lead in playoff scoring. Just a couple of years later, he was booed on home ice during a Game 4 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins in the 2010 playoffs. That was almost enough to drive him out of town, with general manager Bryan Murray hinting that Spezza told him he was amenable to a trade if one could be executed. And yet three years later he was still here, now wearing the captain's "C" on his jersey - which only seemed to make the target on his back even bigger.
It was a roller coaster with Spezza from the onset and it seemed the ride never stopped. Every game seemed to be a referendum on whether or not you could win with him. After a while, it gets tiresome. Tiresome for the player. Tiresome for the fans. And tiresome for the organization. And yes - even tiresome for people like me who work in sports talk radio. There are days when I would just have to say "Jason Spezza" on the air and our phone lines would light up.
Finally, Spezza himself has had enough. Bryan Murray admitted to the reporters on Wednesday that Spezza has asked to get off this ride. And I'm not sure I can really blame him. He's spent 11 seasons here and has more than paid his dues.
In the next few days, you will likely read a ton of internet comments suggesting that Spezza never really embraced Ottawa. And that if he can't stand the pressure of playing Ottawa, he shouldn't let the door hit him on the way out.
From my perspective, though, Spezza handled the pressure in this market as well as he could have. He was made the scapegoat on many nights when the team lost. And when he was the star in a Senators victory, too often the sentiment was, "why can't he do that every night?"
I believe that day as an 18-year-old was the only time that Jason Spezza ever knowingly ducked the media. He stood in the line of fire and took his lumps on a daily basis for more than a decade. To suggest that he doesn't have the mental toughness to handle a Canadian market is completely erroneous. The guy just spent 11 years in this market, was a point-a-game producer and wanted to be named the captain of this team 10 months ago. If that's shying away from the limelight, I think you're sadly mistaken.
We can debate whether the media or the fans pushed another star out of town in Ottawa - although this one feels a little different than the forced departures for guys like Dany Heatley and Alexei Yashin. Daniel Alfredsson's exit last summer was a punch in the stomach that nobody saw coming. Spezza's imminent departure, on the other hand, is more like a gradual erosion; something that was inevitable.
And when he finally does leave Ottawa, I can guarantee you Jason Spezza won't be shedding any tears.