Jason Spezza can't say whether the 17th season of his National Hockey League career will resume amid the COVID-19 pandemic, but the Maple Leafs forward is certain he’s not ready to hang up his skates.
“I'm in it for as long as I can be so I can win a Stanley Cup,” Spezza told reporters on a conference call Tuesday. “It’s something that I dreamt of as a kid, and I would love nothing more to do it here in Toronto. I definitely feel like I have game left, and there's nowhere else I'd rather be than [playing here] another year. So I do hope that it works out. I feel like we're building things with this club, and I want to be a part of it.”
Spezza, 36, signed a one-year, $700,000 contract with his hometown Leafs as a free agent on July 1, making him an UFA again this coming summer.
Even with the added downtime, Spezza insists an impending negotiation is “not where my focus is right now,” and has kept his sights trained on a strong comeback to the season, should it continue.
“The way I've approached [the pause] is we should be in better physical shape, in terms of off-ice strength,” he said. “You try to approach it like summer training, where you're just worried about building a strength base. [But since] there's nobody on the ice, the biggest challenge will be getting your game up to speed. And I think that'll take a few weeks of skating. But the reality is, it's our job to keep ourselves fit. So if that [return] period isn't as long as maybe is ideal, [we still have to be] ready to play.”
This isn’t the first time since Spezza joined the Leafs that he’s had to adjust his expectations about how the season would play out. While he had pictured himself suiting up for Toronto's home opener in October, with friends and family in attendance, former head coach Mike Babcock made him a healthy scratch instead, claiming Spezza hadn’t sufficiently mastered the penalty kill.
It was a controversial decision, especially when Spezza was playing two nights later without having worked on the kill any further at practice. But the drama didn’t derail Spezza’s perennially positive attitude about playing for the Leafs or accepting what would be asked from him going forward.
“It was obviously not the start that I envisioned,” he said, “but I just tried to have the mentality that I was just going to stay in the fight. Hockey is a game where…things happen, and your role can shift in a day. I didn't really give myself much of an option. I didn't really want to feel sorry for myself, because that leads you to the end. I was just trying to really stay in the fight and give myself an opportunity to play well when I did get in.”
Spezza wound up being a healthy scratch in 12 games before the pause, but he still produced 25 points (nine goals, 16 assists) in those 58 appearances, just two points shy of his total through 76 games for the Dallas Stars in 2018-19.
But Spezza’s greatest impact for the Leafs may be in his role as mentor. Toronto is still a team defined by emerging talents like Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander, and Spezza tried to offer his younger teammates guidance and support in navigating the season’s rough spots. So far, he’s liked the results.
“I think we have a much more mature locker room at this point in time than we did at the start of the season,” Spezza said. “I think there's a lot more ownership of what's going on in the room. I think our young stars are able to have conversations with each other, with other guys on the team, that maybe they weren't comfortable having early on in the season. So as much as it sucks to go through [difficulties] as a team, and have to struggle and answer questions and build and get yourself out of losing streaks, I think, in the long run, it's something that we needed. It's not a straight line to the top for anyone."
While he’s kept up regularly with teammates during the pause, Spezza is likely more anxious than any of them to get back playing games, and finish what the group started. He may be the Leafs’ elder statesman, but Spezza's enthusiasm for the sport is hard to match.
“Hockey's not work to me. I enjoy the challenge,” Spezza said. “You go through different phases of your career, there's different challenges, and I love the day-to-day grind. The passion, I think, is what's allowed me to play this long, and [I just want] the chance to win a Stanley Cup.”