THN: Spezza delivery

Lesedauer: ca. 7 Minuten

Am Rande der NHL-Finalspiele zwischen Anaheim und Ottawa dreht sich die Titelstory der nordamerikanischen Fachzeitschrift "The Hockey News" um Jason Spezza, den jungen Superstürmer der Senators:

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Spezza delivery


By Mike Brophy


The Ottawa

Senators are one goal away from advancing to the 2003 Stanley Cup final, if only

they can get past the pesky New Jersey Devils.


It is the

third period of a tied game and Ottawa coach Jacques Martin, a graduate of the

Roger Neilson School of Coaching – where the first lesson is, it’s better to

lose 1-0 than win 7-6 – is being his typically cautious self. Martin looks down

his bench time and time again, each time ignoring one of his team’s most

creative players.


So Jason

Spezza sits. And watches. And stews.


Although his

ice time was limited in the first two periods, Spezza looked good. He was one of

only a few Senators to conjure up some creativity against the NHL’s best

checking team. In three playoff games in 2002-03, Spezza finished with a goal

and an assist. Not bad for a 19-year-old. But the frustration he felt on the

bench in the third period was a feeling he would experience over and over in his

first few years as a pro.


Martin’s tap

on the shoulder to go onto the ice never came and the Senators lost the game.

Identified as a “special player” since the age of 14, Spezza sat there confused.

He was confident he had the potential to help vault his team into the final, but

felt unappreciated at the same time. He remembers it as if it were yesterday.


“That was my

whole struggle with Jacques,” says Spezza, now 23. “He had no confidence in me

and I always felt I could do something positive to help the team. He put me in

the series for Game 5 and I thought I played two pretty good games. I thought I

was playing well in Game 7, too, but it just seemed like he was scared to have

me make a mistake. My whole first year in the league I played in fear of making

mistakes because I knew if I did, I’d be sitting on the bench.”



players that were deemed to be “special,” such as Eric Lindros and Sidney

Crosby, made seamless transitions from amateur to professional hockey. You could

argue they were more advanced and better suited to the pro game at an earlier

age, but for Spezza, it has definitely been a roller-coaster ride. Had he been

drafted by a team in desperate need of offense, instead of second overall by the

powerful Senators in 2001, he likely would’ve been given the chance to be a

frontline player much earlier in his career. But the Sens were not short of

offense and were determined to see Spezza become a complete player, not just a

scoring whiz who couldn’t spell “defense,” let alone play it.


Getting the

youngster to understand and embrace the process was a challenge, but the

Senators feel it was very much worth the effort.


Because he

already had played four years in the OHL, Spezza was allowed to turn pro at 19

(rather than having to wait until he was 20) and was eligible to play in the

AHL. Spezza split his rookie pro ’02-03 season between Ottawa and Binghamton,

and although his numbers in the NHL were decent – seven goals and 21 points in

33 games with limited playing time – the Sens decided he’d be better off in the

long run playing a more significant role in the AHL. Spezza disagreed and made

no bones about the fact he was not happy about being sent down.


 “It was

annoying,” says Spezza, who finished 15th in NHL scoring this season with 34

goals and 87 points despite missing 14 games with a knee injury and another with

a sore back. “Actually, it was more frustrating than anything, just knowing guys

around me were getting good opportunities to play a lot, to flourish and to make

mistakes along the way. I was with a good team with a coach that was real

defense-oriented and didn’t seem to want to give me a chance offensively.”


The Senators

quite easily could have kept Spezza in the NHL, but they wanted more from him

than simply being a one-way talent. And they knew if they were ever going to win

the Stanley Cup, they needed a first line center who could be responsible



“He had

great talent and offensive skill and could make great passes,” says Ottawa GM

John Muckler. “You just knew he was going to be a star in the NHL. But we had to

teach him what the game was all about…It’s all about team concept and doing what

needs to be done to help the team win. He had to learn to be successful under

the team concept and that it wasn’t all about him getting points.”


Muckler says

there were constant meetings with the player to assure him he had a bright

future, but also to convince him the Sens brass knew what it was doing. A

turning point for both the team and Spezza came in 2004-05, when the NHL shut

down for the season because of the lockout and a number of young NHL-ready

players played in the AHL. Many have suggested it was the best year ever for the



Spezza not

only led the AHL in scoring with 32 goals and 117 points, he was named the

league’s MVP. And although the Baby Sens were bounced from the first round of

playoffs after winning the regular season title, many Ottawa prospects –

including Spezza, Chris Kelly, Antoine Vermette, Chris Neil, Anton Volchenkov

and Ray Emery – took important steps in their careers.


“I think the

best thing that ever happened to Jason Spezza was the lockout,” Muckler says.

“He walked in here and thought he was destined to play in the National Hockey

League now. When he was told he couldn’t, he didn’t accept that too well. We

were sending him down and bringing him back, which we like to do with all our

young players, and he wasn’t happy. In the lockout year, he knew he had no

choice and he became more accepting of his situation.”



Paddock, currently an assistant coach with the Senators, coached Spezza in

Binghamton during the lockout. He has witnessed the 6-foot-2, 210-pound Toronto

native taking great strides.


“He played

the game with his hands and his head,” Paddock says. “A lot of junior players

play it like that. Junior coaches let them get away with it because they have to

win, so they let them take long shifts and cheat defensively. Jason had a lot to

learn and I think it is just this year that it is starting to kick in.”


When the NHL

returned in 2005-06, it was not the end of Spezza’s woes, though it did spell an

end to his days in the minors. Ottawa returned with a new coach, the very

successful but demanding Bryan Murray, and the expectations on the young rising

star were ratcheted up again.


“When you

see players of his size and skill level, you always want them to be a star and

with the puck he is a star,” Murray says. “He came here and there was no

question he could do things. And he took chances. The problem is in the NHL

there are so many good defensive players and the game is so well-coached, that

if you try to do the impossible or be real creative, it gets eaten up. Jason had

to learn sometimes it’s better to play safe than it is to play skilled.”



admits it was through Murray that he finally saw the light.


“Before, I

used to think about goals and assists because you want to establish yourself as

an offensive player in the league,” he says. “I figured the best way to

establish myself was to be a top-10 scorer. Bryan talked to me a lot about

rounding my game out and told me I’d get more recognition the more we win and

the more playoff games we play. I haven’t really sacrificed much offense by

playing better defense and that was probably the toughest thing to grasp.”


To read the rest of this story and other great features from the world of hockey, you can buy this issue

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