Jason Spezza of the Toronto Maple Leafs
Photo: USA Today Sports

Jason Spezza addressed the media on Wednesday evening to discuss his decision to return for another season with the Toronto Maple Leafs.

You were pretty emphatic about your desire to come back. How quickly did it come to reality in terms of getting the wheels in motion today and putting pen to paper on a new deal?

Spezza: We talked at the end of the season. I talked with Kyle and with Sheldon. They expressed they wanted me back. I knew personally I needed to just talk to my family to make sure my girls are on board and my wife. It was a difficult year for them. They went through a lot. They were all on board, and once they were, I knew that I wanted to play.

I am pretty excited to be back. It is a great opportunity for me to continue to play — and play on a great team.

What does the conversation look like with your family when you talk about coming back? Was it a long one? Does everyone have input?

Spezza: This year was probably a longer one than normal just because they have needs. My kids are getting older. My oldest is 11. They’re 11, 9, 7, and 5. The discipline they showed this year in not complaining, being in and out of school, being online… Their friends were able to have play dates, but because of the protocols we were under, my kids saw nobody all year. They really had to stay together, the four of them.

That is a huge sacrifice — and for my wife. A lot of the time, she is a single mom at home while we are on the road. It is difficult to deal with the emotions. We just had a lot of frank conversations about how we are going to try to help the kids reconnect with people here now that things are lifting. We are really trying to help the kids get back to normalcy.

[We are hopeful] that next year will be more normal, hopefully, for us as a team, and we won’t have to have as strict protocols. That was difficult for them to be away from their friends that long. Really, this year, was a collective [effort]. Credit to my wife, my kids, and the teachers for the stuff they did this year to keep the kids engaged and happy.

I am really thankful that they are allowing me to play again. I am really thankful that my kids got through this year and were able to have perspective. It is a family decision at this point. When you have four kids and you are trying to play later in your life, it is not just about me. I am very lucky to have the support of my family.

Did the promise of a more normal year weigh in for you — not wanting to finish under the weird circumstances of the last little while?

Spezza: Well, I’d compete in an empty building with nobody watching, or in a building with 100,000 people watching. The competition, for me, is what drives me. I love it. I love the grind of the season.

But yes, a normal year would be great. When you start seeing crowds in buildings in the playoffs, it feels like the NHL again. It is an amazing atmosphere when you have fans in the building. The feeling it gives us as players is incredible. You miss that.

The promise of normalcy is more that they will be able to go to school, see their friends, and live their normal life. It is less of a concern about hockey and my life. They just want to make sure that they can live a healthy life with their friends and in their schooling. We tried to reassure them that if it is available to do that, we will be doing that.

You mentioned there was some unfinished business this year. Have you been able to look back on any of it with your teammates given how it ended? Have you used this time to just purge it, be with family, and think about it when the time is necessary to think about it?

Spezza: With the Covid restrictions, there hasn’t been as much retrospective with the group as there maybe would be in the past. We haven’t had a lot of time together to talk about things.

I have thought about it a lot, really, since we lost — what went wrong, what we can do differently going forward. There are no concrete answers to any of it, but the only way to get there is to continue to come back and work hard — work harder, I guess, and do more to put ourselves in an even better position to succeed next time we get to the playoffs.

Definitely, it is a frustrating time. I still feel frustrated by the result. I don’t think the few weeks in between has really lessened the pain of the loss. You try to reflect and figure out what you are going to do to be a better version of yourself next year.

What still makes you believe this is a team with the potential to go where you want to go knowing how badly you want to win a Cup?

Spezza: I just think the group we have is extremely dedicated. We have young guys in their prime that are going to continue to push to get better and hopefully learn from these experiences.

To go through the year that we had, to finish first, and to improve on our defensive play — all of the things we talked about needing to do — gives us hope. We were there. It is a game of inches. We were close. We had chances in Game 5 and Game 6 to end those games, and we didn’t.  We fell short in Game 7.

There is room for optimism there. Anything you are going to say at this time of year doesn’t really matter because we lost. I am still pretty angry about it and frustrated. But I feel like the group has potential.

You are never as close as you think you are, and you are never as far as you think you are. We feel like we have work to do to get better, but we are pretty close to having a chance to have a run. Until we do it, no one is going to believe us, but internally, we believe it.

You aren’t exactly breaking the bank again with this contract. Can you talk about why it works for you and for the team?

Spezza: I know where the team is at with the cap and everything. I’ll be honest — all I care about is playing on a good team and trying to win. If I could take less, I would.

I love playing the game. I love competing. The chase of the Cup is at the forefront of my mind daily. Anything I can do to help the team acquire better players, that is kind of why I take league minimum and move forward. It’s been a few years now, so I don’t think it is a story anymore, but I just want to play on a good team. Anything I can do to help that is great.

What is the training plan for this summer now at age 38? Is it more of the same that keeps you feeling young and spry?

Spezza: Maybe I am delusional, but I think I can get better. I am going to try to improve on last season. I am right back in the gym already trying to figure out what tweaks I can make to feel even better throughout the year. As you get older, health becomes a concern every year, so you have to get yourself in the best possible shape to be in a position to get better.

I haven’t been back on the ice yet, but I will soon. I just want to work on some areas of my game that I think can be improved. My skating has always been a focus. I am going to continue to work at that. The performance staff we have here with the Leafs is top notch, so I am going to be in the gym every day with those guys and a bunch of our prospects just trying to get better.

You are coming off a very strong season personally. What did you like about the season you just had with the Leafs?

Spezza: I think I felt comfortable in my role. I think I was able to help the team win that matchup nightly. That was important for me. Just the comfort level of playing the wing this year was probably better than it has ever been. I can play center and wing. I think that helped me a lot.

And then it was just [about] trying to be consistent. Every night, your role varies a tiny bit. For me, it is just trying to be consistent. I thought I had good consistency in my approach this year.

It is also [about] trying to stay healthy. When you get older, you have to be on top of your recovery. That is always at the forefront of my mind in-season: What I can do to feel good the next day.

That is kind of what I am going to keep moving forward with: just trying to improve and trying to be a better version of myself for the group.

Did your success on the ice last season reinvigorate you and help make this decision a little bit easier knowing that you are still at a point where you can make an impact?

Spezza: Yeah, definitely. I don’t feel like I am ready to stop. I feel like I am contributing to the team. I feel like I have carved out a good role on this club. That is important. It is important as a player whether you are 38, 18, or 28 — that you have a role on your team, you know what your role is, you understand it, and you are willing to put the work in to be the best version of that.

I feel like I have carved out a niche. I feel like I can help the team out. I want to be on a successful team. The Leafs touch on all of that. For me, that kept the fire burning for me. I feel like I am contributing and having fun playing the game. I want to play because I want to try to win.

A lot of things pointed in the right direction for me to try to play. The team expressed right away that they wanted me back.

How much of a carrot is reaching 1,000 points next year potentially?

Spezza: Not that big of a carrot, to be honest. I am not really too worried about the points. I have gotten a lot of points in my life. It has been great, but I would love a nice run, to play into the summer, and to be a part of a successful team. The feeling you have as a player when you are winning games is unmatched — the joy of coming to the rink, it is a fun atmosphere to be around.

I’ve got lots of points. I am not too worried about it. I just want to play the game and try to win hockey games so we can have fun coming to the rink. I find I am a better version of myself when we are winning games. I am going to keep striving for that.

The Canadiens went on and swept the second round. The President’s Trophy winners were knocked out. Is anything standing out about the playoffs, what happened to your team, and what can be learned?

Spezza: I’ll be honest — it has been hard for me to watch this year. I am still watching because I am a student of the game and I enjoy watching, but it has been harder than other years because I felt like we were a lot closer than our result.

I spoke about it during the playoffs — and I still feel the same way — that there is not a lot of momentum game-to-game. You see that throughout the teams that have success. They quickly turn the page and move on. Tampa is a great example. They didn’t have a great Game 1 against the Islanders, and they played great in the last game. I don’t know if Tampa teams in the past would do that. They might be flustered by the first loss.

That is something we have to learn as a group, too. Game to game, it is new momentum and new challenges. We have to draw from our experiences. Unfortunately for us, in the last couple of years, our experiences have been negative, but you try to draw from that. For the next time we get into the situation, we approach it differently and be more aggressive in those games where we have a chance to close teams out.