After announcing his retirement following 19 NHL seasons, Jason Spezza discussed his playing career and his time in Toronto as well as his transition into a front-office role with the Maple Leafs.
Take us through the past few weeks, how hard this decision was, and what the discussions were like for your family.
Spezza: It has been an extremely emotional time for me and a difficult time. The initial shock and awe of the season being over so quickly was hard to get over. It was probably as hard felt of a loss for me as going back to losing in the finals. It felt like we put a lot into this year. We put a lot in the last three years that I have been here. To have the same result was very frustrating. I thought we did a lot of things right. That was my initial hurdle to get over.
You start looking toward the future and start talking to my wife, my kids, Kyle, Brendan, and Keefer. It has been a difficult time. I think it will be a difficult time moving forward for me, too. I don’t think this is the end of me looking back and moving forward. But I am very grateful to have the opportunity to stay in the organization and stay a part of the club.
I am deeply invested in what we have done in the last three years. I believe in the group. I think it is the way I can continue to contribute to the organization and hopefully get it over the top.
How difficult is it walking away without the Cup you wanted so badly and also just shy of 1,000 points?
Spezza: I don’t think I can ever put into words how much it means to me to try to win the Stanley Cup. There is definitely a huge void in my heart and in my career without having been able to win it. I have had many sleepless nights over the course of my career wondering what I can do differently, what I need to do differently, and how I need to change to win a Stanley Cup.
To not be able to win a Stanley Cup as a player is very difficult. It is my life’s work, hockey. To not be able to be a champion in it is hard.
I think that will help me drive towards wanting to stay in the game. It will never feel the same as being a player, but I am going to try to win a Stanley Cup as an executive and as part of the organization now. It will keep me driven.
In terms of being short of 1,000 points, I have always maintained that those things are great. Yes, it would have been great to get to 1,000 points. It is a milestone that is somewhat important, but none of it matters. It is a team sport.
To be a few points shy of 1,000 points is a bit of an incomplete report card similar to me not winning a Stanley Cup. That may drive me to have a passion that I still have for the game and want to stay in the game.
Where do you think your interest ultimately lies as an executive or maybe as a coach?
Spezza: I think it would be a little presumptuous for me to say what I think I will be best at. The way I approached my career was to put everything into what I was doing at the time.
I can’t say that I have been a guy who has much of a plan for post-hockey. I would like to think that all of the time I have spent in the game, watching the game, and learning the game will serve me well now moving forward. I always hoped for an opportunity to stay in hockey. The most important things in my life are family and hockey. I don’t see that changing.
I am going to grow with the role. You think you know things, but you really don’t until you get behind the curtain. I feel like I am stepping into a situation that I don’t know a whole lot about with great people in Kyle and Brendan to learn under.
I am going to just be a good student, learn, and observe. We are at a crucial point here in the summer. I am fortunate that I get a chance to jump right into it. I think that will help me mentally in terms of trying to turn the page.
To say where my strengths lead, the time will tell where I thrive and what I enjoy doing.
At locker cleanout day, you said you would still be interested in playing if you could make a contribution on a nightly basis. In your talks with Kyle Dubas, did a return to playing ever get broached?
Spezza: I won’t get into the specifics of our conversations. I am fortunate to have a strong relationship with Keefer and with Kyle throughout my time here. We were able to have honest discussions about where they were at in terms of vision for the team moving forward and where I was at as a player.
I have always maintained that I was going to play until the day they took my skates away. I really didn’t see an end date. That is very unrealistic.
I felt like that at this point of my career, I was in and out of the lineup towards the end of the season. On the days I was out of the lineup, they were harder than anyone could have possibly imagined — probably harder than they should have been. I think that just shows how much I love the game, how much I cared about it, and how much I wanted to contribute.
If I envisioned a scenario where I wasn’t contributing every night or being a part of the team nightly or most nights, I don’t feel like I could, A) have an impact with my teammates and carry myself authentically, and B) as a player, you want to make sure you are leaving the game at a point where you feel like you can contribute.
Do I think I could play and help? Definitely at times, but at 39, it becomes harder and harder to do all season. With good conversations with good people, we determined this is probably the best step moving forward.
Did you talk to any former teammates of yours about their decisions to conclude their careers and any advice they might offer?
Spezza: I did. I spoke with a few people. I really tried to make the decision between myself, my wife, and my family. I do have some people I lean on as everybody does.
A guy that has been around for a long time that I talked to told me that I’ve had the best job in hockey for the past 20 years. Being a player is something that you are never really going to be able to replicate. But there are other roles out there and other ways to feel that excitement for the game.
There is no doubt that being a player is special. It is the greatest job you could possibly have. I don’t think people will ever understand the daily grind, the waking up on a game day and not feeling your best, taking a nap, getting your body prepped by 7 p.m. to play a game, having a great night, winning the game, and leaving on a high.
That is the stuff you are never going to get back; the roar of the crowd. Those moments as a hockey player you are never going to forget. But there is life after hockey. I am very fortunate that I have a great wife and four very special girls at home. This will allow me to spend time with them but also continue on with hockey.
We are a hockey family. They know me as being a hockey guy. I think they will be happy to know I have a landing spot in something I enjoy doing. I think I am a better version of myself at home when I am distracted and involved in hockey.
What did the moment feel like when you made the decision to not play again?
Spezza: I still don’t know if I have come to grips with it. There is not a defining moment. I am just a pretty realistic guy. As time went on, I knew I wasn’t going to be able to do this forever. I also wanted to leave the team in a good spot.
You don’t want to overstay your welcome as a player, either. I think there is a lot of respect that people have for me. You don’t want to use that and take advantage of the situation. I determined for the team that it is probably best to move forward without me.
For me as a player, if I can’t contribute every night, it was just time. I don’t know if there is a moment. I don’t know if I am even fully okay with it. But I am really excited about being able to stay with the organization. It is going to make me feel like I am still part of a team, which I am. It will help my retirement process.
It was never going to be easy for me. I don’t think it will be. To have people like Brendan and Kyle to learn under and people I get along with is something I am really looking forward to.
Is there part of your playing career you are most proud of on the ice or maybe off the ice?
Spezza: I think there are two different categories. Playing-wise, my time in Ottawa was my best time as a player through my prime being a part of those great Ottawa Senator teams that went to the Finals, knocked on the door, and tried to get over the hump. We kept the team together for a long time. That allowed us to grow together. There were a lot of special teammates through that. As a player, that was the pinnacle of my career.
Segueing to Dallas, I probably expected it to be easier to change teams than it was. Just kind of finding my way in Dallas is something I am proud of. Really, the whole journey I am proud of just because I was forced to adapt and change as a player throughout.
My role in Toronto was very different than my role in Ottawa. I am proud of the fact that there were some dark days where I wasn’t sure what I was as a player and how I was going to be or stick around or contribute, but one thing I always tried to do is be authentic and be myself all the time.
I care deeply about my teammates. I love the game. I am passionate about it. It has given me everything I have in life. I am proud of the whole thing. I think there is a disappointment in there, too, about not being able to win and end my career with a Stanley Cup. I think that is something that will always be in the back of my mind. But I just tried to be myself the whole way.
I love the game. I love my teammates. I love getting to know my teammates. I think what I am proud of is that I didn’t really take a day for granted in this league, whether I was in my prime or at the end when I was in a completely different role. Being authentic and being myself is what I am most proud of.
You said the most important things in your life are your family and hockey. What can you share about when you told your mom and dad that you were going to stop playing, or when you told your daughters you were going to stop playing?
Spezza: I think my wife and daughters are so unselfish that they just worried about me. They worried about how I am going to cope and how I am going to be. For me, I worry about them and make sure they are getting enough time with their dad and husband.
I am very fortunate that we are a hockey family. They have been able to start their life here in Toronto and move forward, but they’re also helping me a lot along the way. You don’t have any sort of success at all without family in this sport. My wife and kids are just the absolute pillars for me.
The hardest conversations have probably been with my dad. He is the guy who loves the game as much as I do. He and my mom still come to every game. They drove around the rinks in junior. It is their life, too. To know that it is over, it is not just over for me, it’s also over for them. That is hard. I know how much joy they get out of going to the games and watching.
It is all hard. It is difficult to have those conversations. We are all very realistic people. We know that life moves on. The game will move on without me. All I can do now is work towards the next goals. That will start with day one, getting into the office, and trying to feel comfortable.
I am a person that is very fortunate that I’ve had a great career with a strong family behind me. It really is a family effort.
When your teammates look back on your career, what would you love them to say about you and the way that you played?
Spezza: I would just want them to say that I gave it my all every day. I always tried to connect with my teammates. I love the game. I would hope they recognize that I love the game.
I have just tried to be myself every day. I don’t think I put on an act. I don’t think I ever tried to be someone that I wasn’t. If you can be vulnerable to your teammates and show them who you truly are, I think that creates a stronger bond and stronger friendships. My best friendships are through hockey. That is no mistake.
Were you the last guy in the league to use a wooden stick regularly?
Spezza: I think I was. Paul Stastny and I were the last two guys hanging on. I wish they never stopped making them. I would still be using them.
When was the last time you used it?
Spezza: I am not for sure on dates, but I think we are talking 2010-11. I think that was the last season. I could probably check it and let you know. Sometime around then.