TORONTO -- Eighteen days ago Jason Spezza was willing to retire if another NHL team decided to pluck him off waivers from the Toronto Maple Leafs. Nine days ago he watched a game from the press box in Calgary while Sheldon Keefe worked some fresh legs in on the fourth line. And on Thursday night Spezza turned back the clock with a hat trick that left his teammates buzzing. To fully grasp what the moment meant inside a socially distanced dressing room you must first understand why the 37-year-old is so beloved here. It’s not just because he’s always stepping up with advice or assistance for teammates, although he certainly does that. It’s not even because of the impressive NHL career and resume he’s built, although that naturally gives him cache. No, what stands out most about Spezza at age 37 is that he’s still pouring every ounce of energy he has into being a hockey player. His much younger teammates see him as a peer, not an oracle. And he’s earned their respect. “He means a lot to this team,” said Auston Matthews. “I think more than anybody knows.” You could see it in the way they celebrated Spezza’s third goal against the Vancouver Canucks, after he settled a chest-high pass and drove around Alex Edler like it was 2008 again. Justin Holl and John Tavares pinned him in a celebration circle immediately. William Nylander looked like an overexcited kid who had just witnessed something that blew his mind. More than the goals — each of which was a beauty — that’s what Spezza himself will remember most about his eighth NHL hat trick and first since April 9, 2016. “Those are moments that I think you never forget,” he said. These sort of touch points are important in any season, but arguably more so now. The challenges are ever-present even when you’re humming along at the top of the NHL standings with an 8-2-1 record, as the Leafs were after their 7-3 victory over the Canucks. On Thursday they came from the introduction of more stringent health and safety protocols, including a new league-wide mandate preventing players from arriving at the arena more than an hour and 45 minutes before puck drop. That change is particularly tough for a rink rat like Spezza, who has carved out a routine over 1,200-plus games that requires a much earlier start. But he pointed out that the Leafs made a vow during training camp to roll with the punches this season and after teammates doused him with water inside the dressing room following Thursday’s victory they also chirped him about following the wrong pre-game ritual these last 18 years. Those are the kind of moments that help bond a team through the grind, and no one embraces the grind quite like Spezza. He was on the ice for extra skills work Monday even when it could have been an excused day off. And he was one of the only regulars to come out for Thursday’s optional morning skate at Scotiabank Arena, setting up shop early to help Frederik Andersen with some goalie-specific drills. Spezza once explained that when he was young he worked hard to get better and now he recognizes the need to work hard just to hold on to whatever he still has. “He’s been amazing,” said Mitch Marner. “He’s still a big-name player in this league. He still gets a lot of respect around the league for everything he does. I remember the first day when we did sign him [in 2019], and then obviously coming back this year, just the excitement in our team and just the excitement in our group chat of having him back.” Spezza has struck up a strong relationship with Matthews despite the 14 years between them. As a former top draft pick and franchise cornerstone he understands what Matthews goes through, sure, but the real key to their connection is found on a much more basic level. “We both share a pretty big passion about our sticks, so I think naturally we pretty much hit it off pretty early,” said Matthews. “Just his dedication. He can’t take a day off the ice. Like, when we have days off he still goes in there and he skates, he prepares his sticks, prepares his gear, he’ll do whatever, he just loves being at the rink.” There isn’t one person inside the organization who questions Spezza’s commitment to the cause. He didn’t complain when he was scratched on opening night in 2019 by former coach Mike Babcock after joining his hometown team on a league-minimum contract. He didn’t balk when general manager Kyle Dubas phoned his agent last month to explain that the Leafs were putting him through waivers as a paper move to free up more roster flexibility. And he knows that he must still earn his place in Keefe’s lineup on a nightly basis — something that looks pretty secure after putting up eight points in the first 10 games in limited minutes. No regular on the team is even close to his 4.39 points per hour to start this season. The vast majority of players with Spezza’s bank account and past glories wouldn’t still be subjecting themselves to all of this. He’s held on to a pure love for the sport despite how ugly its business can occasionally be, and part of his reward is a night like Thursday. Officially, he’s still here giving it everything he’s got to try and win a Stanley Cup. But that only explains the desired destination. Spezza’s real secret is he’s learned to love the journey and the guys around him have come to recognize how special that is. “I don’t think you can ever replicate the bond you have with teammates over the years,” Spezza said. “There’s ups and downs, and kind of trials and tribulations, but you always have each other’s back and that’s pretty special stuff. You don’t get that unless you’re playing. “For me I try to stay motivated and keep myself relevant and make sure that I can help the team out so I can keep playing.” And so he plays on.
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