A player comes along every now and then that captures the eye of scouts at a very young age. He is so superior to any of his peers that he is dominant in every aspect of the game. It’s not a matter of just having a size or skill advantage, or being brighter that the other players, but a blend of all of these gifts. This player brings such ability and leadership that teams are built around this individual. Jason Spezza was one of these players.
At a very young age, people could see Jason was something special. He had skill oozing out of his pores. Jason was a kid that had scouts salivating before he was more than a year into his teens. He played in the Ontario Hockey League for the Brampton Battalion one year before he was draft eligible, and lead that team in scoring at the tender age of fifteen. He ended up being drafted first overall in the 1999 OHL Priority player draft by the expansion Mississauga Ice Dogs. The Ice Dogs were ecstatic about getting Spezza, as this was a player that they could build a championship team around. In his first year with the Ice Dogs, Jason did not disappoint. He scored a respectable sixty-one points in a mere fifty-two games, leaving him second on the team to only Chad Wiseman. It should be noted that Wiseman did have an advantage of playing sixteen games more games than Spezza that season. The Ice Dogs only won nine games that year, but they had a player they could build a winner around.
The fall of 2000 took Jason back to Mississauga for the start of the season. The Ice Dogs were not a very good team and heading no where fast. Spezza asked to be traded. In November, after fifteen games, team management made a decision and traded Jason to the Windsor Spitfires for four players and a draft pick. Going to Mississauga were seventeen year olds Tyler Eady, Ryan Courtney, Mike James and Steve Rawski. The Ice Dogs felt it was the best deal out there, but it would not lead to many good things for the team. Mississauga would finish with only three wins to their credit for the 2000-01 season, with none of the players acquired for Spezza having much of an impact. Sadly, only one of the players acquired for Spezza would make it to see the 2001-02 season in an Ice Dog uniform. Spezza would go to Windsor and lead that team in scoring, helping them grab second place in their division, and tie for fifth overall in league standings. He also managed to play for Canada’s Junior National team, for a second straight year, and scored three goals and five points, earning him a spot on the tournament All Star team. In February he would go to Calgary for the annual Prospects Game (a showcase for draft eligible players), where he captained Team Cherry. This would be a year to remember for young Mr. Spezza. Everything was going right for him. Going from the outhouse (Ice Dogs) to the penthouse (Spitfires) was great for Jason, and looked good on his draft status. The only potential blemish would be if he didn’t go first overall like Central Scouting was predicting.
The Atlanta Thrashers had the first overall pick in the 2001 NHL Entry Draft and surprised some by drafting Ilya Kovalchuk, a player that had played brilliantly at the World Junior Hockey Championships and made many teams reconsider their position on the first pick. Spezza’s disappointment would not last long as the New York Islanders were about to make a trade that would see Jason available to the Ottawa Senators. The Islanders acquired Alexei Yashin for a package of players and picks that included the second overall selection. The Senators took Spezza with that draft pick, allowing him to stay in his home province and play for a local team. The whole Spezza family was overjoyed. Jason would play for a Canadian team, something he had expressed a desire for. Jason Spezza was living a dream and was hoping he would not wake up.
For all the positive things that had happened for Spezza in the first half of 2001, the next six months were not going to be as rosy. Spezza went to camp with the Ottawa Senators fully expecting to be an NHL player from that point forward. Jason did not perform as expected in Ottawa and forced the Senators to make a decision. It was a decision that Spezza would not like. Ottawa General Manager, Marshal Johnson, made the decision to send Jason back to junior. The news was crushing for the young player. Spezza did not take his demotion gracefully, prompting Johnson to remind the player through the media that the team is not responsible for worrying about a player’s feelings, only his development. Jason was unceremoniously returned to Windsor of the OHL.
Spezza did the right thing and focused his energy into his game. He spent the next twenty-eight games scoring twenty goals and forty-eight points. Unfortunately Windsor was not a strong team and they were not finding the success in the win column that they had hoped. Rumors were swirling that Windsor was going to make changes and try to get back some young players in return for Spezza. While the rumor mill worked overtime, Jason went to the Czech Republic for a third appearance with the Canadian National team at the World Junior Hockey Championships. Team Canada always has huge expectations placed upon them, but this year was worse than usual. Jason Spezza was going to be a primary cog in “The Big Red Machine”. Canada played well in the tournament as a team, but there were a few individual performances that stood out as disappointing. Spezza’s was one of them. He was the only forward on Team Canada that did not score a single goal in the tournament and was a non-factor in most games. He was under the microscope in this tournament and he played poorly. There were many in the media that were beginning to question his ability, commitment and mental toughness. There were whispers that maybe Spezza had peaked and maybe this was it. Those whispers would only get louder when Spezza would return home from the New Year tournament.
Jason Spezza would return from his Christmas European Vacation to find that he had been involved in yet another trade. Rumors had been swirling that something might happen, and in early January the deal finally came together. Jason had been dealt to the Belleville Bulls for eighteen year old Kyle Wellwood, who had been the only player to top Spezza’s one hundred and sixteen points from the previous season. While Belleville was not that much better a team than Windsor, they were in the middle of the hunt for the playoffs. This would be another positive deal for Spezza, or would it?
On the surface this looked like a good deal for Spezza, but deep down you had to begin to wonder. You had to start to listen for those whispers. The return that Windsor got for Spezza was not great. A smallish player who had the ability to score was all it took to grab the supposed top player in all of Canadian junior hockey, a player who went second overall in last year’s draft. A player who was a fifth round NHL draft pick for the second overall pick in the same draft? That didn’t seem right. To make matters worse, Windsor threw in a draft pick to make the deal happen. The whispers were getting louder, almost becoming a scream. If there was a deal that was going to take the shine off of Jason Spezza’s pumpkin, this might just be the deal.
One year ago, Jason Spezza was a demi-god. He demanded four players and a draft pick in return. He was the number one un-drafted prospect on the planet. Twelve months later and Jason Spezza, along with a draft pick, is traded for an NHL longshot. This begs a simple question. Is there something about Jason Spezza that we’re missing? The answer can probably be found in the beads of sweat that are produced on Marshall Johnston’s brow every time the name Jason Spezza comes up. Jason hasn’t taken his game to the level that many had hoped. He has not shown the ability to dominate, nor make his teammates much better. His leadership abilities are not very evident, and he doesn’t give you confidence in big games. When you look at his past performance, and get by some of those gaudy numbers, you begin to see some things that could be worrisome. You can begin to see why Marshall Johnston is sweating.