Jason Spezza is playing the hardest year of his hockey career. This one might be, almost certainly is, the last. If you love a player, if you can only see them through your fannish gaze, watching them go down, not in glory, but one slow painful inch at a time, is really hard. If you’re a fan of the team, not the player, watching them fail a little more than other players do is frustrating to the point of irrationality. You start to feel something like hatred all out of proportion. So how you feel today about Jason Spezza might be different to how you felt about Patrick Marleau last season. But neither one played last night.
Years ago, the Colorado Avalanche played the Detroit Red Wings in an outdoor game. There was an incident in that game, where Gabriel Landeskog, the captain of the Avalanche, then 23, got into a wrestling match with Pavel Datsyuk, the captain of the Red Wings, playing in his last NHL season at the age of 37. There was immediate condemnation from the commentators that this punk kid dared to touch the holiest of veterans, and there was a small kerfuffle in the press after, small because neither of these teams generates the media churn that the Leafs do.
I thought that take was bullshit. Avs-Red Wings is the storied rivalry of hate, line brawls and passion. This was an event where there was a genuine possibility of a serious fight in the alumni game, they still hated each other that much. Patrick Roy forced himself to go back in net, when he hadn’t in a decade, because he wanted to beat that Detroit scum so bad. This rivalry saw Brendan Shanahan do some of the dirtiest things he’d ever done on the ice, long before he was cuddling babies in promo videos.
And yet, the captain of the Red Wings, in the real game, the one that counted, he was off limits to a clean hit? Because he was old? No. No, no, no. That is not respect for a man as a player or as an athlete. If you’re playing, you’re playing and it better be all the way.
And that’s as true for a guy on the fourth line as it is the captain of the team.
Speaking of fourth lines, do you remember Brooks Laich?
He came over to the Leafs in the tank year with Connor Carrick for Daniel Winnik. Laich was a character guy, the sort that at his peak could get 20 goals if he was lucky. Connor Brown, only in a more traditional old school hockey manly man body. Naturally he was grossly overpaid. But the Capitals and their fans had loved him, and he’d gotten accustomed to a level of respect and deference not really commensurate with his on-ice contributions.
The Leafs played him 21 games while they were tanking, and he scored one goal. The next year, because of course the Capitals had given him too much term before regret set in, Laich couldn’t make the team that was suddenly built around Auston Matthews instead of fronting the worst goalies Mike Babcock could find on any given night. Laich ended up on the Marlies, and in one amazing scene really worthy of a movie — just one lacking any sentiment — he was waived and was going to clear or be claimed in the middle of an AHL game. He cleared as he walked out on the ice for the second period. That was cruel. And I’m not sure Kyle Dubas would ever do that, but then, no one has pushed him the way some of the long list of disgruntled Leafs pushed the management then.
They went to the press in a dismal trail of discontent. I dubbed The Athletic, then in its infancy, The Agents’ Tribune, since they did so many stories of Leafs players demanding trades, demanding to be played, demanding the old days back when the team was bad and any old guy or bad young guy could get 40 games just by showing up.
Peter Holland, the best of them, is now in the KHL. Laich tried to come back with the Kings and it was a painfully bad idea, and now he’s busy being famous for something. Frank Corrado isn’t playing; Josh Leivo buckled down and worked and has a job on a team where he might get some real chances to play, and Milan Michalek faded from view after giving the AHL a truly honest-looking effort.
It’s not easy getting old, and hockey is a sport where old comes too fast. A few days ago, I listened to Micah McCurdy’s RITSAC presentation on his research into aging. One of the slides really struck me:
Look at the red line. That’s players in their last year in the NHL. They play a lot of minutes if they’ve made it into their 30s, and then they’re just gone. The slow dwindling away isn’t really all that common. Maybe that’s mostly coaches and GMs who can’t bring themselves to admit the player is done and overplay them. Maybe that’s the sentimental farewell tour of an ageing veteran who is at best a replacement level player like Patrick Marleau was off the power play last year. Maybe it’s a long list of players who still can add to a second unit power play like he did, but shouldn’t really be on the ice at all at five-on-five even though they are.
A lot of things have been said about Mike Babcock’s choice to not play Spezza in the home opener. He’s making it all about him; he’s like Mike Keenan and wants chaos; it’s so mean and terrible, etc. etc. None of us actually know how Spezza will do in real NHL game situations on the Leafs, of course. And it’s telling that what Babcock said he wanted was more practice time on the PK. So Spezza then, seems to be a player who has to earn his position with some utility on the special teams.
It wasn’t a movie of the week moment, though, an opening game scratch. There was no chance to wax lyrical about the hometown boy, sniffle, ending his career, sniffle, in the glorious blue and white. There was no reassurance for any members of the media who are ageing out of a business that’s turning young and cutthroat that age still has its privileges. There was ample opportunity for the young and cutthroat professional opiners to tell you yet again why the old man behind the Leafs bench is not doing things right even though this time he’s wrong in exactly the opposite way to when he played Marleau too much. You see, it’s not that sentiment is always good, it’s that it needs to be doled out in exact portions to the consumer, when they want it, how they want it, and if not, all hell will break loose. Because sentiment is a personal taste.
Hockey is an entertainment business. Evander Kane said that years ago, and now he’s gone on to prove that you don’t get movie moments in hockey. The right guy isn’t saying the smart thing. The bad men don’t lose because of divine justice, and the good men don’t go on forever. But because hockey is an entertainment business, you will get served a buffet of sentiment. Pick what works for you: Shanahan with John Tavares’s baby; Ilya Mikheyev wanting more soup after scoring in his first game; Connor Brown getting his 100th point against the Leafs in his first game out of the blue and white. Whatever suits you, eat it up.
But hockey isn’t just an entertainment business, and the one man who gets to pretend hard that it’s all serious business is the coach. The coach of a team pushing for greatness, most of all. It was said back in the Laich days, and it is being said now, mostly by former players who aged out of the game with whatever grace they could muster, that the Leafs will put off veterans with their antics. Babcock’s antics, because he is a lone actor in most tales. The veterans won’t come here. They’ll be scared off.
Good. The Leafs, even with their salary cap problems opening up slots on the bottom for players willing to work cheap, are aspiring to be the hardest roster to crack in the NHL. No one who isn’t up for making the team on merit need apply. If they’re scared off, the Oilers are hiring. So are the Senators. Elitism is harsh and unyielding and mean-spirited. It’s cruel and nasty, and it takes the right kind of player to prosper in an elitist team in the pressure cooker of Toronto.
I respect the players who want that challenge, who meet it, who prosper or not, but who at least go down swinging. Milan Michalek went down swinging as hard as he could. Brooks Laich wanted his laurels buffed, polished and padded out, so they were comfortable to sit on.
Everybody who’s telling you a tale about Jason Spezza, a man who is yet to reveal his approach to this damned difficult phase of life, is telling you about themselves. None of us know Spezza. Not even the ex-players who walked down their own path out of the league. So when I tell you how I feel and think, I’m speaking as a person who doesn’t think Mike Babcock is too old (he’s got one year on me, though). I’ve walked into this hockey media world as someone who can’t ever assume I’ll get respect. I am always aware that for many, maybe the majority, I’m not wanted on the voyage. So when I tell you that Pavel Datsyuk better damn well take the hit if he’s wearing the C in an NHL game, and Spezza needs to claw and fight for every scrap, and Milan Michalek impressed me on the way down, I’m telling you about me. But trust me, getting old is hard, and every step is painful, and I want to see Spezza go out in blaze of glory. Glory he knows he earned with nothing given to him because of his priors.
Oh, and one more thing. Sarah Nurse didn’t play last night either.