Wednesday, March 12, 2014

On Jason Spezza ... And Other Underdogs

Someone I was talking to recently said, rather matter-of-factly, that the Senators should have traded Jason Spezza at the deadline and gotten him out of town. When I politely disagreed, he seemed shocked.

Not that someone would disagree with him, but that I disagreed with him.

“But I thought you only liked tough guys?”

For some reason I’ve gotten that reputation in the Sens small but fiercely opinionated online community and maybe that’s my own fault. When someone slags Chris Neil or Matt Kassian (and that happens about once every 2.7 seconds according to Stats Can), I’m sometimes the only one with anything contrary to say. In a way it’s made me a pariah, or a bit of a black sheep, but I’m fine with that.

Many take the leap of logic that because I see value in a player like Chris Neil, I must dislike skilled hockey players, which is ridiculous if you know me. I grew up in the 80’s worshipping the Edmonton Oilers and Steve Yzerman. Jason Spezza and Erik Karlsson are part of a small handful of players I’d pay to see.

My vision of great hockey is high-scoring, end-to-end play with tiny goalie equipment and a harsh crackdown on obstruction.

I love the shootout for crissakes.

But I also love the hits and the fights and the drama that a little violence brings to the game. To me, hockey at its best is an opera of speed, skill and violence that hearkens back to a less sensitive age, when people could separate entertainment from moral hang-ups and just enjoy the tradition of the game. I realize those days are over, but I cling to it stubbornly because I can.

It’s the same with rock ‘n’ roll. I prefer the danger of Iggy and the Stooges in the 70’s to the corporate, nice-kids feel of Arcade Fire in 2014 (although I’ll be at that show this Friday - not in formal wear as the ticket suggests). The NHL is moving into safe indie-rock territory where it strives to offend no-one.

But that’s a terrible, uncalled-for digression. Let’s get back to Jason Spezza.

Just look at the title of this blog.

It was symbolic to me when I started this thing back in 2007 that the title Black Aces represented the underdog. That underdog label over the years has, to me at least, covered a wide range of players, from stars to 4th-liners.

When the whole city was intent on running Ray Emery out of town with a sort of indignant hysteria, I was on here defending him. When Dany Heatley was being excoriated, I took his side over Cory Clouston and got nothing but daggers for it. I don’t want any medals here, but when that many fans get onto one side of an argument, it creates a herd-mentality and that basically precludes any rational thought on the subject.

Even if I’m wrong sometimes, I take satisfaction in defending a player that gets almost unanimous scorn. Twitter is a big playground full of anonymous bullies who can say vile, moronic things and not be held accountable, mostly because everyone tends to agree with the person saying the most jaded, mean-spirited and post-ironic things disguised as “analysis”.

Which brings us to Jason Spezza, easily the most divisive player in Sens history.

He’s a throwback to an earlier time when offensive players were allowed to try plays seemed to have been concocted by a group of drunk coaches trying to one-up each other. He’s got an “aw-shucks” demeanour and a teenager’s laugh. His hunched over skating style makes him look slow when he's trying to backcheck.

In short, he doesn’t fit any kind of prototype in the modern NHL. Yet here he is at 30 years old with 674 points in 671 career games, wearing the captain’s C for your Ottawa Senators, the same team that has made the playoffs in 8 out of the 11 years he’s been here.

And still, all fans can say is they “want more”. Some call him the “second-line centre”. He’s in trade rumours all the time. You’d think this guy was a bum if your entire hockey education was based on post-game call-in shows.

Yet, I like the guy.

I don’t want to turn this into another stats argument and point to a bunch of numbers. We all know they’re good.

It’s something more indefinable. I just like his strange ways, the fact that no coach has ever been able to fully marginalize his thinking or bend him into something he’s not. Spezza is a guy who likes to play hockey the way he did as a kid, and to me that’s more entertaining than almost anyone in the NHL.

It seems like every player makes moves on a “beat”. As a viewer you can count off two Mississippi’s from the time a winger crosses the blueline to the time he’ll take the shot or peel back to create room. Everyone knows the “beats” but it just comes down to how fast one player is over the other whether a play is ultimately successful. In Spezza’s case, he’s off the beat. It’s like he’s playing with an out-of-tune guitar but bends the strings into the right tone when he’s feeling it, or into atonal squalls when he’s not.

To me, there’s nothing better to watch in Ottawa right now than when Spezza blows some minds on a play. Maybe Erik Karlsson when he rushes up the ice like a madman, but we see that every single night. When Spezza does something truly magical, it lights up that Kanata rink with awe, the same way a huge Neil hit can, the same way Daniel Alfredsson used to with that rifle of a shot on the power-play.

There’s a way to win with big, prototype, defensively perfect players, but that’s not always as entertaining. You still need those guys who have a little personality on the ice and the ability to piss off a strategist like Ken Hitchcock. A guy who until a few years ago used a wooden stick is that kind of player ... my kind of player.

From watching so much bland, defensive hockey since the Devils won the Stanley Cup in 1995, I’ve come to appreciate entertainment just as much as winning hockey. Spezza is unique in that he can deliver both. Not all fans see it that way, but more and more I think he’s poised to lead this team to a better fate in the coming years.

If we’re talking underdogs, Spezza is the biggest of them all right now.

And that’s just the kind of player I’d like to see prove people wrong.


Tyson said...

Yes! Great post. I've always thought of Spezza as one of the truly under appreciated offensive players in the league - can you name another active career ppg player who is as criticized?

The guy plays the game differently than most and is a pleasure to watch. Yes, the drop passes sometimes backfire but the man's creative. If he wasn't he wouldn't be half the player that he is today.

My two cents.

Ragged said...

Well said.

Glen Gower said...

Great post.
Like many other creative people, I don't think Ottawa will fully appreciate his talent until he's gone.

Anonymous said...

I'll take a championship built on defensive tight play over Spezza taking chances and it potentially harming us.

Yeah, he has lot of points. I can't remember any of them. I can remember Alfie's Cup-finals reaching goal, or his determination in game 5 of that finals. I can remember Alfie getting his 1,000th point...Spezza? Just a bunch of points.

Ho hum, pad the point-per-game stats folks, time for a new conract.

And Glen, I won't miss him. If he leaves it means the team can turn its focus to defensive, tema-first play and succeed in the playoffs.

I'd rather have a taciturn product that wins than an entertaining product that misses the playoffs. Just sayin'.


Anonymous said...

Another great post.

Would somebody please give this guy a column in the paper. This stuff is too good.