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.
7 takeaways from a weekend full of Game 7s – CBC.ca
This is an excerpt from The Buzzer, which is CBC Sports’ daily email newsletter. Stay up to speed on what’s happening in sports by subscribing here.
There’s a cliché that the best two words in sports are Game 7. Well, across the NHL and NBA this weekend, we witnessed seven of them — not to mention additional winner-take-all matches in soccer and tennis.
Some of the showdowns were good, old-fashioned classics, while others were duds. Some favourites advanced, and some underdogs did too. The only constant: heartbreak on one side — and jubilation on the other.
Here are seven takeaways from a wild sports weekend:
Maybe the Maple Leafs are just cursed. Unlike last season against Montreal, Toronto didn’t quite collapse against Tampa Bay. Instead, it was simply a loss where one team got one extra bounce. Of course, that bounce didn’t go the Maple Leafs’ way, because bounces never seem to go the Maple Leafs’ way. Their series against the two-time defending champions was scintillatingly close — the Leafs both outscored and outshot the Lightning by one over seven games. But for the sixth straight year, Toronto is going home after the first round. That makes nine consecutive potential series clinchers that the Maple Leafs have lost. Maybe this team needs major changes to shake up the mojo. Or maybe they’re just cursed.
Sometimes in the playoffs, you need superstars to step up. Hockey might be the ultimate team sport, and sure, anything can happen in the playoffs. But thanks to a pair of true gamechangers, hockey fans will get the first Battle of Alberta playoff series since 1991. For the Oilers that gamechanger was unsurprisingly Connor McDavid, whose tenacious individual effort was the dagger in Edmonton’s 2-0 Game 7 win over Los Angeles. Per stats guru Meghan Chayka, McDavid was on the ice for 20 of the Oilers’ 26 goals in the series, recording 14 total points. Meanwhile, Johnny Hockey came through for Calgary, picking a corner in OT to send the Flames past Dallas and goalie Jake Oettinger, whose 64 Game 7 saves were somehow not enough.
WATCH | Memorable moments from the Battle of Alberta:
But the playoffs are also where stars are born. McDavid and Gaudreau were expectedly great. Florida’s Carter Verhaeghe? Not so much. Verhaeghe was a third-round pick of his hometown Maple Leafs in 2013 who bounced around the minors before finally getting a chance with the Lightning a couple years ago, when he scored nine goals in 52 games. That was enough for the Panthers, who poached him from their state rivals in free agency. The move paid off in their six-game series victory over Washington, where Verhaeghe, per ESPN’s Greg Wyshynski, was on the ice for a McDavid-like 13 of Florida’s 20 goals, and earned a point on 12 of them, including his Game 6 OT winner.
What now for a trio of surefire Hall of Famers? In many ways, Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin and Patrice Bergeron have defined the salary-cap era of the NHL. But after each met a first-round exit, their futures are less certain than usual. The Penguins were up 2-0 in Game 5 of a series they led 3-1 when Crosby was injured, forcing him to miss the rest of that contest as well as Game 6. Pittsburgh eventually lost in OT of Game 7, despite Crosby’s return. “Sid the Kid” remains excellent, posting 10 points in the series, but at 34 he’s certainly no longer a kid, and he’s surrounded by a similarly aging core with co-star Evgeni Malkin headed to free agency. In Washington, Ovechkin produced a vintage 50-goal season, but the Capitals seemed to sputter all season before falling to the Panthers. And Bergeron, also a pending free agent, made a point to hug each and every teammate after the Bruins’ Game 7 loss to the Hurricanes. Could that signal the end of an era? The 36-year-old said today he wouldn’t play anywhere but Boston — that is, if he continues to play.
Both of last year’s NBA finalists flamed out of the playoffs. The reigning champion Bucks, missing all-star Khris Middleton, simply ran out of steam against an impressive Celtics team in a 28-point Game 7 loss, despite Giannis Antetokounmpo’s best efforts. But while Milwaukee shot a paltry 12 per cent on three-pointers against Boston’s stout defence, that wasn’t nearly as embarrassing as the Suns’ stunning defeat to the Mavericks, in which the 33-point margin was flattering to top-seeded Phoenix. At halftime, the Suns, who owned the NBA’s best regular-season record, had managed just 34 points — as many as Dallas superstar Luka Doncic scored on his own to that point. The Mavs now meet the rejuvenated Golden State Warriors in the West final, while the East final features the Celtics and Miami Heat. Read more about both games here.
Canadian women aren’t done collecting soccer hardware. In a winner-take-all match across the pond, Canadian Olympic champion Jessie Fleming came on in the 80th minute and proved crucial to Chelsea’s FA Cup victory. Fleming ran alongside star Australian forward Sam Kerr on a two-on-one in extra time, acting as a decoy for Kerr to fire home the game winner. The play capped a breakout year for the 24-year-old, who was even handed Canada’s captain’s armband at an international tournament recently. Meanwhile in France, fellow gold medallist Ashley Lawrence scored twice and Jordyn Huitema saw action too as Paris Saint-Germain won the less-heralded Coupe de France with an 8-0 rout over underdog Yzeure.
Novak Djokovic is back, and Iga Swiatek has arrived. Djokovic bageled Stefanos Tsitsipas in the opening set of their Italian Open final en route to his sixth Italian Open championship. It’s a return to form for the controversial Serb, who heads to the French Open for his first major of the season next week. Meanwhile, Swiatek claimed the women’s title, marking her stunning 28th straight victory and fifth straight championship. Ranked No. 1, Swiatek should be a clear favourite at Roland Garros. In women’s doubles, Canada’s Gabriela Dabrowski and partner Giuliana Olmos missed out on a second straight victory of their own, falling in the Rome final. Read more about all the clay-court action here.
How soon until CFL preseason games get cancelled? – TSN
Dave Naylor has the latest on a quiet day that didn’t consist of any talks between the CBA and the CFL Players Association. With preseason games scheduled to begin next week, Naylor believes they could start getting cancelled in the next few days if no progress is made.
DAVE NAYLOR: Monday was another quiet day across the Canadian Football League. The second day of the CFL strike, everywhere expect Alberta where the Edmonton Elks and Calgary Stampeders were able to practice again. Those teams are eligible to join the strike on Wednesday. Meanwhile, players were at their training camp sites, not able to use the weight room, not able to use the facilities, just waiting to be able to practice. Meanwhile, there were no talks on Monday between representatives of the league and the Players’ Association and at this time there are no talks scheduled for the rest of the week. Although it’s possible that a mediator could try and get the sides together. The question now we’re wondering is: how long until the league has to cancel or reschedule the first preseason game of the year? That’s next Monday, May 23 – Winnipeg at Saskatchewan. It is believed that if there is not a CBA agreed to between the two sides by Wednesday of this week, that game will have to be cancelled or postponed.”
Flames’ Gaudreau steps up on biggest stage with OT winner to set up Battle of Alberta – Sportsnet.ca
CALGARY – There were plenty of questions surrounding Johnny Gaudreau as he entered the playoffs.
It’s the one that was asked after his Game 7 overtime winner Sunday night that was perhaps the easiest to answer.
Where did his short-side, roof job over Jake Oettinger 15 minutes into the extra frame rank amongst all his goals?
“Is that a question, really?” he smiled, still buzzing after being mobbed by teammates and shaking hands with the Dallas Stars.
“C’mon. There’s no bigger stage than what we just had there. It was really special for me. I was really excited. You dream about stuff like that, scoring in Game 7 in overtime.”
So much for talk of this being Gaudreau’s last game as a Flame.
Instead, it was perhaps his most memorable, scoring his second game-winner in the tightest of series to set up the first Battle of Alberta in 31 years.
He didn’t hoist the team on his shoulders like Connor McDavid, but when his team needed him most he was there, ending a torturous evening for a C of Red that stood on its feet for the bulk of an overtime frame that ended with the Flames 67th shot of the night finally beating Oettinger.
The roar or the crowd was as loud as anything the building has ever endured, which is fitting given the moment will go down in club history as one of its finest.
After all, the last time the Flames won a Game 7 at home it kickstarted the club’s lone Stanley Cup run 33 years earlier. It’s also the first time in seven years the Flames have won a round and just the third time in 33 years they’ve made it to the second round.
The fact that Gaudreau scored it was poetic justice, as Oettinger had No. 13’s number throughout the series, prompting Gaudreau to look skyward following one of his previous six shots.
The winner was a beauty, which it had to be to beat a goalie who challenged league history with his brilliance.
“I was just trying to put it on net,” said Gaudreau, of the rebound he converted from the side of the net.
“I mean, throughout the whole series most of the time you put it on net it’s not going in against this kid. I got a good look and it went over his shoulder there. That kid played pretty well the whole series.”
So did Gaudreau, who scraped and clawed his way through a tenacious Dallas defence to score two game-winners, add six assists and be the hero when it mattered most. He also assisted on Tkachuk’s goal.
That’s how legends are made.
Darryl Sutter said two days earlier Gaudreau had officially taken the next step, and on Sunday the 28-year-old winger proved it.
How poetic that in the absence of Chris Tanev he showed up for the game wearing an A on his jersey for the very first time as a Flame.
He became more than just a superstar this year, he became a leader.
And finishing off an epic game like Sunday’s is exactly the type of stuff leaders do.
“The C’s and A’s are decorations,” said Sutter.
“It’s what you do in the room and on the ice that’s important.”
What his team did all night long was dominate a Stars club that opened the scoring 40 seconds in, and took just 31 seconds to regain the lead after Tyler Toffoli tied it early in the second.
The Flames chased on the scoreboard but led in every other way, outshooting the Stars 26-4 in a second period in which Matthew Tkachuk’s first of the playoffs tied it 2-2 midway through the frame.
From there the tension was unbearable in a building that watched both teams hit the iron three times.
By night’s end the Flames had outshot the Stars 67-28, the largest shot differential in NHL Game 7 history and the second largest in the league’s playoff lore.
Yet, there was Joe Pavelski breaking in alone following a Flames power play, forcing Jacob Markstrom to make one of the many pivotal saves to prolong the extra session.
The Flames netminder won’t get nearly the credit he deserves for the role he played in the game or the series. But none of it is possible without him, especially considering how hard it is to make huge saves after going long stretches watching Oettinger stand on his head.
“(Oettinger) frustrated us because we couldn’t score, but we didn’t lose belief after all,” said Tkachuk, who was asked if it felt inevitable his team would eventually win a game it dominated.
“Or you could look at it like the other way, where it’s just not meant to be. It was tonight. We peppered him so much. One had to have gone in for us. Guys worked so hard. I said it this morning, I think that our team, the way we’re conditioned, work and wear teams down, we’re built for a Game 7 type of game. It took us until minute, almost, 80. It’s an important one for us.”
For the province.
“It’ll be exciting – it’s great for all of Alberta,” said Tkachuk, whose club was serenaded by a raucous crowd signing to Alberta Bound during handshakes.
“Honestly really haven’t allowed myself to think about it yet. It’s too fresh from this. I’m probably just going to enjoy this one tonight and turn the page tomorrow.”
After directing an incredible 129 shot attempts towards Oettinger, justice was served with Gaudreau’s winner.
“We deserved to win,” said Sutter, of a series somehow decided by one goal.
Well, actually, it wasn’t, making the accomplishment and the next opponent all the sweeter.
“I’ve been here for nine years and never had even a sniff of a chance to play them in the playoffs,” said Gaudreau, when asked about the Battle of Alberta.
“It’s pretty special. It’s going to be fun. It’s going to be good for the province, fun for them and us.”
Braid: Twin battles of Alberta in hockey and politics set for Wednesday – Calgary Herald
Canada Day: Celebrations moving from Parliament Hill | CTV News – CTV News Ottawa
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