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Simmons: Losing Spiza on the ice loses the Maple Leafs’ conscience

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12 goals lost and can be replaced. The ten minutes, 44 seconds that are played each night, can be redeemed. All tangible contributions made by retired Jason Spiza to the Maple Leafs can finally be found by Kyle Dupas and his staff.

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But how do you replace the conscience of the team?

how do you do that? Inside the dressing room. On the seat. on charter flights. In the hotel lobby. Almost everywhere you play Maple Leafs and travel.

Spezza didn’t just play for the Leafs. Talk about them and to them. The best teams, you name the sport, always have that special kind of person, not necessarily a star, that makes teams better just by being there, and that makes players stronger just by being by their side. Spezza had that wonderful gift, that often indefinable quality, just a natural instinct that you don’t necessarily discover until you see it up close and experience it.

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When he now walks from player to intern in the front office, the void will be part of the Leafs shell. Unofficial team dad is gone. No matter how you explain it or deal with it when crossing the street from player to management, you are no longer one of them. The words that were strong last month may not be so strong a month from now.

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The players listen to the players. Players care about players. Mostly, the players take care of themselves. But every now and then Jason Spiza comes along who changes the scene. He picks up the kids from the airport. He sends draft texts and congratulates them, and does the same when someone trades in the Leafs. He has people staying in his house if needed. He’s a good guy without the ice cream.

But that will look different now that he’s part of the administration.

I’ve been around enough teams to understand what players like Spezza can achieve once they are themselves. They do something for Mary Tyler Moore in a sporty way. They brighten your day. It doesn’t matter whether he’s giving interviews while riding an exercise bike in Ottawa or appearing on Zoom’s confusing calls with the Leafs. He came with a smile and the smile of your smile.

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I was in Calgary a long time ago after the Flames moved from Atlanta, a naturally talented team known for not doing anything in the playoffs. At the time, general manager Cliff Fletcher struck a deal for Doug Resbro, who was in full swing with the great Montreal Canadiens teams. It didn’t look like much at the time: but it did start to turn Flames from low-profile contender to Stanley Cup champion.

Risebrough had an influence in the way that Gary Roberts later influenced the Leafs. They made the team better by playing them but they made everyone around them better by being themselves. They set a standard. They had a way about themselves, generous, professional – they cared more about the team than the individual. They had their teams’ ear on the way Spezza could get up and talk to the Leafs and listened to him more than anyone else.

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Just because an athlete signs a contract to play a professional sport, does not necessarily make him a true professional. Sometimes the transition takes a while. Sometimes it grows in that cozy place. Sometimes you learn this. It is different for each player.

Risebrough has gone straight from play to training to front office CEO in Calgary and has never had the same success or voice as a general manager in the locker rooms.

You don’t always know why. This is an individual thing. I doubt it would take Spezza to work in the front office as much as it took to play on the ice. He will do whatever he needs to do.

It will be like a sponge and absorb everything around it. If he cares about the business, he will probably be a general manager one day.

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But for now, the Leafs’ front desk is getting stronger and deeper and the club’s locker room and surrounding areas are weak in the process. It also weakens in the field of media relations, where
Spezza was cool and impressive, and will now be silenced by the Leafs’ rather petite policy of not allowing front-office interviews.

There is no exploratory guidance from any club on how to create a conscience for your team. Either you have it or you don’t. Either you have that kind of person or you don’t. It came naturally over time to Spezza. As he got older, he had a sense of understanding that only a few players had reached. Sure, it’s time for him to retire. He knew he didn’t want to become the coach’s decision every night.

Now it’s up to Dobas to make a final decision and decide what he has and how to replace whatever is lost here.

ssimmons@postmedia.com
twitter.com/simmonssteve

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2022-05-30 18:02:03

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