For the Senators, Spezza was the only choice

There was a time in the National Hockey League when young players were seen and not heard, at least if they wanted to avoid embarrassing public reprimands from veterans or find their names in the papers alongside terms like “problem guy” or “not a team player.”

There was a time in the National Hockey League when young players were seen and not heard, at least if they wanted to avoid embarrassing public reprimands from veterans or find their names in the papers alongside terms like “problem guy” or “not a team player.”

And while there is still some of that — think of P.K. Subban in Montreal a couple of years ago or the endless criticism of Evander Kane in Winnipeg — the dynamic in NHL dressing rooms has changed such that young stars have a louder voice in team decision-making than ever before.

So when Bryan Murray sat down with his coach to pick a new captain to replace the beloved Daniel Alfredsson, who shocked his teammates and the city this summer by signing a one-year, $5.5 million contract with the Detroit Red Wings, the Ottawa Senators’ general manager didn’t have to think for long.

“There was no debate,” Murray said in an interview with the Citizen after Jason Spezza was named the eighth captain in franchise history Saturday afternoon at the Canadian Tire Centre.

“With Jason, we really felt like we were getting a guy on the rise,” Murray said. “We were getting a guy who has gone from a young, talented, immature player on the ice to a man now that has grown, his game is better, he’s stronger, he’s more committed, and you can tell that by just the physical testing we do. But also the growth that he has demonstrated off the ice.”

While veteran defenceman Chris Phillips, the elder statesman among longtime Senators, would have made a fine choice to join the ‘C’ club (he’ll continue his duties as an alternate captain alongside the newly-promoted Chris Neil), the Senators ultimately felt Spezza would be the ideal conduit between the team’s veteran leadership group and its sizable crop of up-and-coming players.

“In the past, we counted on veteran guys to dominate — they had their rookie parties and treated rookies like rookies,” Murray explained. “I think we have so many more young players in the league now, the game is different now and I think making sure each and every player, young or old, is regarded as important (is key).

“And that’s one of the other decisions we made,” he continued. “We know all the young guys come to (Spezza) with lots of questions. You watch them, you understand who they really like and respect and he’s an easy guy to talk to, so I think we’ll benefit from that as well.”

He’ll have a meaningful relationship with the coaching staff as well.

“I’ve always felt that players are the reason we’re in this business: We want them to play hard for us, we want them to be committed, live a good life off the ice,” Murray said. “If that’s true, then we’ve got to have them as sharing partners.

“The coaches that don’t allow their players to have input are the ones that don’t last very long, in my opinion.”

Of course, there’s a history of communication gaps here, one that ultimately led the Senators to go out and hire future Jack Adams Award-winning coach Paul MacLean. Reading between the lines following the ouster of MacLean’s predecessor, Cory Clouston, it was clear the more abrasive Clouston had lost the locker-room due in part to his rigidity.

MacLean ushered in a more collaborative atmosphere, one Spezza will be more involved with than ever. The two will be in constant contact over team matters, from power play strategies to travel planning to the ideal times to schedule off days.

Although Spezza has long been called upon to speak for the team as a high-profile No. 1 centre, it was during the tumultuous years following Ottawa’s run to the Stanley Cup final in 2007 that he started to come into his own as a leader.

While Dany Heatley wilted under both the pressure of fronting a struggling contender and Clouston’s unwillingness to bend on hockey matters — eventually rolling his eyes through steadily-dwindling media availabilities — Spezza stood at his locker every day and carried himself with dignity.

“I feel comfortable because I feel like I’ve really taken the leadership on (over) the last few years,” Spezza explained following the news conference Saturday. “Obviously now, being the captain, you’re looked at every day, you’re expected to answer the tough questions and you’re expected to be an example every day.

“But these are things that I think I’ve tried to do along the way and something that I think I’ve kind of matured into.”

Rather than demand a ticket out of town when the going got tough, something Heatley ultimately orchestrated for himself, Spezza soldiered on. All this from a player who often took more than his share of the blame when something went wrong.

On that front, there was one more learning experience to get through. Fans had a love-hate relationship with Spezza early in his career, dazzled by his creativity but infuriated by his defensive shortcomings. Some of that frustration lingered, even as Spezza improved his play in the defensive zone.

That relationship reached its nadir during the 2010 playoffs, when fans here booed Spezza for a couple of glaring turnovers during a home ice loss. It hurt him deeply, and for a time there were rumours he was ready to follow Heatley out of town.

“I think (the adversity) has made me a better person and a better player,” he said when asked about the incident. “I think it helps me to have a career with ups and downs, I think it prepares me for this.

“I’ve played in the minors, I can relate to some of the guys coming up from the minors … I’ve had the experience of having some good playoffs and some bad playoffs and these are all things that I can draw on now.”

Ups and downs. Good playoffs and bad playoffs. Derision over an unwillingness to play both sides of the puck. Sound familiar?

It was all too appropriate that Spezza named former Detroit Red Wings captain and current Canadian Olympic hockey team general manager Steve Yzerman as one of his leadership idols growing up.

“I was with Steve Yzerman when he was 21 years of age,” said Murray, general manager of the Wings from 1990-1994. “He was an offensive machine, he was a hard-working guy, but he didn’t play goal-line to goal-line all the time, he wanted the puck a lot, he had something like 65 goals when the team didn’t make the playoffs.”

“Steve learned you need to work hard every day, you have to put demands on your teammates at times and you have to understand not everybody’s got your talent level,” said Murray. “And as he did that, of course, he became one of the ultimate captains of all time in the National Hockey League.”

Ottawa’s new captain will be expected to comport himself similarly. He must lead by example, take meticulous care of his game in both ends and be a model of dedication and fitness.

They’re tasks Daniel Alfredsson never took shortcuts on, and for that reason and all the more obvious ones, Spezza has big skates to fill.

“Big skates for anybody to fill, no question,” Murray acknowledged. “Daniel’s reputation and behaviour and performance around here was outstanding, we know that, so for anybody to step in and try to compare, it’s very difficult.”

Murray said the Senators aren’t asking Spezza to be the next Alfredsson. There’s only one. All they expect is good stewardship of a group of players they think is on the brink of something special.

Spezza doesn’t want to live under Alfredsson’s shadow for long. He was respectful when asked to make comparisons and discuss what he’d learned from No. 11, but gave off the impression he’d prefer to discuss the future, not the past.

The best way to do that, of course, is to deliver the one thing Alfredsson never could, the thing that established Yzerman as a living legend in the game.

“For me, I’ve always dreamt about being a captain,” he said. “My main goal is to try to win the Stanley Cup, and that’s something that I’ve always wanted.”

If he gets it, his legacy will outshine all others in Senators franchise history. The work starts now.

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