Spezza's chances improve with Lemieux pulling out

STEVE MACFARLANE -- Calgary Sun

, Last Updated: 10:42 AM ET

Jason Spezza's NHL career started slower than he wished but it now appears to be locked on fast forward.

The Ottawa Senators centre went into last night's contest against the Calgary Flames second in league scoring as an integral part of the most successful offensive team to date this season.

His Sens are an early Stanley Cup favourite and, at just 22, the young star may also get a crack at Olympic gold.

Mario Lemieux's decision to bow out of February's Turin Games yesterday, which comes on the heels of Steve Yzerman's withdrawal, means Wayne Gretzky and Team Canada brass can give serious thought to adding some fresh faces without displacing an international veteran.

Spezza, a Toronto product who played for his country in three world junior championships, would love to pull the Maple Leaf over his shoulder pads in the Winter Games.

"Any time you get a chance to represent Canada, it's one of the greatest feelings ever," said Spezza yesterday after learning of Lemieux's choice.

"In my situation, maybe it'll open a door for me. You never want to see it happen that way. It's just like when you're in the minors. You don't want a guy getting hurt so you can get called up, you just want to get called up.

"It's one of those things, one of those breaks that hopefully works out for me."

As excited as he is about the prospect of joining his country's best players in Italy, Spezza would rather do so alongside his childhood idol.

"I grew up watching him. He's one of the reasons I loved hockey so much, just watching Mario play. It's unfortunate it's gotten to this point for him," said Spezza.

"It's tough any time you see a guy go down, especially (someone) of his stature.

"You want to see him be a part of it. But hopefully it will open a door up for a guy like myself. Maybe what I've done up to this point will show them that I can play."

Spezza's numbers so far this season -- 11 goals and 32 assists in 26 games -- are hard to ignore.

Great things have always been expected from Ottawa's first-round pick in the 2001 draft but the franchise brought him along slowly at first. Former head coach Jacques Martin and Senators management didn't want to rush their future star and returned the disappointed 18-year-old to the OHL Windsor Spitfires, his junior club.

Spezza bounced back and forth between AHL Binghamton and the NHL Sens in 2002-03 despite scoring 21 points in 33 regular-season games with the big club.

He scored 22 goals and 33 assists in 78 games during 2003-04, his first full year with the Sens, then dominated in Binghamton throughout the lockout. His AHL MVP season, during which he racked up 32 goals and 117 points, served as Spezza's coming-out party.

"It helped me out a lot," he said of that dominant year. "Just playing a lot in the American League, getting a feel for playing over 20 minutes a night and having to contribute every night."

He has followed up with 11 goals and 32 assists in 26 games this season while playing on a line with Calgarian Dany Heatley and captain Daniel Alfredsson.

If things work out the way Spezza hopes, he and Heatley will skate side by side in the quest for gold.

"We've established some chemistry and in a short-term tournament I think that's tough to find," said Spezza.

"So hopefully that works towards our advantage and both of us can be there together."


Videos

Photos