Spezza takes step to stardom with a big smile

CHRIS STEVENSON -- Ottawa Sun

, Last Updated: 10:18 AM ET

Rino Spezza can remember taking his son to his first hockey banquet. Jason was four years old.

When they walked out, Jason was in tears because he didn't get a trophy.

"I said to him, 'don't worry. You're one of the younger kids.' The next year, he couldn't walk out of there for all the trophies he was carrying," laughed Rino.

"That's how competitive he was, even at that age. He's just that kind of individual."

---

Jason Spezza was one of the bigger kids, but seldom the biggest as he worked his way up the minor hockey ranks in Port Credit and Etobicoke.

He played house league the first couple years.

The idea of Jason playing in the National Hockey League wasn't something Rino thought about, at least not any more than other Canadian parents.

Rino, not a bad hockey player himself growing up, coached his son up through the ranks, passing on his love for the game to his son, a relationship and a gift that has been passed through generations of Canadian fathers and sons.

PASSION FOR GAME

"To be honest, I had a real passion for the game growing up," he said. "Gord Redden (Wade's dad) and I were talking about this. We used to know every little thing, the stats and I think it's just something (Jason) picked up and took on himself."

Before long, the kid was showing what he had learned.

"He'd come to the bench and tell me and the assistant coach, 'Dad, (the other team) is doing this, this and this on the ice.' I'd look at the assistant coach and say, 'Geez, we're the ones who are supposed to be picking that up.' "

---

Rino Spezza remembers specifically when Jason's game took a leap forward.

He had obviously been a very good player, the captain of the Toronto Marlies peewee AAA team at the age of 12 and playing for the St. Mike's Buzzers high school senior team when he was 14.

"He was good all the way up, one of the better players, but I never dreamed of him playing in the NHL. I think it started to sink in when he was 13 years old," he said.

"They have these Tier II teams in the summer and the coach said they were short a player and they wanted him to come out.

"I was scared. I didn't want him to go out. I said to him, 'you're going to be playing with 18, 19-year-olds. You're going to get hurt.'

"But he said, 'No, dad, I want to play, I want to play.' It was a scrimmage and he literally started to dominate.

"The coach and the players took to him. He's always been very humble. He never says he this or that. But that's when I started to think he's got a shot at the OHL. I wasn't even thinking about the NHL. Things happened so quickly. It just took off."

From ages 13-15, Jason Spezza's game grew exponentially and so did his profile.

He started to be touted as the next Big Thing and pegged as the potential top pick of the 2001 draft.

Rino Spezza says his son was "good all the way up, one of the better players, but I never dreamed of him playing in the NHL."

"I think the kid can handle any kind of pressure," Bobby Orr, the legendary defenceman-turned-agent told the Sun shortly after the Senators drafted Spezza second overall behind Ilya Kovalchuk in 2001.

"DON'T BE SURPRISED"

"Don't be surprised at what this kid can do ... You are not going to find a guy who is more determined than he is. I know Jason and his family. I know the way he was brought up and this kid isn't going to change."

Spezza played as a 15-year-old with his home-town Brampton Battalion in 1998 under the rule that allowed 15-year-olds to play for their home-town teams. He had 71 points in 67 games and drew comparisons to Wayne Gretzky for his on-ice vision.

The next year he was the top pick overall by the Mississauga IceDogs, owned then by Don Cherry.

He became the third 16-year-old to make the national junior team, joining Gretzky and Eric Lindros.

L L

Jason Spezza showed the instincts that would make him one of the best young players in the NHL game at an early age.

Rino Spezza said he never had to push Jason when it came to hockey or any of the other sports the youngster wanted to play.

"He's always wanted to excel whether it was playing soccer or lacrosse, which he played. He was always very, very competitive," said Rino. "The biggest thing was while being competitive that he have fun doing it. He put the pressure on himself."

Still does.

"(Jason) comes home in the summer and watches tapes of Mario Lemieux and Wayne Gretzky," said Rino.

"He puts so much work into it. All these guys do. During the summer, he's out of the house at eight o'clock and he's at the gym. A lot of the kids have talent, but they don't have the will."

Spezza's got the will.

And the passion.

Don't let the constant smile or the quick laugh mislead you.

Remember when he got cut after his first training camp with the Senators?

"STILL A BOY"

The words of former coach Jacques Martin stung.

"This is a man's league and he's still a boy," said Martin.

The boy has become a man, Now the young man is on his way to becoming a star.

THE INSIDE SCOOP

Favourite TV Show: Las Vegas. "It's got good looking girls, lots of action and I like Vegas. I went there twice last summer."

Favourite Movie: Zoolander. "It's stupid funny."

Hockey heroes growing up: Mario Lemieux, Wayne Gretzky, Doug Gilmour and Steve Yzerman.

Boxers or Briefs?: Boxer briefs.

If you could take just one CD on the road with you, you'd pick: The Tragically Hip Greatest Hits.

The goalie who gives you the most trouble: Dominik Hasek. "I still haven't scored on him this year. The only regular season game I played against him, I scored, but I haven't scored on him in practice yet."

If you weren't playing hockey, you'd be: A movie star, maybe.

Favourite Video Game: Tiger Woods golf

Favourite golf course: "I'm a member at Grey-stone Golf Club (in Milton), about 10 minutes north of my house. I also like The National."

Best golf score: "I had an 82 at Magna."

Handicap: 12. "I started playing golf about three years ago and I love it now. I play four or five times a week in the summer before I start skating. I want to get good enough to beat Alfie (Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson)."

Favourite Cartoon: Family Guy

chris.stevenson@ott.sunpub.com


Videos

Photos