TORONTO - For those misguided souls who suddenly feel AHL might stand for the ‘Awful Hockey League’, consider the following quote from a one-time Ontario Hockey League star who was begrudgingly shipped to the minors.
“I didn’t want to be cut,” the player said. “But it made me a better person and a better player.”
At first glance, you might figure that those words might have come from Maple Leafs prospect Nazem Kadri, who remains the cause celebre among both members of the media and of Leafs Nation these days.
They might have. But they didn’t.
No, the author of that statement was none other than Jason Spezza, whose Ottawa Senators meet the struggling Kadri-less Leafs At the Air Canada Centre Tuesday in yet another instalment of the Battle of Ontario.
As Spezza and the Senators arrived in Toronto Monday, they walked right into a market where the most heated debate around town revolves around why the goal-starved Leafs have not called up the talented Kadri from the farm, opting to go for more experienced prospects like Luca Caputi and Christian Hanson.
Even the always outspoken Don Cherry got into the act Saturday, telling a national television audience that he could not figure out the Leafs’ decision to leave Kadri on the farm when, in the opinion of Grapes, he is ready for the NHL right now.
Spezza, 27, has heard those words before.
Like Kadri, he was a highly-coveted prospect coming out of junior, eventually selected second overall by the Ottawa Senators in the 2001 entry draft.
Like Kadri, he harboured hopes of making the parent club as an 18-year-old, only to be returned to his junior team for one more year.
And, like Kadri, he came to training camp the following season with high hopes, only to subsequently deal with the frustration of being sent down to the farm.
Of course, when then-Sens coach Jacques Martin carried out the task of relegating Spezza to the team’s AHL
Binghamton farm club, Cherry lit into Ottawa management for not giving the Mississauga native the proper chance.
Like him or not, Cherry is right more often than he is wrong, a fact his legion of bashers like to conveniently
sweep under the rug. He cherishes and respects the AHL; he just thinks Kadri might be ready now.
Obviously general manager Brian Burke and Leaf management do not agree. They feel the London, Ont. native still needs to beef up off the ice and learn to play against fully grown men on it.
Kadri, who has exhibited a lot of maturity in handling his time in the omnipresent spotlight, has exhibited flashes of brilliance with the Marlies. At the same time, there have been moments where he has looked like an inexperienced rookie in this, his first taste of pro hockey.
Of course, the ex-London Knights star is about to get his AHL baptism by fire.
The Marlies Wednesday kick off a run of 10 consecutive road games in a 16-day span, including stops in Houston, Austin and San Antonio. It should be a team-bonding, potentially eye-opening experience, especially deep in the heart of Texas where Leafs TV analyst Bob McGill says the crowds can be, ah, ornery during those Buck a Beer Night promotions.
If Kadri can survive that, he might be able to survive anything.
As for Spezza, he certainly wasn’t happy when Martin gave him his walking papers to the farm in 2002-03. While he played more games for Binghamton (43) than for the Sens (33) that season, debate raged in the nation’s capital asking if the Sens were doing the right thing in their handling of Spezza, much like the argument going on involving Kadri right now.
As Spezza said afterward, the experience made him “a better person and a better player.” So much so, in fact, he made the decision to return to Binghamton to play during the 2004-05 lockout, going on to win the Les Cunningham Award as the AHL’s most valuable player after racking up 117 points.
While some Ottawa fans often are quick to point out the warts in Spezza’s game, the guy has averaged an impressive point-per-game during his NHL career.
If Kadri ends up averaging that, whether he is called up next week or next year, it’s a good bet that the Leafs brass and the fans will be more than happy.
In the meantime, Spezza can probably relate to what Kadri is going through,