All Jason Spezza wanted was a chance to play in the Ontario Hockey League at 15.
Under the OHL rules at the time, qualified 15-year-olds could play for the team in their home city before becoming eligible for the OHL Priority Selection the following year.
After recording 53 goals and 114 points with the Toronto Marlboros bantams, Spezza canvassed the three OHL clubs nearest to Toronto: the Toronto St. Michael’s Majors, who had returned to major junior play in 1997-98, and the Brampton Battalion and Mississauga IceDogs, expansion teams poised to debut in 1998-99. After meeting with Stan Butler, Battalion director of hockey operations and head coach, Spezza opted for the Troops, moving with his family to Brampton from Mississauga.
“I talked to all those teams, and Stan seemed like he would give me a chance,” Spezza said via telephone from Ottawa, where he’s in his 10th season with the Senators of the National Hockey League.
“There were no guarantees; it wasn’t a normal thing to play as a 15-year-old. Stan said he would teach me and give me an opportunity to make the team and, if I couldn’t make the team, he would be honest with me. I was happy I made the choice to go to Brampton. Stan gave me a chance and had the confidence to play me a lot. He treated me as an equal.
“I remember being really nervous at training camp. I’d never gone through the kind of physical testing they had us do.”
Spezza, listed at six-foot-one and 188 pounds, thrived playing on a line with rookie left winger Kurt MacSweyn, 17, and right winger Scott Thompson, an 18-year-old who had played five games with the London Knights the previous season.
Spezza led the Troops in scoring with 22 goals and 49 assists for 71 points in 67 games. His 49 assists remained the Battalion’s single-season record until Wojtek Wolski and Michael Vernace broke it in 2005-06. Spezza’s rookie points total was a club record that stood until 2008-09, when it was surpassed by Evgeny Grachev.
“For me, it was a great experience,” said Spezza. “It was a great season. I got to play as an underager and live at home. There was a lot of excitement around the team because it was new, and I was excited to have a chance to play in the OHL. I have fond memories of that.
“I loved to play the game and tried not to think about being younger than everybody else. I was a big kid, and I think that helped. Guys would run at me, but I wasn’t intimidated. I knew I had to be careful out there. I just focused on how I was playing, not on how old I was.”
Spezza credited MacSweyn and captain Jason Maleyko with helping him.
“Jason was a great captain to have. He really took me under his wing and took care of me. You can be pretty impressionable as a 15-year-old playing junior hockey. He understood the fact I was a kid and made sure I was looked after.
“I hung out a lot with Kurt. He was a good hockey player. I really enjoyed playing with him. He was a hard worker with a high hockey IQ.”
Thompson, who produced 19 goals and 18 assists for 37 points, quickly recognized that Spezza wasn’t a typical 15-year-old player.
“I was his ride to the rink every day, and you could see by the way he carried himself on and off the ice that he’d be special,” Thompson said between periods of a recent Battalion game. “It was a privilege to play with him. He was an amazing talent and, even though he was only 15, he was one of the guys who helped lead our team. It ended up being one of my best seasons points-wise, because he could find you anywhere on the ice. It was fun to play with him.”
Spezza credited Butler with helping him develop a better-rounded game. Spezza eventually played on two occasions for Canada at the World Junior Championship under the direction of head coach Butler.
“Everything is new when you make the jump from minor hockey to the OHL, and Stan ran a professional organization. He paid a lot more attention to power play and penalty killing than we did in minor hockey, at least in those days. That really helped me as I went on. I learned to develop a routine and get into a more professional mindset.
“I had the puck a lot in minor hockey. Stan was always patient and really good with young guys. He enjoys teaching and helping guys with raw skills become better players.”
The Battalion won only eight of 68 games in its first season. Four wins came against Mississauga, which claimed Spezza with the No. 1 pick in the 1999 OHL Priority Selection.
“We didn’t win a lot of games, but we did a good job with what we had. Raffi Torres was a bull in a china shop. He was a great junior player who scored a lot of goals, threw a lot of hits and was very exciting. A guy like Lukas Havel had tons of skill. We had a lot of skilled guys who just lacked experience, and having us all there at the same time helped us all grow.
“We lost a lot of close games, and we weren’t as deep as some other teams. We had some good players and we were well coached. The games against Mississauga were always our biggest ones, and it always felt good to beat them.”
The Troops had a won-lost-tied record of 4-1-1 against their expansion cousins.
Spezza played 67 games in just more than one season with Mississauga before being traded to the Windsor Spitfires, for whom he skated in 68 games. He was dealt to the Belleville Bulls on Jan. 10, 2002, completing his junior career by recording 60 points in 26 games with Belleville.
Ottawa chose him with the second pick in the 2001 NHL Entry Draft after the Atlanta Thrashers took Ilya Kovalchuk.