Spezza’s hat trick shows just how special he is to Maple Leafs

TORONTO — Eighteen days ago Jason Spezza was willing to retire if another NHL team decided to pluck him off waivers from the Toronto Maple Leafs. Nine days ago he watched a game from the press box in Calgary while Sheldon Keefe worked some fresh legs in on the fourth line.

And on Thursday night Spezza turned back the clock with a hat trick that left his teammates buzzing.

To fully grasp what the moment meant inside a socially distanced dressing room you must first understand why the 37-year-old is so beloved here. It’s not just because he’s always stepping up with advice or assistance for teammates, although he certainly does that. It’s not even because of the impressive NHL career and resume he’s built, although that naturally gives him cache.

No, what stands out most about Spezza at age 37 is that he’s still pouring every ounce of energy he has into being a hockey player. His much younger teammates see him as a peer, not an oracle. And he’s earned their respect.

“He means a lot to this team,” said Auston Matthews. “I think more than anybody knows.”

You could see it in the way they celebrated Spezza’s third goal against the Vancouver Canucks, after he settled a chest-high pass and drove around Alex Edler like it was 2008 again. Justin Holl and John Tavares pinned him in a celebration circle immediately. William Nylander looked like an overexcited…

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