To Kids Growing Up in the 2000s, Jason Spezza Made the Sens Cool
The Sens have Spezza to thank for making so many kids fans during the days of the pizza line
It’s hard to build a hockey fanbase from scratch. In Ottawa, a city stuck between the two biggest hockey markets in the world with a population partly made up of people who came from other parts of the country to work for the government, the Senators of the ‘90s and ‘00s had their work cut out for them.
So how do you build a fanbase? Winning helps, obviously. So does charity work. But what really helps is getting the kids on your side. When the kids eventually become adults, all of those years of fandom will cement their loyalty to the team. Start them young and reap the rewards for years to come.
This may come as a shock to some of our ahem older readers, but to kids in the early 2000s, Jason Spezza made the Sens cool.
Before he was a Leafs fan favourite and lovable Old Guy Without A Cup, before being run out of town by a fanbase that had never liked him as much as they maybe should have, Spezza was the player who turned a lot of older Gen Z kids into Ottawa Senators fans.
After Spezza announced his retirement last weekend, I put out a call on social media for people my age to share their childhood memories of Spezza. Was the Spezza worship as widespread as I remembered it being? And why Spezza over everyone else on that team?
Here is my research into the Spezza we grew up with.
“Spezza was the epitome of cool when I was in elementary school,” wrote one user in response to my call for Spezza stories. Others described him as their “childhood idol” and confirmed that he was the most popular player among their friends. One person emailed me with a story about their son - who was born in 2001 - meeting Mike Fisher and proudly telling him that he was was his second favourite player, after Spezza.
“Yes, he is pretty good,” said Fisher, as his girlfriend tried not to laugh.
Twitter user Tak said that his school’s reading award was named after Spezza, because the prize for winning it was a signed Jason Spezza hockey card.
Spezza was the fucking COOLEST with elementary school kids. I remember at my school the like “reading award” or whatever was named after him, and he signed a ton of these for the school to give out when people won them. honestly as a kid, Spezza was THE Senator to most of us pic.twitter.com/oxYNiIxRYT— tak | ctsw (@popunkprettyboy) May 30, 2022
In fact, I soon learned that Tak’s school wasn’t the only one that held a Spezza-themed reading competition: Twitter user @Dahlberg_Filip recalls a Sens-sponsored competition in which any classroom that read a certain amount of books could win a pizza party with Spezza and Spartacat.
“We read the hell out of so many books to increase our odds of having a party.”
Tragically, this person’s class never read quite enough books to win a pizza party with Spezza and Sparty.
Sens fan Megan McAlister got to attend her first ever Sens game in grade four, after winning a “spelling with Spezza” competition:
“It was a school sponsored program that your teacher signed you up for,” she explains. “If you did well on the spelling list that week, you’d be entered to win Sens tickets courtesy of Spezza. That’s how my love for the Sens started - because I was good at spelling!”
Did Spezza single-handedly improve the literacy rate in Ottawa elementary schools? You have to ask the question.
As for why Spezza was so popular, there were a few theories.
“I remember the reason mostly being that he was ‘our’ guy,” says Evan Scrimshaw, who graduated elementary school in 2009. “Heatley wasn’t truly loved by the kids because he was the new kid post 05, and a lot of us missed Hossa, and Alfie was already the old man of the team, so he (Spezza) was our guy.”
Others mentioned Spezza’s goofy laugh and cool name.
The general consensus, however, was that the kids just didn’t care that much about failed no-look drop passes and purported lazy defense. What we did care about was offensive skill.
“Even though Alfie was overall still the most popular player, Spezza was so flashy and fun to watch that as a kid he was often the player you got excited about,” says Gabe Mollot-Hill.
“I also think that kids just love seeing someone play with as much fun and creativity as he did. Even though I was a goalie, I tried to do ‘the Spezza move’ a hundred times on the outdoor rink and in video games.”
The “Spezza move” refers, of course, to the move Spezza pulled in that infamous overtime winner against the Montreal Canadiens.
Really, there’s no better way to get kids interested in your team than to have a guy who can do ridiculous things on the ice.
He did plenty of cool things off the ice, too, though.
Sash, a Sens twitter personality and fancam maker, recalls one entertaining interaction with Spezza. In grade 2, Sash’s teacher invited him to enter a contest to win Sens tickets. In order to be entered to win, they had to ask one Sens player to do an activity. If the player did the activity, they would win Sens tickets.
“My friends asked their favourite players to do jumping jacks and push ups. Crazy stuff, really, in my 7 year old brain. I was like, I gotta do something different. I asked Jason Spezza to do 20 jumps. Not jumping jacks. Just jump up and down 20 times.”
Sash won the Sens tickets.
“Apparently this dude Spezza decided to do the 20 jumps. Why he did, I have no idea.”
When he wasn’t doing silly challenges to send kids to Sens games, Spezza was taking time out of his day to meet fans.
Cam Galbraith recalls one Halloween where he and his grade 6 classmates made it their mission to test out a theory that Spezza lived near their school. They were right, and the Sens’ first line centreman showed up at the door dressed as the army man from Toy Story, ready to hand out candy and sign autographs.
“It was a small moment that I will remember forever. He didn’t have to be home, or answer the door - but it was clear that he was willing and wanted to.”
Another person - who would prefer to remain anonymous - reached out to me with a story from when their sister was at CHEO battling leukemia (she’s fine now!). The Sens would frequently visit the kids at the children’s hospital, and Spezza always stood out at those visits:
“I remember him (Spezza) in particular because he sat with them and read them books all afternoon. He definitely turned me into a fan when I saw how kind he was to the kids. I was only 6 but those actions stick with you! I always looked for him on the ice as he felt like a friend because of how he treated my sister.”
Honestly, the main thing I learned from these stories is that a lot of older Gen Z Sens fans associate Jason Spezza with reading.
Now that Jason Spezza’s career as an NHL player has officially come to an end, there’s going to be a lot of talk about his legacy in Ottawa. Many Sens fans will always remember him as a frustrating player who was always a liability in his own zone, as someone who requested a trade and then did everything he could to play for the Sens’ biggest rival.
But for kids who grew up in the days of the pizza line, Spezza was the face of the franchise. He was the guy all the cool kids called their favourite player, the guy everyone pretended to be in street hockey games. His hockey cards were some of the most sought after in trades, and his jersey frequently worn to classrooms.
He turned a lot of kids into Sens fans — and lot of those kids remain fans to this day.