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Many happy returns with Spezza in Dallas

Maple Leafs forward Jason Spezza spent five years with the Dallas Stars. (Ernest Doroszuk/Toronto Sun)
Maple Leafs forward Jason Spezza spent five years with the Dallas Stars. (Ernest Doroszuk/Toronto Sun)

DALLAS — Playing hockey in Texas fit Jason Spezza as comfortably as a 10-gallon cowboy hat.

That’s why he couldn’t wait to get on the plane from Nashville, warming up to play his former team with a goal on Monday and a renewed sense of pride in his five years with the Stars before he prepares to ride into the sunset with the Maple Leafs.

“I had a great time, with a lot of people I care about,” Spezza said ahead of Wednesday’s reunion. “It’s nice to get a couple of days there. I think going back to Ottawa the first time (the Senators were his first NHL home for 11 years) there was a lot more uneasiness. I’d been there a long time and was really emotionally attached to the city and the team.

“This time, I’m more looking forward to seeing the people. I had a great time in Dallas, I enjoyed the organization, enjoyed living there. The organization was really good. Jim Nill runs a great operation, the trainers were guys I got along with really well and Jamie Benn has become one of my best buddies.”

Spezza wanted to hoist a Stanley Cup at American Airlines Center, brought in as a top-six forward in 2015-16 to help get Dallas through the wild Western Conference in some of its most competitive days. His first-year impact was 33 goals and 13 playoff points in as many games, third in points behind Benn and Tyler Seguin.

“We were a team looking to make a step. They hadn’t had any playoff success and were trying to build a team that had a chance to win. And we did, won the conference in the regular season, went to the second round. We probably had two good looks at having a good chance to win.”

They were halted twice in a Game 7 by the St. Louis Blues, last year in double overtime as the Blues went on to their Cup parade.

“The first time we lost, they didn’t go on to win, but we felt we might have gone through,” Spezza said of the spring of 2016.

In the years Ottawa made the playoffs, Spezza made it to one Cup final in the loss to Anaheim.

“As you get older, you realize you have less and less chances to win. (Playoff elimination) sticks with you a little more. You’re 25, you think you’ll have a crack every year and when you’re 36 you realize the chances become few and far between. They sting a little more.”

Last summer, Spezza was no longer in high demand in Dallas or around the NHL. A huge Leafs fan as a kid in the GTA, with a massive list of friends and relatives, he found a willing taker in a Toronto club that was gathering many minimum wage depth players to function just under the salary cap. Spezza took the pay cut from seven to six figures to be the Leafs’ Everyman as opposed to an everyday player.

After some awkwardness with how former coach Mike Babcock deployed him, capped by an opening-night benching, Spezza and Sheldon Keefe are hitting it off and he’s playing more than expected. Spezza is part of the coach’s senior leadership group with John Tavares, Jake Muzzin, Morgan Rielly and Frederik Andersen. When not at centre, he slides to right wing and is the second power-play unit’s centre.

“His voice and his experience is important for us,” Keefe said. “Obviously, Jake has a more prominent role in terms of responsibility of his role with the team, but I’ve talked many times that Spezza’s voice is important to us as well.”

The second-hardest part of pulling up stakes in Texas was taking his four daughters, ranging in ages from 3 1/2 to 9, away from their friends.

“My 7-year-old was pretty resilient, pretty tough. She was fine with the move. My oldest probably had the hardest time initially. Now after a few months in Toronto, Dallas is just good memories for her, not missing friends and stuff. We still try to let her help keep in touch with Face Time with her best friend. It’s gone from ‘we really miss Dallas’ to ‘we’re happy we were there’. The first month of school they really miss their friends. Now they’ve made friends in Toronto. It’s shifted.”

WANNA BE A COWBOY

DALLAS — The Cowboys let coach Jason Garrett go, but Jason Spezza remains a loyal supporter of America’s Team.

“I’m a Cowboys fan before I went to Dallas and to be around that type of Cowboys fever was kind of cool,” Spezza said. “The daily sports talk on the Cowboys I indulged in quite a bit. It was a fun place to play.

“The Cowboys built a brand new practice facility a few years ago (near the Stars’ training base) and it made the relationship significantly better. I’d go down and watch practice, go for a tour and they were really good to us.”

Many Cowboys were also guest of the Stars on game night at American Airlines Center.

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