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Leafs’ Spezza ‘optimistic’ as NHL continues to ramp up toward return

TORONTO — Where elsewhere there may still be uncertainty about seeing this NHL season brought to a conclusion, here there is only hope.

Both in actions and in words, the Toronto Maple Leafs are believers. They have returned to the city en masse to participate in voluntary small-group workouts and serve quarantines early. And even with final return-to-play details still being ironed out and the NHL having announced 11 positive tests for COVID-19 by players last week, the Leafs are preparing for the 24-team restart like it’s happening.

“I know I’m excited to play and our team is,” said veteran Jason Spezza, echoing recent comments from teammates Mitch Marner and John Tavares.

“I know you read the reports that guys (on other teams) are unhappy and there are guys that don’t want to play, but you’d like to think that that’s the minority and that we’re going to move forward here and play, and that they’re going to do a good job of keeping us safe. I’m pretty optimistic about things, to be honest.”

Spezza is one of about a dozen Leafs players that remained in the Toronto area throughout the NHL pause and joined Phase 2 workouts when they began at the team facility earlier this month. The locals were joined by Morgan Rielly and Alex Kerfoot, who each travelled back from British Columbia, plus William Nylander, Kasperi Kapanen, Jack Campbell and teenager Nick Robertson, who returned from the United States.

Rasmus Sandin flew in from Stockholm last Thursday and will be another addition to small-group sessions once his quarantine is served, and Tyson Barrie is expected to arrive this week as well.

They’re set to join teammates as the NHL is doubling the allowable number of skaters for these sessions from six to 12. For Spezza, who has been a regular on the conference calls conducted by the NHL Players’ Association during the pause, it’s another step toward normalcy.

“The more guys we get on the ice the more it feels like hockey and the more, I think, it’ll shorten the runway in terms of needing time in order to play,” he said.

The stakes are pretty high here for Spezza, who celebrated his 37th birthday earlier this month. He signed a league-minimum contract last summer to play for his hometown team and is now prepared to enter a bubble environment that will keep him from seeing his wife Jennifer and their four daughters in person for an extended period of time.

That’s a sacrifice the family has already discussed, even though the Leafs probably won’t be travelling to a hub city before the last week of July.

“It’s not going to be easy, especially after having three months of really probably the best quality family time I’ve ever had with my kids and my wife,” said Spezza. “It’s going to be a big adjustment, there’ll be some tears involved I’m sure along the way. We’ll FaceTime.

“They understand that daddy’s got a dream of trying to win a Stanley Cup and there’s not too many more years left here.”

Assuming the NHL manages to pull it off, this sets up as the most unpredictable playoff tournament in league history. It’s not just the four-month layoff, either. Teams will only have two weeks of training camp and one exhibition game before the play-in round begins, which is why the Leafs wanted to maximize their time together during this voluntary phase beforehand.

Spezza likes Toronto’s best-of-five matchup against the Columbus Blue Jackets because it’s a team he feels they won’t take for granted.

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The Blue Jackets swept the 62-win Tampa Bay Lightning last spring and sat alongside the Leafs in the standings when this season was stopped with 81 points through 70 games. They achieved those results in vastly different ways, with Toronto scoring 53 more goals and Columbus allowing 40 fewer against.

“It’s a team that we have a lot of respect for,” said Spezza. “With some of the studs they have on their back end, it poses a lot of problems. I think that’s good, though, it keeps you honest and it gives us something to really work toward.”

They have started putting in the work even before officially learning if the season will go ahead. A return-to-play package that includes health and safety protocols and the framework of a collective bargaining agreement extension should be completed in the next week.

Then it will be put to a player vote.

“I think it definitely helps tie everything together and it makes everything make sense,” said Spezza. “I think it’s an opportunistic time for both sides with mutual interest to try to tie things together … so that there is some labour peace with the unrest in the world right now and give everybody a chance to kind of get out of this together.

“I think there is a big focus on that right now and we’ll see where that leads to.”

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