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Spezza recalls Battalion days

BRAMPTON, Ont. – Jason Spezza made his Ontario Hockey League debut with the Brampton Battalion less than three years ago, and since then he has become one of the most talked-about junior hockey players ever.
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Since his outstanding freshman campaign with the Battalion (Spezza finished second to Barrie´s Sheldon Keefe in Rookie of the Year balloting), he has made two more OHL stops (Mississauga and Windsor), picked up a pair of bronze medals with Team Canada at the World Junior Hockey Championships and cemented his status as the top North American prospect for this year´s NHL Entry Draft. The blockbuster deal that sent him from Mississauga to Windsor is one of the biggest trades in junior hockey history.
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Spezza and his family moved to Brampton so he could play for the Battalion as a 15-year-old. The previous year he had scored 114 points in 54 games with the Toronto Marlboros Bantams.
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The Battalion was about to embark on its inaugural season and Spezza felt that breaking into the OHL under the tutelage of Brampton Head Coach Stan Butler was the best situation for him.
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"I knew that we were going to have a really young club," he says, "and I knew that Stan would do a great job with them."
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Spezza came to the training camp along with a lot of other fresh-faced OHL rookies including Raffi Torres, Jay Harrison, Aaron Van Leusen, Tyler Hanchuck, Jeff Bateman and Kurt MacSweyn. Coach Butler had added a few veterans like Jason Maleyko, Brian Barker and Pat Parthenais to the mix but the Battalion hit the ice with what is believed to be the youngest squad in Canadian Hockey League history.
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"I was nervous going in," Spezza remembers. "All of the guys were a little bigger than me and a little more mature. There were guys there with beards and I didn´t have any facial hair! It was just something I had to work through but once we got on the ice, everyone was the same age.
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"I had confidence in myself even if a lot of other people didn´t," he adds. "I think you have to be confident to play this game and do it well. As a 15 year old I wasn´t expected to do much but Stan told me that nothing was going to be handed to me and as long as I played well I would get treated like anybody else."
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The Battalion played its first-ever game on September 24, 1998 and dropped a 5-1 decision to the hometown Peterborough Petes.
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"It was really exciting and I think everyone was a little nervous," he says when asked about his OHL debut. "We had a lot of fresh faces in the league and they were a well-established team and one of the better ones in the league that year. We lost 5-1 but it was good to get it out of the way."
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Spezza notched three assists in the team´s second game (a 6-5 loss to the Owen Sound Platers) and collected his first OHL goal when the team returned to Brampton to face the Kitchener Rangers in their home debut.
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Spezza remembers the goal, the first by a Battalion player at the Brampton Centre, clearly. "It was in the second period," he recalls. "It was a rebound that I batted in. The puck was sitting in the crease and I just knocked it in."
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The young centre registered a goal and two assists in the Battalion´s first ever win on October 18, 1998 against the Sudbury Wolves. Spezza soon embarked on a 15 game points scoring streak that stood as the club record until Rostislav Klesla surpassed it last season.
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Butler put Spezza on a line with Kurt MacSweyn and Scott Thompson, a pair of hard-working defensive-minded wingers, and the move soon began paying dividends.
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"Kurt works really hard," Spezza says. "He went up and down his wing and Scotty can put the puck in the net so it worked well."
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"In the three years I spent in Brampton I would have to say that was the line I enjoyed playing on the most," remarks Thompson, who came to the Battalion as a veteran of five OHL games with the London Knights. "Kurt was a banger in the corners and Jason was the really skilled finesse player and we really seemed to click. I´d never seen a 15-year-old kid who had that kind of skill. You could tell right from training camp that he was going to be a top player in the OHL and one of the highest rated players heading into the NHL Draft. It was a lot of fun to play with him."
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Thompson admits that it took him some time to get used to playing with the talented youngster.
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"We had to learn each other´s games," he explains. "Once I got to know his style, I was able to drive through the middle and he´d throw the puck in front of the net and I´d tip it in. That´s how I got a lot of my goals that year. He´d always know where I was going and I´d always know where he was. We ended up having a pretty good relationship on the ice."
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The Troops were competitive throughout the season but only won eight games. Spezza ended up as the team´s leading scorer with 71 points in 67 games (his 49 assists are still a Battalion record) and became the youngest player to ever suit up for an OHL All Star Game.
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"We were so close many times and because we were so young we didn´t win a lot of those games," he says. "But we definitely showed a lot of promise and that was a very successful expansion year and I think any expansion franchise would like a year like that."
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When asked if the team´s on-ice struggles ever got him down, Spezza replies, "I think everyone gets discouraged at times and getting through those moments is what makes you a better hockey player. It was something we all had to do because you are never happy when you aren´t winning a lot of games."
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Spezza´s play as an underager attracted attention in the hockey world (observers began calling him "The Next One" and immediately pencilled him in as the top player in the 2001 draft), but he says the publicity never became a distraction.
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"I just accepted it as part of the game. It´s something that is always going to be there so I just had to get used to it a little earlier than everybody else. It wasn´t really a problem for me and I didn´t think it ever would be."
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Spezza was not the only player on that inaugural squad to make an impression. Defenceman Jay Harrison joined Spezza on the First All-Star team and aggressive power forward Raffi Torres was a Second Team All-Rookie selection.
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"Raffi Torres really surprised everyone," Spezza says. "He had 35 goals in his rookie year and that´s a lot for anybody. He´s a great hockey player."
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Spezza was also impressed by the young team´s leaders, most notably Captain Jason Maleyko (who had played in Oshawa and Windsor) and veteran forward Brian Barker, who came to the team from the Barrie Colts.
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"Guys like Jason Maleyko had a really tough job, leading a young squad," he continues. "It´s not easy being the captain of a team like that. We looked up to guys like Maleyko and Brian Barker because they were our leaders. They helped us blend in. I don´t think anyone was treated any differently. You hear a lot of horror stories about guys coming into the league who don´t get treated fairly, but that wasn´t the case in Brampton at all. Stan made sure of that and so did the players."
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Spezza entered the OHL Draft the following year and was chosen first overall by the Mississauga IceDogs. He played five games against his former mates, managing only one assist. His lack of production against his old team was due, in part, to some tenacious checking from old teammates like Kurt MacSweyn, Aaron Van Leusen and Scott Thompson. (Spezza had a little more success against the Battalion last year. He picked up a goal and six assists in five games with Mississauga and Windsor).
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"Kurt MacSweyn was probably one of my best buddies when I was there and it was fun to get the chance to play against those guys," Spezza says. "It was challenging because they didn´t want to let me score a goal on them and they didn´t want us to beat them. We played a full year together and guys can figure you out because you do talk a lot and tell the other guys what you are going to do. They were defensive-minded guys and their job was to shut me down."
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Midway through his second season with the ´Dogs, Spezza journeyed to Russia for the World Junior Hockey Championships as a member of Team Canada. Spezza was joined by his former coach Stan Butler, who was guiding the squad, and a couple of former Battalion teammates, Raffi Torres and Jay Harrison.
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"Stan was there and I was extremely happy with that. We have a great relationship and I also got a chance to play with Raffi and Jay Harrison again."
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Spezza and Torres combined on the overtime goal in the bronze medal game that allowed the Canadians to beat Sweden. Spezza won a face-off deep in the Swedish end and got the puck back to Torres, who rifled it into the net.
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"Our styles really compliment each other," he says of Torres. "He´s an up-and-down guy who really bangs and he can put the puck in the net. I can carry the puck and see the other guys pretty well. Anytime we ever play together, whether it´s for a year or a couple of games or for a short-term thing like an All Star Game, there will always be that natural chemistry."
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Spezza also says the chemistry he has with Stan Butler helped him succeed in his first junior season.
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"Stan´s big thing with me was that he challenged me every night and he never let me sit back on my laurels. He would get in my face and we have a good relationship so he knew that if he had to get mad and yell and scream at me that I could handle it. I really enjoyed it because he was always trying to push me."
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As he looks ahead to beginning his pro career, Spezza says his experience in Brampton was, "great. It was one of the best groups of guys that I have ever been with. We were all young and we all had a good time playing the game. It´s amazing to see how many guys off that team have been drafted and I am sure we will all be playing with or against each other over the next few years."
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