Dream fulfilled for Griffins’ Spezia

Photo: Mark Newman

by Mark Newman AHL On The Beat

For every hockey-loving kid who grows up in the Detroit area, the idea of playing in the Red Wings organization is a dream come true.

Tyler Spezia can hardly believe that something that once seemed so impossible is now a reality. That he is now playing for the organization – always his father’s favorite – is almost too good to be true. He is absolutely thrilled to be playing for the Grand Rapids Griffins, just one step away from the team that he grew up following.

Of course, reality is not all rainbows and unicorns. Everything that seems so perfect is not always so simple.

The middle kid of five children born to Brian and Kelly Spezia, Tyler loved sports for as long as he can remember. His mother played softball at Oakland University and his father had played baseball and softball, too, so athletic pursuits were only natural, even if he was never the biggest kid on any field of play.

“I loved to play football,” he said. “I was a slippery kid who was tough to tackle, but I looked in the mirror and I knew that (football) wasn’t feasible from a physical standpoint. My size and build weren’t there to keep me playing.”

His real passion was hockey. He did not, however, play in those venues normally favored by kids who dreamed of becoming the next Pavel Datsyuk, Steve Yzerman, or Henrik Zetterberg.

“I didn’t learn the sport on ice,” he said. “I learned hockey on tile.”

Spezia got started playing roller hockey at Joe Dumars Fieldhouse on the site of the former Michigan State Fairgrounds near Woodward Avenue in suburban Detroit. His older brother Chad played, and Tyler wanted to be just like him. So at age 4, he set his sights on following in his footsteps.

Roller hockey became his sport.

“It’s made me the player I am today, through and through,” said Spezia, who admits that he didn’t follow the traditional path to becoming a professional hockey player. “Everything I have been able to accomplish has been from a roller hockey foundation and that is something that I’m proud of.”

Spezia did not start playing ice hockey until he was 11 years old. He had tried out for a team when he was much younger, but things did not go well.

“The first time I ever stepped on the ice, I was a young kid, maybe 6 or 7, and I was so scared that I got off the ice, my mom took me home, and I never tried ice hockey again for a long, long time,” he recalled. “I didn’t think I liked it.”

He might never have given ice hockey another thought, but one day his roller hockey skills caught the eye of one Glenn Murray, whose wife was none other than Lisa Ilitch, the daughter of Red Wings owner and Little Caesars Pizza founder Mike Ilitch.

“Glenn Murray saw me playing inline hockey, found out who I was, then met up with my parents,” Spezia said. “He told them, ‘We’ve got to get your kid on the ice.’”

Murray took Spezia to a hockey camp in Canada, along with his own son, Tyler, as well as some other kids their age who were playing in the Little Caesars AAA program.

“I was able to learn how to play ice hockey,” Spezia said. “Of course, I was learning all the things you learn as a kid way late, but because Mr. Murray was so eager to get me on the ice, I was able to figure it out.”

Spezia became determined to make up for lost time. He was still young enough that he could retool his play and adapt his game to the frozen surface.

Photo: Mark Newman

“My roots in ice hockey really start with the Red Wings and the Little Caesars AAA program,” Spezia said. “When I say that playing for this organization is special to me, I mean it because it all started with them, so it’s awesome that everything’s come full circle.”

Spezia continued playing roller hockey while learning the game on ice.

“I know ice hockey is now a 365-day sport for most kids,” he said. “For me, it was ice hockey season and then it was roller hockey season before ice hockey started again. It almost felt like I was playing two sports.”

A late-bloomer in the true sense, he was pursuing his dream, seemingly without a care in the world outside of playing hockey.

And then, all of a sudden, his whole world changed.

Spezia was 16 years old when his dad came home, not feeling very well after a day at his job for Pepsi Bottling in Detroit.

“He went to the doctor and he was told that he had pneumonia,” Spezia said. “When he wasn’t getting any better, he saw another doctor, who told my dad that he had bronchitis. The next doctor: ‘You have stage 4 liver and lung cancer… and you don’t have much time.’ It all happened so fast.”

His father checked into the hospital on Dec. 21, 2009. Not much more than three weeks later, Brian Spezia passed away on Jan. 18, 2010. He was only 51.

“At the time, I don’t think it hit me because it seemed like the fastest thing ever,” Spezia said. “As a 16-year-old kid, just getting my license, beginning to grow up and mature a little bit, it was tough, real tough.

“I had to grow up quicker than any kid really should.”

Not surprisingly, Spezia felt devastated. He had lost his father, and now he felt lost himself.

“Being one of five certainly helped, but I was losing my dad and hockey was our bond,” he said. “For the most part, he was the guy taking off from work, taking me to practice, taking me on road trips, being there at every game.

“I didn’t really know how to keep playing. It wasn’t that I hated hockey. It was just that a big part of me was missing. I didn’t really want to keep playing, to be honest.”

Fortunately, Spezia had “a really good group of friends” that included Tyler Velger and Zach Badalamenti.

“My friends pushed me. ‘Come play high school hockey,’ they said. L’Anse Creuse High School (in Harrison Township, not far from his Clinton Township birthplace) did not play top-tier hockey, but it was fun. It was certainly not where you wanted to play if you wanted to get to the next level, but at that moment in my life, it was not what I was thinking about.”

Spezia admits that he wasn’t himself for a long time. “There were a lot of times that I spent in my room, not talking to anyone. I didn’t really want to go to school very much. I played a lot of video games and dealt with it that way.”

Finally, Spezia came to a moment of self-realization.

“I thought, if my dad was here, he would be so upset with me in how I’m dealing with this. I kinda used it as the fuel to turn myself around, and my best friends in high school were huge, too. They gave me my space, but they pushed me a little bit, and I owe them a lot. They pulled me out of a dark spot and helped me to be a kid again.”

“Going from AAA hockey to playing high school, it was just fun, but at the same time, I used the opportunity to get re-motivated. Though it was a tough time, I found that I wanted to keep playing.”

Spezia admits that there are still moments when he is reminded of how much he misses his dad.

Photo: Todd Reicher

“My dad was the biggest Red Wings fan ever,” he said. “I’m constantly reminded of that when I see guys like Dan Cleary, Nik Kronwall, or Steve Yzerman walking around the locker room. I think, ‘I’m in this room, too.’ It’s crazy.”

Spezia remembers watching the aforementioned members of the Red Wings’ front office when he was a kid. “I used to stay up late when the Red Wings played in the Western Conference and I watched all those 10:30 p.m. games with my dad. So now, being a member of this organization, there’s a constant reminder of those times and, in a small way, it’s helped me make peace with his passing.”

He is also thankful for his family.

“My oldest brother, who is five years older than me, had to be a rock for us and he did a really good job to keep us on the right track and made sure we didn’t go to a place we didn’t want to go. The truth is all my siblings stepped up, and that comes from a cohesive unit, sticking together through everything. I think we all came out of it on top.”

Spezia finds it hard to fathom how his mother managed to process everything.

“Thinking about it now, it’s like, ‘How did she do this?’ But she has a huge heart and she did everything through us. She wanted the best for every one of her five kids. She still comes to every game that she can. If we play in Cleveland, she’ll come. So I owe everything to her, just sticking through it all.

“You realize how hard it must have been to suddenly be a single parent raising five kids. I can’t even imagine where her mind was at the time, but she was strong for us and she never looked like there was any doubt. And if she was strong, we could be strong in return. She did a really good job of keeping us going.”

Spezia is also grateful for the people in the Little Caesars organization who reached out to the family during that critical time.

“My life had taken a different route through hockey, but there were tons of people from the Little Caesars organization, the Ilitch family included, who were constantly reaching out, even just to stay in touch and make sure everything was good. They helped motivate me in different ways.

“It was never a case where you’re not on the team anymore and you’ve lost any connection you had with these people. It was the exact opposite. That connection was alive and well and I still talk to a lot of the same people today.

“I don’t know if I’ve ever told Glenn (Murray) what it all has meant to me. At the time, I don’t know if I fully appreciated it, but the whole Ilitch family is a Grade A family with huge hearts. I couldn’t be happier that I crossed paths with them.”

When high school came to an end, Spezia wondered what came next.

“My coach said there were a couple of spots in Montana, of all places, where I might play Junior B or Junior C hockey, but it wasn’t appealing to me,” he recalled. “I decided to stay at home and play a year of U-18 hockey with Little Caesars and I had a blast.”

His team included a number of younger players who were committed to play college hockey.

“Playing in Detroit, we faced a lot of good players and we happened to make it all the way to the national championship.”

Spezia eventually signed a tender with Port Huron of the North American Hockey League. “My mindset was that I wanted to play in the USHL if possible,” he said. “I was older, but I felt younger because I had climbed the ranks with all these kids who were two or three years younger than I was.”

From the Fighting Falcons, he found his way to the Dubuque Fighting Saints of the USHL. “They seemed like a good fit,” he said. “When I went there, I had no clue, but I showed up and I felt like I played really well.”

The team’s head coach was Jim Montgomery, who eventually became the head coach at the University of Denver for five seasons before being named the head coach of the NHL’s Dallas Stars in 2018.

“It was an eye-opening experience, but it wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows,” he said. “I got hurt early and missed a lot of games. But I needed that time because I had come from youth hockey. I thought I knew how to play hockey, but from a structure standpoint, I had no idea.

“It was a huge wake-up call for me, but I was learning the game – learning how it should be played, learning how it was going to be played at the next level, learning how to play as a team. I learned a lot.”

Spezia discovered there was more to learn than he realized. “Over the years, I’ve learned how to be a good teammate,” he said. “People remember the guys who were good teammates and I take pride in that. I love being around the guys and I love being in the room, and I’ve tried to be a good teammate ever since.”

But Spezia knew his clock was ticking. As an older player, he needed to play more. He ended up getting in his car and going home to play again in Port Huron, where his friend Zach Badalamenti was now on the team.

Photo: Mark Newman

“We ended up carpooling and I played there and got every opportunity,” he said. “I built my confidence and I feel fortunate that I was put in a great situation with a good team and things just started clicking.”

In his short stint with Port Huron’s 2012-13 team, Spezia tallied nine goals and 11 assists for 20 points in only 14 games. “My goal was to get a college scholarship,” he said. “I wanted my mom to know that she wouldn’t have to pay anymore. I wanted some way to give back. That was my goal.”

As luck would have it, one of his new teammates in Port Huron was Brett D’Andrea, who had drawn the attention of the Bowling Green State University coaching staff. “They were at one of our games, watching him play. It was my first game – I didn’t even have my last name on my jersey – and I played a really good game.”

Spezia played a full season in the USHL with the Youngstown Phantoms before going to Bowling Green on scholarship. “Our team wasn’t very good, but I wanted to prove that I could play in that league and I thought I did OK.”

At Bowling Green, Spezia played for head coach Chris Bergeron, who had been a member of Enrico Blasi’s staff at Miami University (Ohio) for several seasons as an assistant coach alongside current Red Wings head coach Jeff Blashill.

Spezia played four years (2014-18) at Bowling Green. “The only games I missed during college were due to illness or injury. I was never scratched. I felt like I earned it. I worked hard and I loved every single second of playing there.”

He took nothing for granted. “As a freshman, I had to earn my spot. Nothing was guaranteed,” he said. “College is a four-year deal and you just try to progress every year. By the time you’re an upperclassman, you’re the core of the team.”

College provided a new challenge. “I had taken school off for three years, so I had to learn time management,” he said. “I also learned people skills because I had a lot of hard conversations with my professors about having to miss exams as a result of hockey. I had to become more mature with my decisions. College was really the place where I grew up.”

At Bowling Green, Spezia felt completely at home. A finance major during his time in college, he remains exceedingly proud of the school, which has produced George McPhee (president of hockey operations for the Vegas Golden Knights), Brian MacLellan (general manager of the Washington Capitals), and Rob Blake (general manager of the Los Angeles Kings), all former NHL players, as well as Michigan native and current Red Wings assistant coach Dan Bylsma.

“I’m really proud of my time at Bowling Green,” he said. “Unfortunately, we never got to play in the NCAA tournament, even though we came close, but my senior year we won the first Great Lakes Invitational at Little Caesars Arena, which was cool.”

Upon graduation, Spezia didn’t know what kind of player he would be going into pro hockey, but he knew he wanted to play somewhere. “It was something I struggled with,” he said. “I felt there was a place for me, but I needed to find my role. I had to figure out where I fit into the puzzle.”

The answer was not far away. He headed up Interstate 75 to Toledo, where he signed to play with the Walleye in the ECHL.

As a student at Bowling Green, Spezia had attended his share of Walleye games, getting the chance to see his longtime friend Shane Berschbach, the team’s all-time leader in games played and points. As an undrafted free agent, Spezia said the decision of where to play seemed, as he puts it, “super easy.”

But Spezia got scratched the second game of the 2018-19 season. “I was like, ‘Wow, I did not expect this,’ but I focused on building trust with the coaches and I never looked back. I’m so grateful that my first year was spent in Toledo.

“It’s a season I’ll remember forever because I learned so much. I got to play in all situations and I was able to figure out what type of pro I was going to be. Plus, I got to be on a team that was winning a lot of games, and I think being on a winning team makes a huge difference in your development.”

Spezia also saw his first AHL action with the Griffins during the 2018-19 season.

“If you had asked me before the season if I thought I was going to play in the American league, I would have said, ‘There’s no way.’ But I kept playing and playing and got more comfortable and things worked out.”

Spezia appeared in eight AHL games but was actually in Grand Rapids a bit longer.

“All I knew was I wanted to play here and I knew I could play in the AHL,” he said. “I was so thankful when the Griffins signed me for the following season. Here I was, just trying to fulfill my dream of playing pro hockey, and everything just worked out.”

Spezia said he will never forget his first call-up to the Griffins. The Walleye had just won a shootout in Fort Wayne when head coach Dan Watson pulled him aside and told him that he was going to join the Grand Rapids team for a game in Rockford.

“Toledo to Fort Wayne is a little more than an hour-and-a-half trip, so I didn’t have any luggage. All I had was my Toledo Walleye tracksuit and a phone charger, that was literally it. One of my teammates had a spare toothbrush, so he gave me that.”

Spezia might have been more nervous about his AHL debut, but it helped that he already knew the Griffins’ Dominik Shine. “My mom and his mom are legit best friends,” he said. “Also, I had met Chris Terry playing roller hockey years earlier, and as a veteran and respected guy on the team, he helped me a lot by bringing me in under his wing.”

Even so, Spezia had butterflies before his first game in a Griffins jersey. “My mom and my brother and my girlfriend all drove from Detroit to Rockford, and my billets from Dubuque came to the game, too,” he said. “I think it really hit me during the national anthem. I usually listen to the song to get myself ready to go and I thought to myself, ‘Dude, it’s coming together. Nobody can take this from you!”

Six days later, Spezia recorded his first AHL goal and first assist, the latter coming on a game-winning goal by Wade Megan against Manitoba. “Not only did I feel like I was playing hard, but I was also contributing,” he said. “I felt that no matter what happened, when the time came to return to Toledo, I would be back.”

When Detroit Red Wings assistant general manager Ryan Martin offered him a new contract during the offseason, he felt a huge sigh of relief. “It was an awesome feeling,” he said. “It’s not often that you get to play for the organization that you grew up watching.”

Spezia split last season between Toledo and the Griffins. After tallying 20 points (10 goals, 10 assists) in 21 games with the Walleye, he finished the season in Grand Rapids, where he played 22 games, registering six goals and three assists.

“It’s a fast game, so if I can play simple and solid while I move my feet, I can be responsible,” he said. “I’ve been able to play a lot of minutes with Dominik Shine, a guy who I can be around and be myself. It’s almost like we’re brothers.”

For Spezia, the thrill of going to the Red Wings’ training camp in Traverse City is something that he will always remember.

“I’m not on an NHL contract or even a Red Wings prospect necessarily, but I was at a Red Wings camp,” he said. “I thought about all the Red Wings before me, and it was really cool to think I was following in the footsteps of all those guys I watched as a kid.”

Spezia thinks back to his youth and the days when he sold tickets to the organization’s Red and White game for a team fundraiser. “Here I am and I’m now a part of all this,” he said. “I’m still learning and still trying to get better, but it’s just crazy how stuff has fallen into place.”

Of course, this season has presented its own challenges, with canceled practices and the postponement of games due to COVID-19, but Spezia is taking everything in stride. “We’re all living day-by-day,” he said. “With all the uncertainty, you don’t want to look too far ahead.

“It’s definitely been a unique season, but we’re all super happy that we’re playing hockey. Games are fun and we’re all just excited to keep playing.”