📝 by Patrick Williams
Three things are clear about Ontario Reign rookie defenseman Jordan Spence.
One, Spence handles change well. Really well. The Australian-born Spence moved from Japan to Prince Edward Island at age 14. Alone. Then, in his final season of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League in 2020-21, he moved in a major trade from Moncton to Val-d’Or. That shift meant putting his French immersion study to a real-world test in one of the QMJHL’s western-most reaches.
Now two big parts of the Los Angeles Kings’ future are learning their new home together. Spence is roommates with top forward prospect Alex Turcotte, who came to the organization as the fifth overall pick in the 2019 NHL Draft. That means the pair handle cooking, share restaurant tips, and navigate Southern California life.
Two, the move to pro hockey hardly seems to have fazed Spence, whose 33 points (two goals, 31 assists) have him first in scoring among American Hockey League rookie defensemen and tied for second overall with Reilly Walsh of the Utica Comets. The 31 assists tie him for the AHL lead for blueliners with Colorado Eagles veteran Jordan Gross as well.
In that same 2019 Draft in which the Kings took Turcotte, they also seem to have hit on a bargain in Spence. Having to fight off doubts whether his 5-foot-10, 177-pound frame could handle the rigors of pro hockey, he fell to the fourth round despite an exceptional rookie season with Moncton in 2018-19 in which was named the QMJHL Rookie of the Year.
A year later, he took the Emile Bouchard Trophy as the QMJHL’s top defenseman along with a spot on the league’s First All-Star Team. For extra emphasis in a pandemic-disrupted 2020-21 split between Moncton and Val-d’Or, he again locked down a First All-Star Team honor. And Hockey Canada also noticed, naming him to the silver-medal team at the IIHF World Junior Championship.
Still, there were those doubts about his size, especially with a transition to the pro game. The best ― and really, only ― way to handle those concerns would be to disprove them thoroughly, and three: Spence has made that a mission. To do so meant facing bigger, stronger opposition, and doing it night after night with a pro schedule.
Spence came to the right place to do that. Nearly unanimously, AHL players cite opponents’ size and strength as the most significant challenges that they encounter when moving into this league.
“Everyone just looks at my size, and they’re still unsure if I’m able to compete and able to go against older, bigger players,” Spence acknowledged. “I just had to carry what I can do best to prove to other people that I am fit, and I am able to play in this league. I think I’ve been doing that for pretty much my whole life. I know what I can bring to the table, and it’s kind of good to see how I’m doing and how the team is doing.
“I just have to play my game, play with my agility, play with my speed, and if you’re doing well with that, I think you can compete in any league that you desire.”
Skill overrules size in today’s game, even if those size concerns sometimes persist for players. And rather than look at what Spence lacks, look at what he offers. His excellent skating, fantastic vision, and top-notch hockey mind have put him well on his way to a National Hockey League career at this rate.
“For me,” Spence explained, “I wanted to just play my game and adjust to what the next level was. It was really good, because there were a lot of veterans on our team, and a lot of guys could help me. After I got a little bit of the nervousness and everything out, I started to make more plays and be more confident.”
He certainly did adjust to that next level. Spence’s 2022 began with a 13-game points streak (tied for the AHL’s longest such streak this season) in which he scored twice and handed out 16 assists.
The Kings have also long prioritized a one-on-one development approach tailored to each prospect’s individual needs, strengths, and weaknesses. For Spence, that has meant working closely with former pro defensemen in Reign assistant coach Chris Hajt and Kings development coaches Matt Greene and Sean O’Donnell. That work involves reviewing Spence’s games, tips for all three zones, and simply easing that shift to pro hockey’s demands.
“They’ve been amazing,” Spence said of his development group.
Spence’s Reign will begin their week at 27-9-3-3 (.714), third-best in the AHL, as they continue to chase the league-leading Stockton Heat in the Pacific Division. They swept a home-and-home series with the archrival San Diego Gulls over the weekend, and a busy week awaits with a visit to the Henderson Silver Knights on Wednesday followed by a two-game weekend road series with the Tucson Roadrunners.
Amid those games, Spence will turn 21 on Thursday, and it will be an exceptionally mature 21. Spence has been able to adapt to new and sometimes quite challenging circumstances and find his footing, going back to that move to Canada at age 14. A likeable, friendly personality also serves him well, including when he went through that trade to Val-d’Or along with now-Stockton star forward Jakob Pelletier. The two billeted together in Moncton and continued that bond after the trade.
“I did know a little bit of French,” Spence said, “and I could understand what some of the guys were saying. But it also really helped a lot that I knew Sam Poulin, Nathan Legare, Pelletier. Especially Pelletier.
“When I got to Val-d’or, they were [there] with open arms. The coaches were awesome. It’s the teammates as well. I think three-quarters [of the roster] was [French-speaking], but they really did try to talk to me in English and try to make me comfortable, be on the team, and have a conversation with everybody.”
Now Spence has since taken that junior experience, applied it to his pro game, and worked on changing minds.
“With this generation,” Spence said, “I think the game is really changing.
“Seeing Samuel Girard, Cale Makar, Quinn Hughes, all those guys playing in the NHL [and] being an impact on the team, it also gives [me] and all the other players that are maybe undersized [the] confidence that you can make it to the next level.”
Patrick Williams has been on the American Hockey League beat for nearly two decades for outlets including NHL.com, Sportsnet, TSN, The Hockey News, SiriusXM NHL Network Radio and SLAM! Sports. He was the recipient of the AHL’s James H. Ellery Memorial Award for his outstanding coverage of the league in 2016.