Three great goodbyes
by Andrew Podnieks|20 JUN 2022
Team Canada captain Ryan Getzlaf during the 2012 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship.
photo: Jeff Vinnick / HHOF-IIHF Images
It’s always a pleasure to watch a young player enter the NHL and play the game in a special way, but then it’s equally difficult to say goodbye many years later. The 2021/22 season has proved to be the final one for three distinguished pros in particular who contributed to their club teams and national teams in extraordinary ways.

Consider the outstanding career of Ryan Getzlaf. The 37-year-old came within a single goal of joining the Triple Gold Club but nevertheless leaves behind a trail of success seldom equalled in the 21st century. Born in Regina, Saskatchewan, Getzlaf played junior in Calgary and first made his mark at the U18 in 2003 in Yaroslavl. He scored the final goal in a 3-0 Canada win over Slovakia in the gold-medal game, and that summer he was drafted by Anaheim 19th overall. Of course, he couldn’t have known then what he knows now – that he would play his entire 17-year NHL career with the Ducks. 

Getzlaf returned to Calgary for a year after being drafted, and another because of the lockout. This allowed him the chance to play for Canada at the World Junior Championship both years, where the team won a silver in 2004 and a gold a year later on a team that included Sidney Crosby and Patrice Bergeron and might well be the greatest U20 team of all time. Getzlaf had a goal and two assists in Canada’s one-sided 6-1 win over Russia for gold, to this day the biggest margin of victory in a U20 gold-medal game (although Canada beat Russia again in 2006 by a 5-0 score).

After making the Ducks out of training camp in 2005, Getzlaf wasted no time in developing into a power forward. He could score, pass, and hit, and even early on he was clearly a leader on and off ice. In his first four seasons, his point production went from 39 to 58 to 82 to 91 points, and in just his second season the Ducks won the Stanley Cup. 

A year later, he played for Canada at his first World Championship, during the IIHF’s 100th anniversary celebrations in Quebec City. Canada led Russia, 4-2, heading into the third period of the gold-medal game before losing 5-4 in overtime, and that was as close as Getzlaf got. He played only one other WM, in 2012, when Canada finished fifth.

With Anaheim, Getzlaf was a master of consistency and tenacity. There were no off nights for him, no off shifts. He battled every time he was on the ice, and when Scott Niedermayer retired in 2010 it was a fait accompli that “Getz” would inherit Niedermayer’s captaincy. He wore the “C” for the rest of his career.

Internationally, Getzlaf played three more events, winning them all. He helped Canada take gold at both the 2010 and 2014 Olympics, and in 2016 he was part of Canada’s successful run to victory at the Word Cup. In his final NHL season, he ticked another box on his Hall of Fame resume by reaching 1,000 career points, finishing with 1,019 in 1,157 regular-season games. In the playoffs, he averaged nearly a point a game, a remarkable level of productivity, retiring with 120 in 125 games. 

Another Saskatchewan boy also called it a career this past season, although he didn’t play in 2021/22. Patrick Marleau of tiny Aneroid left the game having played more regular-season games than any player in league history, 1,779. He surpassed Gordie Howe in 2020/21 and finished with just 12 more than the great Mr. Hockey.

And like Getzlaf, Marleau had two of the three victories needed for the Triple Gold Club. In his case, he missed out on the Stanley Cup, coming closest in 2016 when San Jose went to the Cup finals only to lose to Sidney Crosby’s Pittsburgh Penguins in six games.

Marleau was drafted 2nd overall by the Sharks in 1997 (Boston took Joe Thornton 1st) and made the team at his first training camp that fall at age 18. For the next 19 years he was the very embodiment of consistency and durability, using his speed to generate offence while seldom missing games because of injury. But as he and the team improved, the Sharks continued to be eliminated early in the playoffs. Marleau became a reliable scorer, reaching 25 goals pretty much every year and peaking with 44 in 2009/10. 

He played in four World Championships for Canada in a six-year stretch, 1999-2005, winning gold in 2003 and silver two years later. And he was teammates with Getzlaf on the biggest stage twice, winning Olympic gold at home in Vancouver in 2010 and again four years later in Sochi. 

Marleau signed as a free agent with Toronto in 2017 and stayed with the Leafs for two years, still contributing on the scoresheet but also helping to mentor the team’s promising young core that included Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews. Marleau finished his career back in San Jose and ended with 566 goals and 1,197 points. He also is a sure inductee into the Hockey Hall of Fame when he becomes eligible. 

Jason Spezza realized a dream by finishing his career with the Leafs, retiring just a few weeks ago and moving right into the front office under GM Kyle Dubas. The 39-year-old Spezza left the game tantalizingly close to the magic 1,000-point mark, finishing with 995 in a career that began in 2002 with the Ottawa Senators. 

Spezza was famous for being only 15 when he played junior hockey with Brampton in 1998, and he was just the third 16-year-old to play for Canada at the World Junior Championship when he played in 2000, winning a bronze medal. It was his first of three consecutive U20s, and he won another bronze and then silver in 2001 and ’02, respectively. 

In 2001, he had been drafted by Ottawa 2nd overall but he was sent to the team’s AHL affiliate at the Senators’ training camp that fall. Disappointed, he nevertheless worked his way up midway through the season and became one of the team’s bright young stars alongside Daniel Alfredsson and Dany Heatley. In 2003/04, his first full season, Spezza had 22 goals and was one of the league’s bright stars, but like everyone else his career was on hold a year later because of the lockout. In 2005/06, he reached 90 points, and a year later the team made it to the Stanley Cup finals, losing to Anaheim in five games. Spezza led that 2007 playoffs in both assists (15) and points (22). That was as close as he ever got to the hallowed trophy. 

In all, he played 1,248 games over 19 seasons, the last three in Toronto. He also appeared in four World Championships, first in 2008, winning silver at home. He won silver again a year later and finished 5th with Canada in 2011, but his career highlight came in 2015 when he helped Canada win gold. Spezza led the tournament in scoring with 14 points in ten games and was named IIHF Directorate Best Forward.