📝 by Patrick Williams
Hockey can shape a life in many ways. A father can, too.
Grand Rapids Griffins forward Tyler Spezia and his late father, Brian, know that bond. Years later, Spezia has carried that bond with him in his journey through pro hockey.
“I didn’t really know what the Grand Rapids Griffins in the American Hockey League were growing up as a kid, but he did,” Spezia explained. “He would have a great understanding of what’s going on [with my career], and so that part of it has been really cool.”
Now 28 years old, Spezia’s life changed dramatically in December 2009 as a 16-year-old growing up just outside of Detroit.
“Around Christmas time, my dad came home, and he was complaining,” Spezia began.
“The first doctor he saw, they said he had pneumonia. And then next, he wasn’t feeling any better. A couple of days went by, he [still] wasn’t feeling any better. The next doctor said that he had bronchitis. Same thing, he wasn’t feeling better. So we went to another doctor, a third doctor. And this was the hammer.
“‘You’ve got Stage IV lung and liver cancer, and you don’t have much time,’” Spezia recalls the doctor telling his father.
“So, I believe it was December 23, he checked into the hospital. And then on January 18, 2010, he passed.”
But before those difficult days, Spezia and his father had bonded over hockey. The Detroit Red Wings ruled the local sports scene, and the team had won four Stanley Cup championships by the time Spezia had turned 15.
“He was a huge sports fan,” Spezia explained. “All Detroit sports – Lions, Tigers, Red Wings, Pistons, didn’t matter. But I would say the Red Wings were his favorite.
“My dad was a huge hockey fan. [He was] probably the reason that I played. Just like many, many players, he was the hockey dad. [Going] on road trips, taking work off, late nights, early mornings, whatever it was, that was him.
“He had a certain spot [where] he stood on the glass to watch all the games. For me, when that was taken out of the equation, it was tough. I didn’t really know what to do. I didn’t really want to play hockey anymore. It was kind of a lot to digest.”
With his father absent, Spezia’s relationship with hockey changed.
“I didn’t want to play hockey,” Spezia recalled. “I ended up playing high school hockey, nothing crazy-competitive. But…I had buddies who were just begging me to play. Got through that tough time just by playing. But there was no bigger picture. It’s not like I was thinking about going to junior, college, or whatever.
“So, I played high school and then kind of just got refocused and rejuvenated. [I] decided to keep playing and just carry him with me on this wild journey I’ve been on.”
That journey took Spezia through the North American Hockey League, United States Hockey League, and on to four seasons at Bowling Green State University, where he served as an alternate captain.
Then that journey continued when the Red Wings organization noticed Spezia, and he earned an opportunity with their ECHL affiliate in Toledo for the 2018-19 season. A strong rookie season that finished with a run to the Kelly Cup Finals also featured eight games with Grand Rapids. From there, Spezia broke out in 2019-20 to earn a role with the Griffins, where he now has become a regular.
“It’s been great, because he was a Red Wings fan,” Spezia said, “and having the privilege to play in the Red Wings organization my entire pro career. So, there are a lot of constant reminders, and it’s been cool.
“I know that if he were here today, he would be pumped just to be a part of the certain experiences I’ve been able to enjoy since turning pro.”
When Spezia was younger, the Red Wings played in the Western Conference, which meant plenty of late nights for his father and him.
“There were countless nights we’d stay up, 10, 10:30,” Spezia remembered. “The game would come on, and we’d watch it.
“He was super analytical. He knew every player. What makes the story to me so cool is that he knew all the guys who were in the minors. He knew the prospects. He knew the guys coming up. He knew the guys who had a future with the Red Wings, and so I’m kind of in that position now. My dad always used to talk about Brian Lashoff, and I’ve had the privilege to play with Brian for four years now. Little things like that.
“He always talked about Nik Kronwall, Steve Yzerman, and Nik Lidstrom. Steve Yzerman is now the boss. Nik Kronwall is now in a player development job, and I see him all the time.
“I still get a little star-struck from the way that I was brought up. Just idolizing these guys and then seeing them on a daily basis and talking to them. He’d be pumped. He was all about the Red Wings, the winged wheel, Steve Yzerman. Our bonds were always the strongest during playoff time. We’d watch every game start to finish. Didn’t matter if it was 10:30 or what.”
And beyond that, Spezia’s father always kept hockey fun for his son.
“Our conversations about hockey were never [systems] or anything like that. It was, ‘Did you work hard?’ And that was it.”
Those lessons also extended to life.
“We didn’t have much growing up,” Spezia said of his family, which includes mom Kelly, sisters Alyssa and Madison, and brothers Chad and Jeremy. “So, they were sacrificing a lot of their time, a lot of their money. And I knew that. They didn’t rub that in my face, but I knew that. So, I kind of just always had this thing where I felt guilty a little bit. They’re doing all this stuff and providing for me, so I could play. So, I’m going to work my tail off.
“If I didn’t work hard, I was going to hear about it. It wasn’t that I was going to hear about it in a horrible way; I was going to hear about it father to son. I didn’t want to have those conversations with my parents ever, and so I just kept that [lesson] with me. But I think [that] work ethic for sure is straight from him and my mom.
“Honestly, the reason that I’ve gotten this far is just [I] never quit. My dad grinded his whole life working, providing for us five kids. He handed that on to me, and I’ve been fortunate enough to get some situations where I’ve been able to climb.”
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 is currently the co-host of the Around the A Podcast.
Patrick was the recipient of the AHL’s James H. Ellery Memorial Award for his outstanding coverage of the league in 2016.