Arizona hockey pioneer Spina hangs up the skates, calls it a career
Long before Auston Matthews was getting picked No. 1 in the NHL Draft, or even before players like Zac Larraza and Dusty Collins, there was Dave Spina.
Spina was the initial high-profile hockey player from Arizona that “made it” in the game, spurring a growth in hockey that later saw Collins, Larraza and Matthews play for USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program (NTDP) and Matthews ply his trade in the NHL. Spina also spent a season with Team USA.
This past offseason, after a 12-year professional career, the 34-year-old Mesa native decided to retire from hockey due to concussions. Prior to the pro game, Spina played four years at NCAA Division I powerhouse Boston College and also signed NHL contracts with the then-Phoenix Coyotes and St. Louis Blues and played preseason games with each club.
Not too shabby for a kid from the desert.
Still, Spina said it hasn’t hit home yet that he’ll have free weekends moving forward. He played the last six seasons overseas and the previous six in the American Hockey League and ECHL.
“Now that I’m a parent, and it’s still weird saying that, do you really have free weekends?” asked Spina. “It’s really more awkward to wake up every day and not ache or hurt. My workouts are intense still because I truly enjoy working out, but nothing like what they used to be. I enjoy running with my wife and trying new ways to stay active, not just hockey-focused training 24/7. It’s an amazing feeling to plan around holidays now and put down some roots. I catch the occasional highlight here or there that makes me want to hop off the couch and put my equipment on, but that’s the beauty of a young family – they keep you busy and fulfilled.”
Spina’s family moved from Seattle to Arizona when he was eight and back then, Oceanside was the only travel program in town and was one of two rinks in the entire area.
“My parents picked our home in Mesa because it fell under the 20-minute circle of commute time to the rink,” said Spina. “My team of 14 Mite players had the best group of parents and parent coaches you could ever imagine. Eleven of us went on to get NCAA D-I scholarships and I’m still close with some of those guys today. Hockey was my first love and nothing compared. As I progressed skill-wise, all I wanted was hockey anything. I wanted to be outside playing street hockey if I wasn’t at the rink. I used to play an old boombox in my backyard and roller blade on my sport court for countless hours stick handling and shooting pucks. Hockey was what was taken from me when I misbehaved or got a bad grade.
“That feeling of skating was pure freedom and speed. It was as close to flying as I could imagine and that feeling has never left me, even now with retirement.”
In fine-tuning his game in Arizona, Spina said the list of positive influences and coaches is lengthy.
“Honestly, all of them played a role, but if I had to name a few, Terry Flaishans, Lindsay Thompson, Brad Bayer, Kurt Goar and Todd Collins were direct coaches that I can pinpoint things they said or helped me move forward that I look back on and say, ‘That directly and positively impacted my mindset or skillset at those young ages,’” said Spina. “There are countless other people that helped from Adam Mims, Sean Whyte, Jim Buyer – these guys made sure I was always welcome to get ice and had a place to hone my skills. It was really amazing how much support and help I received from countless people. I’m probably leaving a bunch of people off this list, but I was really lucky to have just the best people looking out for me and providing a platform to have success.”
At 16, Spina left home to play for the Texas Tornado, a longtime powerhouse franchise in the North American Hockey League, for the 1999-2000 season. He then made the NTDP the following year before going to play for legendary coach Jerry York at BC.
He noted that through juniors and college, eyebrows were raised when people found out he was from Arizona.
“I think the hardest thing was it really impacted my career, even though I was as good if not better than a lot of players,” said Spina. “The skepticism never left, even when I was signed with the Coyotes and led the AHL team in points. I literally had NHL GMs and staff tell me it was an issue. You’d think that after that much success and years playing at high levels, people would judge you more on your results and the type of person you are, but it was a reason, maybe not a good one, but it was a reason to either send me down or try to push me aside.
“But all that did was motivate me to deal with the constant doubt. I love the fact that many players I’ve played with that had tremendous NHL careers have said, ‘How did you not play in the NHL for most of your career?’ Guys like Henrik Tallinder, Eric Perrin, Ladislav Nagy, Petteri Nummelin, Jeff Giuliano, and more. Those guys gave me the confidence as great teammates and people that every player needs in their career when you’re playing in situations wondering if this is all worth it. It made me realize that the NHL is the best league in the world with most of the best players in the world, but not all of them, and you can have a successful career in many ways.”
Now working in real estate in the Boston area and married to his wife, Megan, and raising their children, Evelyn, 3, and Harvey, 15 months, Spina noted that it never really struck him that he would play such a prominent role in Arizona hockey.
“The funny thing is I was so consumed with being as good as I could be every day, even up until the last game I played, I never really worried about that sort of thing,” Spina said. “I’m honored that people see me in that light and I hope I have made other players’ paths a little easier than mine was. I was lucky to have the Coyotes move into town at the right time and Mike Gartner tell my parents, ‘Your son needs to leave soon and play better hockey.’ My parents are such good people and making them proud was a huge priority, and still is. I wasn’t perfect by any means, but I seemed to get the velocity of my situation at a young age and stayed focused to achieve goals I had in mind. I think social media has closed the gap on where you are from and opportunity now. I’m proud to be from Arizona and have forged my way through when it wasn’t common, but I’m also happy to see Arizona get its rightful respect, in large in part from Auston Matthews being a phenom. I think Arizona rivals anywhere in the world with hockey development with so many great NHL and pro players calling it home base now and I’m sure there will be some great players coming through in years to come.
“I love the game of hockey and it provided so many things in life. I wouldn’t change a thing and I will find a way to fill the space that hockey leaves, but also find a way to stay involved to some extent the rest of my life.”
— Matt Mackinder
(Dec. 6, 2017)