Color of Hockey: Spence’s unique, unconventional path to NHL with Kings

Jordan Spence is the NHL version of an international travel adapter.

The 21-year-old rookie defenseman for the Los Angeles Kings was born in Manly, Australia, a suburb of northern Sydney. He started playing hockey in Osaka, Japan and moved to Cornwall, Prince Edward Island as a teenager who spoke mostly Japanese to pursue his NHL dream.

The dream came true when the Kings called him up March 9 from Ontario of the American Hockey League to help a defense corps decimated by injuries to Drew Doughty, Mikey Anderson, Alexander Edler, Sean Walker, Tobias Bjornfot and Matt Roy. Doughty had wrist surgery April 11 and will not return this season.

A fourth-round pick (No. 95) in the 2019 NHL Draft, Spence played meaningful minutes in the Kings ’drive to the Stanley Cup Playoffs. He scored eight points (two goals, six assists) and averaged 19:45 of ice time in 24 NHL games to help Los Angeles (44-27-11) make the postseason for the first time since 2018. The Kings will play the Edmonton Oilers in the Western Conference First Round with Game 1 at Rogers Place on Monday (10 pm ET; ESPN2, CBC, SN, TVAS, BSW).

Spence credits a unique hockey journey for making a smooth transition into the NHL.

“Yeah, I absolutely think moving all over the place has helped me adapt,” he said. “The adjustments that I made as a young kid, I think, that’s really helped a lot.”

Spence played 46 games for Ontario, scoring 42 points (four goals, 38 assists). He worked his way onto the second power-play unit with Los Angeles.

“He has surprised me, just me as an individual, because to come from junior (hockey) and be able to jump into the NHL as a defenseman halfway through a year and play consistently like he has, I didn’t expect that, I ‘d be lying if I said I did, “Kings coach Todd McLellan said. “But all he does is prove himself every night and maybe others, me (included), being wrong.”

McClellan said the 5-foot-10, 180-pound defenseman moves the puck well and has a tremendous shot that he’s been encouraged to take more often.

“I thought there were moments in the first 10 games where he didn’t want to shoot, and it actually cost us a goal one night,” McLellan said. “And now he’s learned that he has permission to shoot it.”

Spence’s path to the NHL isn’t the conventional one, thanks to his parents. His father, Adam, is a native of Prince Edward Island who had a case of wanderlust in his youth. He traveled to Japan, where he played inline hockey and met his future wife, Kyoko, who is Japanese. The couple moved to Australia after someone suggested to Adam that he try inline hockey there.

When Jordan turned 1, Adam and Kyoko moved to Osaka, where Jordan began playing baseball, which is popular in Japan, and inherited his father’s passion for hockey. He was skilled in both time-consuming sports, his father said, and his parents eventually asked him to choose the one he’d focus on.

“It was a really tough choice because I really enjoyed playing baseball as well,” Jordan said. “It was also really fun, same as hockey. At the end of the day, one of the reasons we moved to Prince Edward Island, to Canada, was for me to pursue hockey.”

The family relocated, but Spence moved ahead of them to start playing hockey. He knew little English. In Osaka, he spoke Japanese about 98 percent of the time.

“It was a pretty hard time for me,” Spence said. “Obviously you know the basics of ‘Hey, thank you, how are you doing, good.’ Besides that, I couldn’t make a lot of sentences in English. So it was really hard to communicate, obviously, when I went to school, (with) my coaches, even my grandparents. It’s also hard just to try to have friends. as you can’t really speak. Luckily, I think I learned English pretty well. It was pretty quick. It was helpful to have the support of my dad, my grandparents, obviously my teachers when I was young to help me through that. “

Hockey and baseball helped Spence navigate two cultures in two countries, his father said. He credits Japanese baseball for making his son the hockey player that he’s become.

“Jordan played baseball very competitively, even though he was a young boy, and it was very much comparable to the hockey in Canada environment,” Adam said. “When he came to Canada and started playing very competitive hockey, he kind of had that embedded into him through his schooling in Japan and baseball in Japan. I think the combination of it all really helped him to adapt into the Canadian culture and hockey in Canada.”

At age 16, Spence was bypassed in his first year of eligibility in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League Draft.

“It was a tough couple of days after the draft,” he said. “My dad just took me aside and he was the one saying, ‘Keep going. If you really want to play and you really see a future, you just have to work hard. Prove them wrong.'”

Spence used not being drafted as fuel when he played for the Summerside in the Maritime Junior Hockey League, where he scored 52 points (13 goals, 39 assists) in 2017-18. Moncton of the QMJHL then chose him with the No. 20 pick in the 2018 QMJHL Draft. He scored 49 points (six goals, 43 assists) in 2018-19 and was named the QMJHL defensive rookie of the year. He won the Emile Bouchard Trophy as defenseman of the year in 2019-20 after scoring 52 points (nine goals, 43 assists) in 60 games.

Previous Bouchard Trophy winners include Kris Letang of the Pittsburgh Penguins (2006-07), Thomas Chabot of the Ottawa Senators, Keith Yandle of the Philadelphia Flyers and Eric Desjardins, who played 17 NHL seasons for the Montreal Canadiens and Flyers.

Spence split the 2020-21 season between Moncton and Val-d’Or, scoring 40 points (10 goals, 30 assists) in 32 games. He helped Canada finish second at the 2021 IIHF World Junior Championship in Edmonton, where he scored one goal in two games. He hopes his hockey journey inspires more kids in Japan to play the sport.

“I think as the years go on (hockey) is going to get bigger and bigger and, hopefully, they see that with me playing in the NHL right now, that could be you someday in the future.”

NHL.com independent correspondent Dan Greenspan contributed to this story

Photos: Adam Spence

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