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Dan Bouwmeester played hockey at the University of Alberta, as did Rick Carriere, who kept an eye on young Jay's performance. He had first seen Jay at a Christmas party when Carriere was dressed as Santa and "along came Jay Bouwmeester to sit on Santa's knee." Dan brought his son to the rink to skate at alumni functions, and Carriere noticed how effortlessly the boy could skate backward – and with speed, a skill that marks a great defenseman. Carriere would become general manager of the Medicine Hat Tigers, and when Jay turned 16, Carriere made the boy the first pick in the Canadian junior-league draft.
"He was a phenomenal, phenomenal skater," Carriere recalls. "To see him at 16 come flying out of the zone with the puck, drive the net, and score, you knew he was special. When he was 15, he could have played in the [National Hockey] League."
Carriere's Medicine Hat team was young, however, and even with Bouwmeester in the lineup, the Tigers were a last-place club. That hardly mattered to fans. "We played in front of a packed house every night in Medicine Hat," Carriere says. The arena seated 4,000, and a sellout is no small feat considering there are fewer than 60,000 residents of Medicine Hat, which is isolated in Alberta's southeast corner. (This past March, the team just barely missed a sellout, ending a streak that had stretched across five seasons and nearly 200 games.)
If that weren't enough buzz over Bouwmeester, in 2000, he was selected to play for Canada's under-18 national team. At 16, he was the youngest player ever to be chosen for that team — and one of only three other 16-year-olds. None of those were defensemen, however, so Bouwmeester started earning comparisons to Hall of Famers like Larry Robinson and Paul Coffey.
In that company, even a kid from Edmonton is liable to develop an ego. Instead, young Bouwmeester seemed embarrassed over the attention. He was polite but quiet, a bit withdrawn. "Kind of like Gary Cooper," chuckles Jim Matheson, a Hockey Hall of Fame sportswriter who covered Bouwmeester for the Edmonton Journal. "It's tough to get him to say more than a few words."
By spring 2002, the foremost player ranking service, NHL Central Scouting, named Bouwmeester the world's best pro prospect, citing his six-foot-four frame, his booming slapshot, and his knack for always being in the right place on the ice. But the most dazzling endorsement came from Bobby Orr, considered the best defenseman to play the sport, who predicted that by the time Bouwmeester retired, they'd be saying the same about him.
If Bouwmeester had been uncomfortable with his celebrity in Canada, then he could hardly find a professional hockey market that offered more anonymity than South Florida, where the Panthers ranked in the league's bottom five in attendance.
Heading into the 2002 draft, the Panthers hadn't won a playoff game in five years. The team hadn't fielded a star defenseman since it traded Ed Jovanovski in 1999. Bouwmeester looked like the missing piece of a team stocked with talented young forwards and already with a franchise goalie, Roberto Luongo.
Rick Dudley, who was then the Panthers' general manager, made the call to draft Bouwmeester. "Jay's range backwards and his skating forward are in the stratosphere – dimensional," Dudley says. "His ability to go from one side of the ice to the other is unmatched." While scouts sometimes watch a player for hours to see a flash of greatness, Dudley says that with Bouwmeester, "It took five minutes to see he had it."
By October 2002, shortly after his 19th birthday, Bouwmeester signed a contract that would pay him more than $1 million a year. Now, all he had to do was make good on those lofty expectations and he'd help turn this Panthers franchise into a winner again.
Pop the name Bouwmeester into YouTube and the first two videos describe two different players. The first one, from a game in November 2005, shows Bouwmeester delivering a hard check to Pittsburgh's Maxime Talbot. The Penguins center takes umbrage to the hit and taunts Bouwmeester, who drops his gloves on the spot. Judging by the tape, the smaller Talbot somehow lands a few more punches. Now in his fifth NHL season, it is the only fight of Bouwmeester's career. Although he didn't win that scrap, he at least didn't embarrass himself.Jay Bouwmeester vs Maxime Talbot
According to the moral relativity that applies to the NHL, Bouwmeester would have been expected to stand up and coldcock the nearest Flyer on the bench. Failing that, it would be appropriate for him to hunt down Gauthier on the next shift and invite him to a slugging match. Surely Gauthier, who could fill a library with his own scrap videos, would have been game.
Bouwmeester did neither.
The gushy scouting reports that followed Bouwmeester into the NHL contained so many positive attributes, covering every aspect of the game, that there seemed to be nothing negative to say. So it may have appeared an afterthought, purely for the sake of balance, that scouts listed two trifles: Bouwmeester had not played on a winning junior team, and he had shown no penchant for intimidation. He wasn't mean, and he could stand to be more physical.