The Florida Panthers and star Jay Bouwmeester toil in obscurity

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It's halfway through the first period of the Florida Panthers' game against the Minnesota Wild. Panthers goaltender Tomas Vokoun skates behind the goal to retrieve a puck. He whacks at it, trying to send it around the boards. But his fat goaltender's stick misses the puck.

No time to swing again. Wild center Mikko Koivu is nearly on top of him. Fortunately, Panthers top defenseman Jay Bouwmeester is coming to the rescue.

Bouwmeester is two inches taller and about 20 pounds heavier than Koivu. That advantage means Bouwmeester can slam Koivu into the boards before he can get to the puck. That kind of aggression is second nature to burly Canadians.

But Bouwmeester doesn't deliver. Because Koivu has his balance as well as a free arm, he pushes the puck in front of the net. With a flash, another Wild player flicks it past Vokoun for the game's first goal.

A quiet arena gets a little quieter.

Later, the Panthers will release an attendance figure of more than 12,000. Even that dismal figure, however, is inflated by all the tickets given to guests who never showed. And it's even more disappointing in light of a recent team promotion that bestows two complimentary tickets on any soul with a Florida driver's license. It's plain to see that the BankAtlantic Center, an arena that seats more than 20,000, isn't half full. It's only the Florida Panthers' second home game, but fan apathy is in midseason form.

Playing host to the undefeated Wild, this game presents the Panthers with ample chance to make their case for contender status. Besides, there's no doubting the sheer potential of a team that's been stocked with so many top draft picks – even if that harvest resulted from a string of losing seasons.

Last year, the Panthers lost 25 games by only one goal, a statistic that suggests they're on the brink – or that they're merely victims of bad luck. The Panthers had an anemic start in 2007, winning just seven of their first 19 games, a deficit they had to rally against the rest of the year only to narrowly miss the playoffs. If they could just start quickly this year, maybe the fans would follow, and then this franchise could finally have what it has missed for a decade: momentum.

Among the players, none has more at stake than Bouwmeester, who was the top-rated player in the 2002 draft and has been a mainstay on the Panthers blue line ever since. Only recently turned 25, Bouwmeester (usually pronounced Bo-mister) is the second-most-tenured Panther.

Bouwmeester was an All-Star in 2007 and just missed earning that honor again last year. This season, there's greater urgency for him to do well. Last summer, Bouwmeester rejected the Panthers' efforts to sign him to a long-term contract, signing instead to a one-year deal, effectively inviting the team to deal him midseason to a team with a better chance to win the Stanley Cup. That is, unless the Panthers suddenly become a Cup contender themselves.

A significant share of that responsibility – given his nearly $5 million salary – belongs to Bouwmeester. "First thing is that you have to make the playoffs," he says after a recent game. "That's something that hasn't happened here for a number of years."

Eight, in fact.

Bouwmeester has the skills to be a franchise player, and it's tempting to blame the franchise that he's not. After all, the Panthers adopted this prodigy when he was 18, and over his five seasons, he has been passed among a dizzying array of caretakers – a carousel of faces in the front office and behind the bench. The knock on Bouwmeester has always been that he doesn't play with enough passion, toughness. But it's hard to be a fiery player without fired-up fans.

Perhaps the real question is whether the Panthers and South Florida were ever compatible to begin with. Maybe a fan base that doesn't clamor for a glimpse at the Hall of Fame talent that lies within Jay Bouwmeester doesn't deserve to see it realized. If that's the case, then it's hard to blame Bouw­meester for beginning to pack his bags.

A month before the 2002 NHL draft, the Panthers flew Bouwmeester to South Florida to meet him face to face. It was the first time he'd seen the ocean, and Bouwmeester told a reporter, "That just blew me away."

As the draft approached, though, Bouw­meester seemed increasingly queasy about the expectations that awaited him on the other side. "It's an honor, really, to get all the attention I've gotten," the 18-year-old said just days before he became the Panthers' first-round pick. "But I keep asking myself what it really means if I don't keep getting better and prove myself in the NHL. That's a man's league. I'm still a kid."

Dan Bouwmeester guesses that his son handled a hockey stick "before he could walk," which means that he was younger than nine months. And he could skate not long after he walked, which means not long after his first birthday. Of course, neither of these is particularly exceptional in western Canada, where Jay Bouwmeester was raised. Nor is it rare to have a rink in one's backyard, as the Bouwmeesters did. "It's Canada," Dan Bouwmeester says. "We're fanatical about hockey."

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

The same cannot be said of the second video. It shows a hit by Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Denis Gauthier that sends Bouwmeester tumbling head over heels into the Flyers bench.

Bouwmeester leveled by Denis Gauthier

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.

Although even the top picks in the NHL draft often start their professional careers in the minors, Bouwmeester played all 82 games of his rookie season. But that year, as well as his second, Bouwmeester didn't quite look the part of a scoring defenseman, collecting just six goals.

After a labor dispute canceled the 2004-05 season, league officials worried about fan support. They drafted rule changes that favored athletic skaters and led to more goals. A less physical, finesse game favored the sport's pure athletes, like Bouwmeester. He stepped into the opposing team's offensive zone with more frequency, assisting on 41 goals. The next year, at age 23, Bouwmeester became a goal-scoring threat, notching a dozen. Last season, he scored a career-high 15.

Even with that increase in scoring, the statistic that defensemen prize most is their plus/minus. That is, the ratio between goals one's team scores while he's on the ice versus how many his team gives up. It can be misleading for players like Bouwmeester, who has had so few All-Star teammates. But it's still a measure of his development that Bouwmeester's ratio improved every year from minus-29 as a rookie to plus-23 in his fourth season. Now, Bouwmeester has a career average of minus-28.

Those were solid numbers, but the 18-year-old Bouwmeester was right to feel the weight of the comparisons made between him and the league's best-ever defensemen. When Larry Robinson was Bouwmeester's age, his time on the ice brought him a plus-120 ratio. Bobby Orr managed a plus-124. When he was just 24, Paul Coffey scored 48 goals.

"I'm one of the people who looks at Jay Bouwmeester and wonders when the star will emerge," says Ken Campbell, a columnist for The Hockey News. "You watch him skate and you can see his size, but after a game, sometimes you wonder whether he even played."

That tendency to fade into the scenery is the reason Campbell rates Bouwmeester as one of the league's top 20 defenseman. Based on raw ability, Campbell would rank him in the top five. "He doesn't have that intensity, the mean streak. He doesn't play a physically demanding, punishing game. It's not in his makeup. And it will continue to keep him from being an elite defenseman in the league."

Lacking that quality, opposing players are bolder about standing in front of the Panthers net, where they can deflect a teammate's shot for a goal. Or they're obliged to bully smaller Panthers players, daring Bouwmeester to come to his teammate's aid.

Campbell isn't even convinced that Bouwmeester really makes his teammates better, pointing to the losing records that followed him from junior hockey in Medicine Hat into the NHL with the Panthers.

Dan Bouwmeester has been hearing critics talk about his son's lack of toughness for years. It still quickens his temper. "Anybody who says he's not tough is out to lunch," he snaps. He cites a game last season when his son roughed up Montreal Canadiens wing Alexei Kovalev in retaliation for a hit on Panther center Nathan Horton.

But that kind of rough play is a rarity for Bouwmeester. Last year, no defenseman in hockey played more minutes than Jay Bouwmeester, partly because he managed to stay out of the penalty box. By Dan Bouwmeester's reckoning, it takes more guts to stay on the ice and risk eating a 100-mph slapshot than it does to skate to the penalty box. "Some of these detractors should try standing in front of a net for 30 minutes a night before they talk about toughness."

The Panthers take at least some of the blame for Bouwmeester's inability to meet his potential. The front office has been unable to develop a star forward, despite seven top 10 draft picks in the past ten years. The Panthers blundered mightily in trading away star goalie Roberto Luongo. They've also gone through coaches at a rate that would make George Steinbrenner blush.

After Bouwmeester was drafted, he was coached by the legendary Mike Keenan. In Bouwmeester's second year, Keenan was fired, replaced on an interim basis by Dudley, who gave way to John Torchetti in 2004. When Keenan returned to the franchise as GM, he brought in yet another new coach, Jacques Martin, who also assumed the GM's job when Keenan left in 2006. After last season, Martin stepped down as coach but remained as GM, hiring Peter DeBoer behind the bench. DeBoer, a decorated junior hockey coach, came in with no experience leading a pro team. He is Bouw­meester's fifth coach in five pro seasons.

"It's fair to say that the Panthers are one of the worst-run franchises in the NHL, and it shows in their record," says Scott Burnside, hockey analyst for ESPN.com. "What would Jay Bouwmeester be like if he'd have gone to a team with more stability in coaching and general management?"

To Dan Bouwmeester, that's a tantalizing question. It's evident that he's been frustrated not only by the way the Panthers have handled his son but by the very existence of a hockey team in a region that doesn't appreciate it. "It shouldn't even be in the NHL," he says. "It's not a hockey town. Why is it even down there?"

The Panthers training facility sits on a scorched tract of land just east of the Sawgrass Expressway, off Sample Road in Coral Springs. The 40-degree disparity between outside and in keeps the automatic glass doors fogged. At Panthers practices, the chilly air combines with the sight of so many Anglo faces with their Canadian and European voices, making these players seem like exotic species kept in captivity made to resemble their natural habitat. But Dan Bouwmeester's question is hard to answer: Why is a hockey team down here?

Ostensibly, the players are emissaries of their imported sport, and the Panthers were created 15 years ago thanks to the league's interest in popularizing the NHL in a big media market that otherwise had little reason to follow hockey.

The original team owner was Waste Management and Blockbuster Video magnate H. Wayne Huizenga, who must have soured on his investment as the team struggled to locate fans in the late '90s. In 2001, he sold the franchise to an investment group led by Alan Cohen, a pharmaceutical entrepreneur, for $101 million. A study by Forbes magazine last year estimated the team's value at $151 million. But partly due to low ticket sales, the Panthers were one of the few teams that operated at a loss. Forbes ranked the Panthers the 23rd most valuable franchise out of the 30 in the NHL. The team occupies roughly the same lowly place in attendance, drawing only about 15,000 per game, a number that has held steady for the past three years.

But those fans can be expected to follow this team only if it wins, which it has not — at least not lately. Twelve years have passed since the Panthers made an improbable run to the Stanley Cup Finals (where they were swept by the Colorado Avalanche). Since then, the Panthers have posted a record of 338 wins, 385 losses, and 145 ties or overtime losses. Over that lengthy span, the team has won only a single playoff game.

Entering this season, there was little to suggest the team could reverse its slide. In the offseason, the Panthers traded its leading scorer, Olli Jokinen. "Obviously, it means that me, Weiss, Olesz, and Booth all need to do a lot more than we have," says Nathan Horton, who was the third pick in the 2003 draft. Rostislav Olesz (pronounced OH-lesh) was the seventh pick in the 2004 draft, while David Booth was the team's second-round pick that same year.

To this nucleus of underachievers, the Panthers added a veteran overachiever. Cory Stillman, a balding 34-year-old with a knack for scoring goals, is playing on his sixth NHL team. The hope is that Stillman can provide steadiness on a roster of young players whose collective pride may still be smarting after last year's many one-goal losses. "It could be a lot of things," Stillman says after practice, knitting his brow like a doctor inspecting an x-ray. "But the biggest thing is having confidence that you're going to win if you're up by a goal – or if you're down by a goal. It's a habit to come to the rink expecting to win."

Bouwmeester comes off as more circumspect than his teammates, maybe because he has spent more time with the Panthers franchise. "It's easy to be positive this time of year," he says, speaking after practice, two weeks before the start of the regular season. "There's some optimism. We have new coaches, new players, an investment in defense. And everyone's got a good attitude."

But in Bouwmeester's monotone, with his habit of shrugging, looking over the head and to the side of whomever he's talking to, he sounds like someone who's placed his car for sale and is trying to remember its best attributes.

If so, it's understandable given Bouwmeester's uncertain future with the franchise. Panthers GM Jacques Martin was apparently so pessimistic about whether Bouwmeester would stay that he acquired three defensemen this past offseason: Bryan McCabe, Nick Boynton, and Keith Ballard.

At the very least, it means Bouwmeester isn't likely to repeat as the NHL's ice-time leader, which he admits "would be nice, I guess."

In the locker room after a 6-0 victory in a preseason game, Bouwmeester is slightly more effusive than usual. He is not offended that only a half-filled BankAtlantic Center bore witness to his goal and the team's triumph: That's hockey in South Florida. "It's different, but everywhere is different," Bouwmeester says. "You take it for what it is. If you don't have much success, the fans don't pay that much attention to you, but it's an open market, and as long as you win, you're going to get fans here."

Typically, though, South Florida sports fans need winning and colorful sports personalities — Dan Marino, Shaquille O'Neal, Dwyane Wade. The Panthers, it seems, need a player who can both dominate a game and be a flamboyant ambassador out of uniform. Bouwmeester may be the only Panther who meets the first requirement, but he's not interested in being the latter.

"Part of the problem with Jay Bouwmeester," says ESPN's Scott Burnside, "is that he's not a particularly dynamic kid off the ice. He's a good western Canadian boy who does all his talking on the ice. He's not like [Washington Capitals star] Alexei Ovechkin or [Chicago Blackhawks star] Patrick Kane, whose personalities lend themselves to that kind of marketing. But there's no question [Bouwmeester] has the talent to be a franchise player."

That preseason game October 6 versus the New York Islanders provided a vivid reminder. During a second-period power play, as Stillman chased the puck in the corner, Bouwmeester crept in from the right point. He flashed into a passing lane that Stillman anticipated perfectly. Bouwmeester one-timed Stillman's pass into the goal. That looked so easy, it's hard to imagine why it would take more than a month before a Bouwmeester shot found the net again.

On October 16 against the Minnesota Wild, the Panthers manage to score a goal in the second period, but they're still behind 2-1. For nearly ten minutes, the teams play to a stalemate. Then, with the Wild on a power play, the Wild's Mikko Koivu handles the puck near the right face-off dot. Peripherally, he spots an opening between Bouwmeester, fellow defenseman Nick Boynton, and Panthers rookie Gregory Campbell. Koivu fires a pass through that slot. The puck finds Minnesota's Antti Miettinen, who wrists a shot over a diving Tomas Vokoun.

This sequence, as well as the one that resulted in the Wild's first goal, are the ones that Bouwmeester will remember as he sits in the locker room after the game, a 6-2 loss. He'll have forgotten about the long, perfect outlet pass he made just before he was checked that landed right on Campbell's stick as he streaked for a breakaway scoring chance. Nor will he remember his poke check that spoiled what would have been a Wild breakaway.

Asked after the game to name a positive, a sulking Bouwmeester gives a rueful laugh. "This is one you just try to forget and move on."

With the loss, the Panthers fall to 1-2. Coach DeBoer wears a strained expression at his post-game news conference. Asked whether he noticed how few people were in the stands, he answers, "No. I didn't. But we've got to give them something to cheer about, and tonight we didn't."

The following week, on a South Florida radio program, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman snuffed out rumors that the Panthers franchise would be scrapped.

"It's mostly a Canadian fantasy that teams like Florida disappear and the league contracts back to 24 or 26 teams," says Burnside, the ESPN analyst. "Unless Cohen gets tired of having a lousy team in a lousy market, nobody's going to take the team away from him."

For a team that seems to lose a star every year, it would be heartbreaking to the team's few fans to watch Bouwmeester go the way of Jokinen and Luongo. The chances of the strapping defenseman's staying in Florida? "Slim," says Burnside, who named Bouwmeester among the prizes that could be had at this season's trading deadline if the price is right. He thinks Bouwmeester may play with more passion if he goes to a true hockey market, like those in his native Canada, where he'll be reunited with rabid fans.

So far, Bouwmeester has avoided the subject of his commitment to the franchise, saying that the future is up to the Panthers. But his father, Dan, seems to have two hands firmly on the crystal ball. "I know what's going to happen," he says cryptically, "but I can't be open about it."

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