It’s been a hockey story eighteen years in the making and although the plot has been it’s juiciest the past three or four winters, the book is within just months of it’s climax, at least of volume one. This story is about a kid out of Edmonton who they say can skate as effortlessly as water flowing down a river, has all the modern tools of the game in his shot and natural size and seemingly can control or change the outcome of game if he so desires.
His name is Jay Bouwmeester (pronounced Boo-meester) and this year is his official breaking out, or rather the breaking in party to possible stardom in the NHL.
Ever since the Medicine Hat Tigers drafted the kid that had many scrambling how to pronounce his vowel-filled last name with the first overall pick in the 1998 WHL Bantam Draft, Bouwmeester has been high on the radar of every NHL Scout on the continent. And from game one with the Tigers the defensive prodigy that had scouts dropping their donuts and spilling their coffees did not disappoint, nor would he for the next three WHL seasons, one more than most highly-touted draft picks get because of two days. Bouwmeester was born two days shy of the September 25 deadline for players eligible for the NHL Draft the year they turn eighteen and hence was not part of a stellar 1983-born NHL Draft class that included the likes of Dan Blackburn, Dan Hamhuis, Shaonne Morrison and Colby Armstrong.
Pegged to go number one in the 2001 Draft for the last three years, you might think the pressure could get to a teenager treated like the second coming of Coffey or perhaps even Orr. The reserved Bouwmeester however thinks otherwise. “People are going to talk and say things like that,” said Bouwmeester of the pressure of being tagged the best of the bunch at an early age. “But you just can’t pay much attention to it or let it go to your head. You have to go out and just play the game.”
His coach with the Tigers, Bob Loucks, agrees that the big defenseman is too easy going, almost to a fault, to let any pressure of something like the number one ranking bother him. “Honestly, I don’t think Jay lets things bother him,” said the veteran WHL coach. “I think he’s a pretty even-keeled kid and he knows he’s going to get drafted. If it’s number one great, if it’s not I don’t think that’s his big concern. I think he’s more concerned what he does after the draft and that’s been his comment. To him, it’s just a matter of what he does after that, at the NHL level. That’s all he’s focusing on and I don’t think he’s really concerned with the number one spot, although he would like to have it certainly, like any player would.”
This year however, has been different than other years. Having been scouted by numerous NHL scouts over the past two seasons, Bouwmeester has been under even more of a microscope than usual. Scouts, NHL G.M.’s, the media, both local and national and even more so, his opponents who love nothing more than to take their game up a notch when it comes to playing against the so-called ‘next one’. In that light, Bouwmeester not only welcomes it, but expects it. “Yeah, that’s sort of to be expected,” said Bouwmeester of his opponents. “Every team you’re playing against the key guys, be it forward or defensemen. You sort of key on them – I think it’s sort of expected but I don’t think it has much to do with me or the draft – they’re just good players, that’s all.”
Of late, Bouwmeester has had some criticism thrown his way, of the constructive kind. Challenged by both his coach and the so-called experts grading him, they want the Edmonton product to take even more control of the game and maybe even lose some of the humbleness that is an obvious personality trait, at least on the ice. His junior coach thinks the young sensation has already taken that challenge and is beginning to run with it. “Yeah, He has,” said Loucks of Bouwmeester’s adjustment to his game. “Jay I think sometimes is a little bit shy and doesn’t want people to think that he’s trying to be the show and I think therefore sometimes he doesn’t play up to the top level of his game because he doesn’t want people to think that he’s bigger than the rest of the guys on the team. He has to take the bull by the horns some nights and be our leader and he’s been doing a better job of that the past couple of weeks.”
For his part, Bouwmeester is taking any and all challenges head on, including any that might better his game. “This is my third year in the league and I’ve been through it two times,” offered Bouwmeester. “You get older and all of a sudden you’re playing against sixteen and seventeen-yr-olds. Being the young guy out there to now, it’s just sort of the natural transition of things to work out this way.”
Over the holidays and although he still technically has to make the team, Bouwmeester will be spending his vacation with a group very special to him and which is very much becoming a tradition at this time of year. A sleigh ride with his family through Edmonton? No, but rather playing his heart for his country at the World Junior Hockey Championship held this year in the Czech Republic. Being in his third W.J.C. after making the national squad at a very young sixteen along with fellow phenom Jason Spezza, it never becomes old hat. Especially now that his country hasn’t won gold at a tournament that it dominated for five golds in a row in the early to mid nineties. “There’s always pressure to win the gold. Maybe this year more so than maybe the last couple of years because of the possibility of ten guys coming back (returning veterans) But that’s good because a lot of us have been through it and know what to expect.”
When the talk turns to the fortunes of his club team, the Medicine Hat Tigers, the inevitable question comes up. Would Bouwmeester ever want to be traded from the ‘Hat? Considering that the club hasn’t exactly been a heavyweight contender in the WHL during Bouwmeester’s junior career and the current trend of junior stars demanding a trade in order to increase their exposure, a la Jason Spezza last year when he asked, and received, a trade from Don Cherry’s Mississauga Ice Dogs to the Windsor Spitfires of the OHL, Bouwmeester says he has no desire to go anywhere else. “Oh no,” he said. “I’ve been drafted here and gone through three years here and you want to stick with it and see if you can help turn it around. It’s been a bit of down-slide for four or five years. But our fans have been really great and you really want to give something back to them.” Still, the frustration level at the clubs’ inability to establish any kind of consistency in the win department has the smooth-skating d-man frustrated somewhat.
“A little bit,” he said of the frustration of losing. “We’ve just got to keep working hard and working on our defensive play because that’s where we get into trouble.”
For an eighteen-yr-old kid who’s about to embark on what should be a long and healthy hockey career and as mature and poised as he’s shown, both on and off the ice, adjusting to life in the big leagues should be no trouble at all.