Worlds up next for Bouwmeester

By Mark Fischel

With his first National Hockey League season behind him, Florida Panthers defenseman Jay Bouwmeester is heading to Finland to represent Canada at the 2003 IIHF World Championships, which begin on Saturday, April 26.

While most players enjoy taking some time off after the long NHL season, the 19-year-old Bouwmeester hit the ice to begin training for the upcoming World Championships just days after the Panthers season officially ended on April 6.

The long grind of his first NHL season may be behind the Edmonton, Alberta native, but for the 19-year-old there is still plenty of hockey left to be played.

“Obviously, when the Canadian Hockey Association asked me to play in the World Championships, I was thrilled to have the chance to represent my country,” said Bouwmeester. “I think it will be a great experience to play against some of the best players from around the world. I am really looking forward to it.”

Bouwmeester has a history of making history for Team Canada.

This will be his first World Championship after representing Canada at three different World Junior Championships. When Bouwmeester suited up for Canada during the 2000 World Juniors, he became one of just four people to play on Canada’s national junior team as a 16-year-old. The others are Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux and Jason Spezza. Not bad company to be included with, especially considering Bouwmeester, who was 16 years and three months old, was the youngest player of them all.

“Growing up in Canada, the World Juniors are a pretty big thing,” said Bouwmeester, who will become the sixth youngest player to represent Canada at the World Championships. “Anytime you get the opportunity to play in them you have a lot of fun. I met a lot of friends in my three World Juniors. It was a real good experience for me growing up.”

It was a good enough experience to help Bouwmeester make the transition from junior hockey right to the NHL without missing much of a beat. From day one of the season, he was a top-four defenseman for the Panthers. He recorded an assist in his first NHL game and never looked back.

It may have come as a surprise to some that Bouwmeester would jump right in and play all 82 games of the season, but it was not a surprise to Bouwmeester or to Panthers General Manager Rick Dudley.

It was Dudley who selected Bouwmeester with the third overall selection at the 2002 NHL Entry Draft. He would have made him the first overall selection, however, he made a trade with the assurance that he could pick him third. Either way, it was certainly known that Dudley wanted to select the then-18-year-old defenseman from Medicine Hat in the Western Hockey League.

“We got the guy we wanted, and that’s all we care about,” said Dudley of making the draft day trade. “Jay is one of the best skaters I’ve ever seen. When he turns up the ice, he’s vacated the zone before people can track him down.”

Bouwmeester is a rare commodity. He is a young defenseman with poise well beyond his age and a skating ability that is second to none. Bouwmeester sees the ice well and knows when to jump into the play and provide some offense. He is also extremely dedicated to his defensive role.

And as good as his talents are on the ice, it may just be his off-ice attitude that truly separates him from the rest of the pack. He is consistently the last person in the weight room after games and practices, always striving to be in the best physical shape.

“He’s a real professional in his approach, even for a very young player,” said head coach Mike Keenan. “He pays a great deal of attention to his game off the ice as well as on, and for that reason, he’ll continue on the correct path to enable him to become an outstanding player.”

His work ethic off the ice showed before the season even started, when Bouwmeester won the team’s preseason award for most in-shape rookie.

Bouwmeester may have just finished his first NHL season, and he may still be a teenager, but he knows he needs to continue to work hard in order to meet his own expectations. He figures one of the best ways to improve is to continue to accept challenges on the ice; challenges such as playing in the World Championships.

“All the little things along the way certainly help you to improve,” said Bouwmeester. “Things like playing in the World Juniors and playing in the World Championships are invaluable. These are the ways you gain experience.”

There are not many hockey playing teenagers who have more experience than Bouwmeester. When Canada opens the World Championships on April 26 against Belarus, it will be the fourth time Bouwmeester has suited up for Canada at an IIHF championship.

Canada will then play Latvia on Sunday, April 27 and Sweden on Tuesday, April 29 before moving on to the next round of the tournament.

Bouwmeester has been looking forward to wearing the national team sweater since he began playing hockey in Edmonton. This is one more step on a path that he hopes leads him to one day represent Canada in the Olympics.

“Growing up, you want to play in the NHL, but you also want to play in the Olympics, representing your country with all the best players in the world,” said Bouwmeester. “It’s something you strive for and certainly want to be a part of in your career.”

Bouwmeester has a lot to look forward to in his hockey career, and he is using this summer to make sure he is ready for the grind of the next NHL season.

“Because we are not in the playoffs, going to the World Championships is a way for me to shorten the summer,” said Bouwmeester. “You always want to work on different things and continue to become a better player.”

In his young career, Bouwmeester has already shown a desire to accept challenges that make him better. When All-Star defenseman Sandis Ozolinsh was traded prior to the Jan. 30 game at defending Stanley Cup Champion Detroit, Bouwmeester stepped up his game. He played a season-high 30:57 and was a plus one with a team-high seven shots on net in the 2-2 tie.

Playing all 82 games of the season certainly exposed the young defenseman to a lot of situations he had not been in before. The NHL will do that to you.

“The competition in the NHL forces you to become a better player,” said Bouwmeester. “Once you’ve been through the league and seen all the teams, you begin to know what to expect. Obviously with having already played a full season in the NHL, I don’t need to go through that again.”

Which is great news for Panthers fans, and bad news for the rest of the NHL. Bouwmeester has been through the league now, and he is determined to use this summer to come back a much better player.

Story by Ryan Nadeau and reprinted with the courtesy of the Florida Panthers.