Florida Panthers and Prodigy Jay Bouwmeester Toil in Obscurity

That's South Florida sports for you.

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

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. The advantage means Bouwmeester can slam his opponent into the boards before he can get to the puck. That kind of aggression is second nature to burly Canadians.

Bouwmeester (No. 4, left) is a familiar face in goal celebrations, but some would rather see him with his dukes up.
Doug Benc/Getty Images/Newscom
Bouwmeester (No. 4, left) is a familiar face in goal celebrations, but some would rather see him with his dukes up.
Bouwmeester brawling with Maxime Talbot in November 2005.
Gary Rothstein/Icon SMI/Newscom
Bouwmeester brawling with Maxime Talbot in November 2005.

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. In 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 about 12,000. Even that dismal number, 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, the Panthers have ample chance to make their case for contender status. After all, there is no doubting the sheer potential of a team that has been stocked with so many top draft picks — even if that harvest came 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 they're merely victims of bad luck. The team had an anemic start in 2007-08, winning only seven of its first 19 games, and then came back 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 Panther blue line ever since. Only recently turned 25 years old, Bouwmeester (usually pronounced Bo-mister) is the second-most tenured Panther.

He was an All-Star in 2006-07 and just missed earning that honor again last year. This season, there's greater urgency. Last summer, Bouwmeester rejected the Panthers' offer of a long-term contract, instead accepting a one-year deal, effectively inviting the team to deal him midseason. That is, unless the Panthers suddenly become Stanley Cup contenders.

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 years, in fact.

It's tempting to blame the franchise for Bouwmeester's failure to live up to expectations. After all, the Panthers adopted this prodigy when he was 18 years old, and over his five seasons, he has been passed between a dizzying array of faces in the front office and behind the bench. The knock on him has always been that he doesn't play with enough passion or toughness. But it's difficult to be a fiery player without fired-up fans.

Perhaps the real question is whether the Panthers and South Florida were ever compatible. Maybe a fan base that doesn't clamor for a winner deserves no better. 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. It was the first time he'd seen the ocean, and he told a reporter: "That just blew me away."

As the draft approached, though, the kid seemed increasingly queasy. "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 his son Jay handled a hockey stick "before he could walk." And he could skate not long after he walked. They had a rink in the back yard of the family home in western Canada. "We're fanatical about hockey," Dan says.

One of Dan's hockey teammates from the University of Alberta, Rick Carriere, kept an eye on young Jay's performance. He had first seen the kid 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 — and fast — the boy skated backward. Carriere would become general manager of the Medicine Hat Tigers, and when Jay turned 16, he made the boy the first pick in the Canadian junior league draft.

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