Bouwmeester a smooth operator

 

Sure, sure, Jay Bouwmeester is just like you. Like you, he puts on his skates one at a time (size 10s, left boot first).

 
 
 
 
 

Sure, sure, Jay Bouwmeester is just like you. Like you, he puts on his skates one at a time (size 10s, left boot first).

Like you, he's not super fussy about getting his blades sharpened. "Just when I need them done, I guess." Others demand daily grinds.

And while some professional hockey players insist upon brand-new laces for each game, Bouwmeester, like you, waits until there are tangible signs of wear and tear before hunting down a fresh set.

"I'm pretty easy on equipment, usually."

But don't let Bouwmeester's low-maintenance approach to his bread and butter fool you.

Because, in reality, he is nothing like you. Nor is he like anyone else.

His skating ability is nearly peerless.

And that doesn't come with that faint-praise qualifier, some wheeze about moving well for a big man.

No, Bouwmeester propels his six-foot-four frame around the freeze as easily, as efficiently, as quickly, as any of the sawed-off speedsters and whippet-like wingers in the National Hockey League.

The Calgary Flames star can handle the puck. He can pass. He can shoot. He can defend. He can think the game.

The stride and glide portion of the program, he has that licked, too.

Mastered, actually.

"He was a phenomenal, phenomenal skater," Rick Carriere--friend of the Bouwmeester family and junior coach of Jay--told a Miami reporter a year ago.

"When he was 15, he could have played in the league."

The league being, yes, the NHL. At 15.

Despite can't-miss indicators of his son's potential, Dan Bouwmeester tried to keep a level head from the start.

A longtime school teacher and coach, he realized there are no sure things--particularly when teenagers are involved.

"I know how they change once they get to junior high and high school . . . so you can never tell," says Dan, cradling a fresh coffee at the kitchen table of the family home in southeast Edmonton. "Even if a kid is a great athlete, so many things can happen, so many things can influence him, that they can lose interest. I always knew he was a good player--everybody knew that--but it was never, like, 'Oh yeah, he's going to be in The Show.'

"We just went year by year."

And, year by year, there had been no question where Bouwmeester was bound.

The first overall pick of the Western Hockey League's bantam draft. The third overall pick in the NHL's entry draft. Three years worth of world junior championships.

All because of that freakishly smooth gait.

"Just a gifted kid," says Dan. "It's a God-given gift that he has.

"I mean, if you could teach that to everybody, they'd all be skating like that, right? It's a matter of his physical makeup. Big legs. Big (behind). Powerful. Plus, he's a good athlete. Great balance, agility."

Maybe not surprisingly, there had been signs that Bouwmeester wasn't, uh, normal. Such as walking by 10 months, bypassing the crawling stage completely.

First time on blades--two years old and on the backyard rink--Bouwmeester turned out to be surprisingly eager.

With his father adopting the traditional pose--hunched over at the waist, keeping the toddler upright--Bouwmeester shrugged off the hands-on attention. " 'Leave me alone. I'm on my own here,' " recalls Dan. "Then . . . he was gone. I'm not kidding."

He laughs.

"It was unbelievable. A little natural athlete from Day 1. I don't know where he got it from."

Well, Dan was good enough to be a mainstay defenceman of the University of Alberta Golden Bears (1968-72).

His son was soon a fixture at the Friday afternoon alumni scrimmages on campus.

Dan, after a shift, would return to the bench and pick up Jay. The two would locate the action--then trundle off in the opposite direction.

"We'd keep along the boards, going back and forth. For years, we did that. Every Friday," says Dan. "I swear to God . . . I think that's where he really learned to keep his head up. Because all these big guys are on the ice, and we're keeping out of the way."

But despite the early start and advanced hockey skills, Bouwmeester never entered organized hockey until he was six.

"I held him out . . . because I wanted to make sure he could skate real good first," says Dan. "Now they start them at three and four, but I wanted to make sure he could skate. So we did a lot of skating."

Not all of it on ice.

The Bouwmeesters' home is a large bungalow with an unfinished basement.

So, one day, his mother Gena hears a crash. Downstairs she goes, and there is Jay wearing in his older sister Jill's way-too-big roller-skates (no, not Rollerblades).

"He'd been wheeling around like a friggin' idiot down there, right?" cackles Dan. "So that started things down there."

By four, Bouwmeester, in proper Rollerblades, had transformed the basement into his personal Forum, complete with net--although there was a strict no-go zone, according to Dan.

"There's one main plumbing stack down there. So I said, 'Jay, if you ever run into that, if you ever break that pipe, this whole basement is going to fill up with (sewage).' You go down there now and you can still see the skid marks where he'd turn (to ensure he avoided the plumbing).

"So he spent hours on the Rollerblades in a fairly tight space. Hours and hours and hours."

Finally in minor hockey, the lad, not surprisingly, excelled.

"From a dad's point of view, he was always one of the better kids. But every dad is saying the same thing about their kid, right?" says Dan.

"One thing--you have to have good skates. We never, never scrimped on good skates. He always had skates that fit. And if he outgrew them in the middle of the year? New skates."

Dan, a certified power-skating teacher, was Bouwmeester's coach for the first eight years. Fundamentals were stressed.

But Pops, jokingly, down-plays his role.

"I used to say, 'Just watch your dad, Jay--and do the exact opposite.' "

Others, however, took note of the pedigree, made the connection.

"When you teach at a hockey school, you try to explain to kids the proper positioning for your knee bend, your leg extension, your head up--Jay already had all that," Carriere says. "His dad being such a good hockey man, he had really good teaching right at home."

But Dan insists he never pushed his son. Never needed to.

Over the years, Bouwmeester participated only three times in summer hockey, because he was also into baseball and soccer. School sports included volleyball, basketball and track.

"An all-around athlete," says Dan. "That's what a lot of kids these days miss because they're playing hockey 12 months a year--and nothing else."

It's hard to argue.

Because Bouwmeester's progress was impressive.

Carriere remembers seeing the skinny blond kid, then five, dangle around in those old-timers sessions at the U of A.

The Medicine Hat Tigers coach didn't see Bouwmeester on blades again till bantam.

"Phenomenal--still way ahead of his age group," says Carriere. "His skating just controlled the whole game. He could carry the puck, go into the other end, and still be the first one back to his end.

"He's fast, but it's deceptive because it's so effortless. He moves so efficiently. He's got that big, long stride, that powerful stride. You watch other guys and they really have to labour to go hard, to go fast. But Jay? That's probably why he's durable and probably why he can play so many minutes --because he's an effortless skater."

These days, Dan rarely misses a game of his son's -- "The highlight of my day, eh?"--and even now he, the mentor, is blown away.

"I marvel every time I watch him," Dan says. "What separates him from other skaters --and everyone can see this --is the way he skates backwards. It's incredible how he skates backwards.

"It's just a great thrill for me, as with any parent, to watch your kid play at that level. I just love it. You definitely watch every move he makes. You live and die with the mistakes, because it's not all good out there.

"But when good things happen? It's a great feeling."

scruickshank@theherald.canwest.com

 
 
 
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