By Larry Wigge
Each year when the regular season was over ... it was over and out for Jay Bouwmeester.
No playoffs. Not a sniff. Oh, he had a couple of near misses. Quite a history -- no postseason experience for such a gifted player.
After 764 regular-season games over 10 seasons, the 29-year-old defenseman wouldn't tell anyone that he would go home to Edmonton, Alberta, and would get lost in the solitude of another season without even a hint of Stanley Cup.
Earlier this season, Bouwmeester surpassed Guy Charron's 734-game benchmark of the most NHL contests without a single playoff appearances, while performing for the Florida Panthers, Calgary Flames and now the St. Louis Blues.
"I would go home and, sort of sulk," Bouwmeester admitted Tuesday night April 30, after the Blues had defeated the defending Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings 2-1 in overtime in Game 1 of this year's playoffs. "I would start the off-season by flipping on the TV to watch playoff action."
This time, the former third pick overall in the 2002 NHL Entry Draft ... had a solution.
"You always pay attention for various reasons," Bouwmeester said. "You have friends on other teams that you follow. But I think everyone in some sense is a fan, too ... it's a fun time of year."
A different feeling ...
"Just the atmosphere -- it's always fun," he repeated, wanting to say it out loud. "I grew up in Edmonton and I went to some games when I was a kid growing up. The buildings are loud, people get into it ... You see the same team for two weeks -- it makes for some battles and good competition.
"That's why people like it, and that's why it's an exciting time."
You don't get much of a reaction from Jay Bouwmeester ... on any subject. Some folks can't express their opinion in the public. But, this time, you could feel the passion and energy, which he showed on the ice.
Then, he kind of chuckled. "Someone asked me if at one point I thought it would never happen. That I would have this stigma with me as long as I was still playing."
Bouwmeester was just playing out another season in Calgary, before he was sent to St. Louis in exchange for prospects Mark Cundari and Reto Berra and a first-round draft choice on April 1.
"I think it tells our team we're committed to having success in St. Louis and we're not satisfied with our current standing," said Blues GM Doug Armstrong. "We had been talking to Calgary since last June about Jay. We were willing to poke, prod and do our part as management to improve the team.
"But ultimately, the responsibility lies with that core group of players that we haven't touched: David Backes, T.J. Oshie, Alex Pietrangelo, Andy McDonald, Alexander Steen and Barrett Jackman. That group is still here and we've added an important piece to that group."
Smooth-skating Bouwmeester has solidified the St. Louis blue line.
"We always knew he was a great skater, but the way he uses that to his advantage is amazing, whether I make a mistake and he covers me or he makes a mistake a gets and he gets himself out of the problem," said defense partner Alex Pietrangelo. "Just getting up and down the ice, he makes it look effortless. He understands the game extremely well."
"He makes the game look easy the way he plays. I don't think there's a better skater in the league, when you watch the way he uses it. It is fun to watch even if you're out there every day in practice. You see him every day, but you sit back and get a chance to see how smooth he is. It's why he's been so successful over the years."
Said coach Ken Hitchcock, "He's a minute-muncher, he's a guy that's got great mobility, he's hard to play against because he's mobile, he's got a long stick and he knows how to defend. I've had Jay in international play where he's been a really, really good player at high level games."
Hitchcock actually knows the Bouwmeester family. Dan, Jay's father, was a pretty good defenseman for the University of Alberta Golden Bears. Gena is Jay's mother. They were both schoolteachers.
Dan took Jay everywhere. He coached him through peewee hockey. He would have Jay out on the ice, showing him things, stickhandling and stuff. Maybe he was 10 years old, but you could tell back then he was a good skater. They're not the same kind of defensemen, though. Dan was a hard, physical guy. Jay was always on the skinny side.
Kings coach Darryl Sutter was once the GM who brought Bouwmeester to Calgary.
"I remember seeing him when he was 15. I said, 'Oh my god, this guy is good' because he had the size and the speed," said Sutter of the 6-foot-4, 215 pounder. "Obviously, he's a big guy who is an extremely good skater and very smart player. His intelligence and the way he skates are what makes him so good at both ends of the ice.
"I remember him in junior -- at 16 years of age, he was dominant that way."
It was that way more than a decade ago at West Edmonton Mall, when Craig Simpson of the Edmonton Oilers presented him with the trophy as most valuable player that skinny little kid at the Brick Novice Tournament.
Early in his career, Florida GM Rick Dudley said, "We're seeing the evolution of a No. 1 defenseman. Jay plays against the other team's top lines. I think he'll be a 30-minute-a-game guy. The minutes come easy to him because he skates so well. It's not fair the way he skates, compared to the effort other people put in.
"Jay's range backwards and his skating forward are in the stratosphere -- dimensional. His ability to go from one side of the ice to the other is unmatched ..."
Dudley paused for a moment. Then, he said, it took ... "While scouts sometimes watch a player for hours to see a flash of greatness. It took five minutes to see he had it."
One more point of emphasis. It came from Peter DeBoer, now the coach of New Jersey, when he was with Florida. "To me, Jay's a great hybrid. I think he's one of the top 10 defensemen ... anywhere. He's one of the few guys you can play against Alex Ovechkin, you can play against Vincent Lecavalier, you can play against Jason Spezza. He's big and mobile. Because of his feet and his range, he can shut people like that down."
There's no hesitation with Bouwmeester's decisions on the ice, offensively or defensively. And you don't have to coach him up ... to be ready for the playoffs -- even if it's Jay first time.
"Nowadays you've just got to get in," Bouwmeester said. "Look at LA last year, they had a bit of a struggle throughout the year. Then they lost, what, two or three games the whole playoffs. It's just about getting hot at the right time. I viewed St. Louis as comparable to LA. They have some big forwards and just a hard team to play against."
And now the Blues, with their Game 1 victory over the Kings, were 12-3-0 with Jay Bouwmeester in the lineup.
It's the way a player like Bouwmeester fits in that makes it work.
"You try to," Bouwmeester said. "I think you try to help each other out. We talk about things and if there's things maybe we're getting in trouble with, we can change and do differently. We're always working together and trying to help each other out."
Jay Bouwmeester said it was worth the wait to make his playoff debut -- with an overtime victory.