Wherever their promising hockey careers may lead them, whatever
fame and riches they may earn in years to come, neither Jason
Spezza nor Jay Bouwmeester is likely to forget the night of Dec.
16, 1999, and the phone call neither of them received. December
16 was the final day of tryouts for the Canadian world junior
team, and coach Claude Julien had told players that unless they
heard otherwise, they would represent Canada at the World Junior
Championships in Sweden at the end of the month. "My roommate
answered the phone that night, and he got the bad news that he
was cut," says Spezza. "When no one asked to talk to me, I kind
of gulped. I knew I was in."
Recalls Bouwmeester, "I went to bed and just hoped that I
wouldn't get woken by a ringing. When I opened my eyes and it
was morning, I was about as happy as I can be."
With that, Spezza, a 6'3", 195-pound center and Bouwmeester, a
6'4", 200-pound defenseman, joined Wayne Gretzky (1978) and Eric
Lindros (1990) as the only 16-year-olds to make Canada's junior
team, which is composed predominately of 19-year-olds. The 11-day
tournament, which began on Christmas day, features much of the
world's best teenage talent, and Doug MacLean, the general
manager of the expansion Columbus Blue Jackets, who begin play in
the NHL next season, viewed the action in Sweden. "When I saw
Spezza and Bouwmeester standing for the national anthem before
the first game, I was envisioning them in Blue Jackets apparel,"
says MacLean. "Then I came to and gave my head a shake."
MacLean isn't the only executive to have such visions dancing in
his head. Many pro scouts feel that Spezza will be the first
player selected in the NHL's 2001 entry draft. Bouwmeester, who
is about three months younger than Spezza, will be eligible for
the draft in '02, and he, too, could go No. 1.
Spezza's giant grin and outsized ears lend him a boyish mien.
His hockey appeal is simple: He lights the lamp. A superb
shooter and playmaker, he began playing organized games at age
three. He's one of those precocious scorers who throughout his
youth attracted crowds and made headlines in his hometown of
At 14, as an underage Bantam leaguer, Spezza racked up 53 goals
and 61 assists in 54 games. Last season, as one of the youngest
players in the Ontario Hockey League, he led the Brampton
Battalion with 71 points (22 goals and 49 assists) in 67 games.
This season he had 13 goals and 27 assists in 30 games for the
OHL's Mississauga IceDogs. Then he won the roster spot on the
Canadian junior team with four goals and five assists in two
intrasquad games. "Jason has unbelievable talent, he has a
presence with the puck, and he's aware of everyone on the ice,"
says Tyler Bouck, a forward on the Canadian junior team who also
plays for the Western Hockey League's Prince George Cougars.
"When he touches the puck, you notice it. It's hard for him to
play as a 16-year-old in a tournament mainly with 19-year-olds,
but he is fitting in real well. He can be great because of his
vision and because he's such a good kid."
When Spezza was five he played in a paperweight league stocked
with seven- and eight-year-olds, and though he played well he
failed to receive one of the many trophies handed out by the
league. "He cried a lot at the year-end banquet," says Spezza's
father, Rino. "I told him that he had plenty of time to win
trophies. At the banquet the next year he got enough trophies to
line a shelf."
Rino still gives Jason counsel, and he accompanied him to
Skelleftea for the world junior tournament. Skelleftea sits only
180 miles south of the Arctic Circle, and last week the Canadian
players were popping vitamin D and sunning themselves under
phototherapy lamps to combat the depression that can be caused by
the 21 hours of darkness that engulf each wintry day. Spezza has
had to weather an additional storm: In the first two games he had
a total of one shift because Julien wanted to stick with more
experienced players. "Not playing is hard," Spezza said after
those games. "I try not to think about it."
In a 4-1 victory over Slovakia on Dec. 29, Spezza had two shifts
on the power play, and Canada scored both times. Spezza held his
ground in front of the net and screened the goaltender to help
create one goal, and he slid a pass off the boards that led to
the other. Then, in Canada's 8-3 trouncing of Switzerland last
Saturday, he had two assists. "I'm learning that you can't always
be the top player, but you can always contribute," says Spezza.
"We just want to win--that's what matters."
Though Bouwmeester, who has gentle features and sandy hair, was
used much more regularly than Spezza, he was still getting less
ice time in Sweden than he was used to receiving with the
Medicine Hat Tigers of the Western Hockey League. He had seven
goals and 11 assists in 30 games for the Tigers, but numbers
don't tell the whole story for a player who draws oohs and aahs
simply by gliding onto the ice. NHL scouts have compared
Bouwmeester's fluid skating to the gaits of Hall of Famers Bobby
Orr and Paul Coffey. Says MacLean of Bouwmeester, "He's such a
great skater that he glides better than most people skate."
Bouwmeester didn't play organized hockey until he was six. By
then locals were already gathering to watch him skate. Abiding by
his father's maxim that "the better you skate backward the better
you skate forward," Jay was always in perpetual motion. He skated
many hours on the family's backyard rink, and during inclement
weather he put on Rollerblades and cruised so endlessly in the
Bouwmeester basement that his parents left the room unfinished.
The two junior sensations are dissimilar--Spezza is a talkative,
high-scoring Easterner, Bouwmeester a reserved blueliner from
the West--yet circumstances and birth dates have thrust them
together. In the rare hours of daylight last week they often
walked side by side through Skelleftea's town square. "We've
become good friends," says Spezza. "It's good to have someone
your own age to relate to."
COLOR PHOTO: DAN HAMILTON/VANTAGE POINT Scouts project that Bouwmeester (3) and Spezza will be top NHL draft choices