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Coming of Age
Michael Farber
May 27, 1996
Ed Jovanovski, Florida's tough teenaged rookie, has helped put some new teeth in the Panthers' quest for a Cup
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May 27, 1996

Coming Of Age

Ed Jovanovski, Florida's tough teenaged rookie, has helped put some new teeth in the Panthers' quest for a Cup

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How fabulous is this? Florida Panthers defenseman Ed Jovanovski makes $1.5 million a year, has a killer tan, owns a three-bedroom condo in a gated community in Boca Raton, tools up and down I-95 in his blood-red Mitsubishi Spyder convertible or in his Grand Cherokee, has two Jet Skis and a mountain bike, gets ice cream sundaes with extra fudge and nuts brought to him by fawning waitresses, is an NHL Rookie of the Year finalist and may get a chance to sip champagne from the Stanley Cup—albeit illegally because he is only 19. He has everything a teenager could want, except a clue.

On the ice, at least, Jovanovski is no naif, even though he wrestles with the little demons that will haunt any young player, especially one so gifted. In one ear the voice of Disciplined Eddie is reciting the Panthers' gospel of prudence and positional play, while in the other ear Devilish Eddie is urging him to join the rush or to skate out of his way to throw a bodycheck that will leave an opposing forward jelly-legged. Throughout the playoffs Jovanovski usually has made the right decision, dishing out seismic hits and joining the attack at fortuitous times, while emerging as one of the most promising two-way defensemen in the NHL.

But off the ice Jovanovski still is a half step behind the play. Take the old short-sheeted-bed gag, known to sleep-away campers and older children, such as athletes, who are compelled to live in groups. Panthers defenseman Gord Murphy, who is Jovanovski's roommate on the road, short-sheeted Jovanovski's bed early this season and then struggled to muffle giggles for five minutes as Jovanovski—sometimes good-naturedly called Special Ed by his teammates—kicked at the covers. Finally Jovanovski asked Murphy why he was convulsed, and Murphy was obliged to explain the high-tech concept of short-sheeting. "He had no idea what it was all about," Murphy says, his voice tinged with wonder. Jovanovski grew up in a no-nonsense home in Windsor, Ont., across the river from Detroit, and he played junior hockey in his hometown. Somehow it never occurred to anyone in the Jovanovski family to short-sheet Ed's bed to prepare him for the NHL.

Or consider what happened to Jovanovski's jazzy sports car, which he parks at the practice rink with the top down on nice South Florida days. (Jovanovski bought the bike to pedal to practice—"While riding, I could get a tan," he reasoned—but shelved the project after one day.) Early in the playoffs teammates Mike Hough, Brian Skrudland and Rhett Warrener sneaked outside and piled shin guards, elbow pads and assorted other gear on the seats. When Jovanovski saw the mountain of equipment in his car, he removed it, laid it on the asphalt and drove away. "Some of the stuff wound up missing, and our equipment guys were not real happy," Skrudland says. "I had to explain to Ed that if someone pulls a joke on him like that, he's supposed to put the stuff back in the dressing room.

"He's just one of those guys who's a real, real big man in terms of his hockey, but who's still young," adds Skrudland. "He'll get it. During the last series [against the Philadelphia Flyers], he came up to me and asked, 'If we win this round, does it mean we get another $7,000?' Like a kid with his money has to worry. I told him, 'Yes, it does, Eddie. Yes, it does.' "

Jovanovski could be padding his bank account again. The third-year Panthers, who ditched the label "surprising" six months ago en route to making their first postseason appearance, are tied with the Pittsburgh Penguins 1-1 as the Eastern Conference finals move to raucous Miami Arena for Game 3 on Friday. In Florida's 5-1 opening-game win last Saturday, Tom Fitzgerald scored twice, goaltender John Vanbiesbrouck was brilliant, and Jovanovski looked as nervous as an ingenue, making a poor clearing attempt that led to Pittsburgh's only goal and being twisted into a pretzel by Mario Lemieux on a short-handed rush in the third period. Florida coach Doug MacLean used Jovanovski for just one even-strength shift in the third but excused his rookie, saying of the Penguins' high-scoring forwards, " Lemieux, Petr Nedved and Jaromir Jagr can make anyone nervous. They made me nervous, and I'm 65 feet away on the bench."

Jovanovski rebounded Monday night, assisting on one goal, despite his team's 3-2 loss. Still, the Panthers are no mirage. Florida plays enough gritty veterans to populate a French Foreign Legion post, but it also has four players under age 22—Jovanovski, Warrener, left wing Radek Dvorak and center Rob Niedermayer—who play a lot and often play superbly. In the long run Jovanovski figures to be the best of them. Ed really is special.

After scoring 10 goals and 21 points during the regular season, Jovanovski attracted leaguewide attention in the playoff series against the Flyers for his war with Philadelphia center Eric Lindros. Even though Florida used defensemen Terry Carkner and Robert Svehla against Lindros's line 70% of the time, all of Jovanovski's big moments in that series seemed to come against Lindros. The 6'2", 210-pound Jovanovski and the 6'4", 229-pound Lindros had, by the Panthers' count, at least seven major run-ins in the six games, including a Jovanovski check that left Lindros crumpled on the ice in the first period of Game 2 and a punch he threw in response to a Lindros crosscheck that touched off a melee at the end of Game 3. Suddenly this big puppy of a defenseman looked as if he had found a playmate for the next decade.

They yapped at each other. Lindros, 23, told Jovanovski, "You'll know when I'm coming," and Jovanovski discovered it was true: The scrape of Lindros's blades on the ice emits a hollow sound like no one else's. Jovanovski's rejoinder was not exactly Woody Allen. "I told him, 'Keep your head up,' " Jovanovski says. "Everybody says that. I'm not good at comebacks."

"That's the thing with Eddie," says Pittsburgh left wing Dave Roche, who played junior hockey with Jovanovski. "He'll hit anyone. Big, small. Lindros or a no-name. He'll nail you."

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