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 Bluejackets 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 play-maker, 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 Mississauga, Ont.
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 Ice-Dogs. 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 mat 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."