Jovanovski back where it all began

CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. -- When we first made the move from being a news writer to a sports writer, our first assignment was to travel from Windsor, Ontario, to South Florida and interview defenseman Ed Jovanovski. We were wide-eyed with nervousness at going to talk to real, live NHL players and a famous son to boot.

Jovanovski, a Windsor native, had been taken with the first overall pick in the entry draft in ’94 and was an icon in the city.

He was still just a kid, 20 years old and playing in his second NHL season, when we timidly approached him at the Panthers’ practice facility.

He was gracious and patient and regaled us with stories of how he would often return from the shower to find his shoes filled with shaving cream. Or worse.

On many occasions, he would prepare to dress after a practice and discover that he had only one shoe and off he would go to the local mall in his suit and flip-flops to restock.

It’s been almost 15 years since that conversation, but Jovanovski’s eyes still light up at the memory.

At age 35, Jovanovski doesn’t look all that different, probably more toned, leaner.

We ask if he’s ever recouped the money he spent replacing his shoes, and he insists that he doesn’t know who the culprit was, although we’re pretty sure it was Jovanovski’s teammate at the time, Brian Skrudland.

To understand the passage of time and its often-cyclical nature, Skrudland is the Panthers’ director of player personnel.

Jovanovski, meanwhile, has seen his own career fulfill a kind of arc, as well, returning to South Florida.

He will be helping to guide a new crop of top draft picks, including the third overall pick in last year’s entry draft, Erik Gudbranson, who is expected to make the Panthers’ squad out of camp this year.

“The kid’s right on the cusp of playing here this year. If I can help him out any, which I can, that’s what I hope to do,” Jovanovski said.

“There’s not much I haven’t seen in this league,” the five-time All-Star added.

This isn’t to suggest this is some kind of swan song for the defenseman, who won a gold for Canada at the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City and would have played again in 2006 but was injured.

Jovanovski inked a four-year deal with Florida this summer which will pay him an average of $4.125 million annually.

He is coming off a couple of solid seasons in Phoenix, where he was a big part of an overachieving Coyotes squad.

Jovanovski said he sees some similarities between Phoenix head coach Dave Tippett, who won a Jack Adams as coach of the year two seasons ago while Jovanovski was there, and Florida’s rookie head coach, Kevin Dineen. Both are former players, and like the Coyotes, the Panthers will need every player to accept his role and play it well if they are to erase years of futility.

The Panthers' lone moment of playoff glory took place in Jovanovski’s rookie year, when they advanced to the 1996 Stanley Cup finals.

Now he’s back where it started to see if he can help put an exclamation point on a stellar NHL career by rekindling some South Florida hockey pride.