SUNRISE, Fla. - There have been 215 draft picks in the history of the Florida Panthers, but only one "JovoCop".
When the Panthers selected defenseman Ed Jovanovski with the first overall pick in the 1994 NHL Draft, the franchise added a player that would not only become a key piece of the club's miraculous run to the 1996 Stanley Cup Final, but also one of franchise's all-time fan favorites.
Jovanovski, now 41, appeared in 362 over two separate stints in South Florida, recording 102 of his 500 career points in a Panthers uniform. He left the game following the 2013-14 season, but has remained in nearby Boca Raton, serving as one of the team's prominent local alumni.
With the 2018 NHL Draft set to be held at the American Airlines Center in Dallas on June 22-23, FloridaPanthers.com's Jameson Olive recently caught up with Jovanovski to take a look back at his draft day, including what it meant to be the first No. 1 overall pick in Panthers history.
OLIVE: It's been 24 years since you were drafted. What memory sticks out the most?
JOVANOVSKI: It means I'm getting older [Laughs]. It was a special day for me and the family. I think back then it wasn't so clear-cut on where you were going to be drafted. I only met with the top-three teams that year. From the heart, I didn't know that I was going to be No. 1 before the draft. I think that made the excitement when my name was called that much more special. It really hadn't gotten out who was going No. 1. It was a thrill, an honor, and it's something that you can never take away. It was a special moment for me, for sure.
OLIVE: While it's unlikely you would have slipped very far down the draft board had you not been taken first overall, how important was it for you on a personal level to be the top pick?
JOVANOVSKI: I think at the time I probably said what a lot of kids say, which is that it doesn't matter where you get drafted, it's just an opportunity to get your foot in the door of the NHL. But for me, I think it's deeper than that. From where I came, from just starting hockey at 11 years old and then being the top pick in the draft six years later, it was definitely a pinch-me moment. Everything came so quick. But with Florida being a newer franchise, it gave me a good opportunity. I felt I was ready after my first training camp, but contractually and with the work stoppage it didn't work out. After that, I was definitely ready the next year. Since they were a newer franchise, I had the opportunity to step into the lineup quicker.
OLIVE: The Panthers have selected first overall just one other time in franchise history, taking defenseman Aaron Ekblad with the top pick in the 2014 draft. What does it mean to be a part of such a small, distinguished club in Florida's history?
JOVANOVSKI: It's an honor. To be a part of that group is special. It's ironic that Aaron and I are in the same neck of the woods. He's a Bell River, Ontario kid and my parents are up in Belle River now, and he's a defenseman. I think it was 20 years exactly after I'd been drafted that he was taken. It's something that's never going to get taken away from me. It was an honor to represent this franchise. I'm still in the area and support the team. I wish them well.
OLIVE: How many souvenirs have you kept from your draft day?
JOVANOVSKI: My parents have the draft jersey, but I have my first jersey that I actually played in with the Panthers hanging in my office. My mom has all the memorabilia, even the all of the articles. You look back, it really was a neat story. With my background and where I started, I just took to the game so quickly. With all that, to not only be drafted but to be taken first overall, you look back now and say, "How the hell did that happen?".
OLIVE: Do you remember how you celebrated later that night?
JOVANOVSKI: The draft was in Hartford. There wasn't much going on. I sat down with Mike Farber from Sports Illustrated and did an article with him. After that it was really nothing. I just hopped on the plane the next day, went back to work and hit the gym.
OLIVE: In the age of social media, nearly everything thing is known about a top prospect before they're event drafted. They're dissected not only by teams, but by every fan with a smartphone. Are you relieved that this technology didn't exist when you were drafted?
JOVANOVSKI: We didn't know that part of social media back then. I think AOL had just come out [Laughs]. Now, I think it works both ways for a lot of these kids. It can help promote them with highlights and branding themselves. If you have the ability and you're a top player, I think people want to know what's going on in your life. I'm still to this day not on social media. My kids are. It's a different world out there. I think it's something you've got to be really weary of. You see a lot of these terrible stories come out. Your privacy is diminished. My biggest bit of advice to young kids is that you only get one crack at making your NHL dreams come true. It's important to work hard and stay on that line. After you retire, you'll have all the freedom in the world to have fun. You're paid handsomely in the NHL to do something that you have fun doing.
OLIVE: The Panthers were only three seasons removed from their expansion draft when you made your NHL debut in 1995-96. Did you feel any added pressure to succeed since you were already one of the team's biggest stars before you even played a game?
JOVANOVSKI: For sure. The organization did a great job of telling me to just play my game and do what got me there. They weren't expecting me to get 15 goals and 40 points in the first year. There were no expectations on that front. I think the pressure came from within, from just trying to just get better every day. For me, being the No. 1 pick, I think people looked at me as a piece to get the franchise to where they need to be quicker. Thankfully, the Panthers did a great job curbing those conversations for me. The front office did a great job.
OLIVE: As a kid from Windsor, Ontario, how foreign did South Florida feel?
JOVANOVSKI: My parents used to load the car and we'd drive 26 hours to Clearwater when I was growing up, but I'd never been to this part of Florida. When I came down to this area after being drafted, I noticed it was a little bit younger, a little bit hipper. We were playing in the Miami Arena and I was living in Boca. Other than that, all I knew is that it was a place where you could play pro hockey but still stay warm every day. It's a special place to play hockey, for sure.
OLIVE: Off the ice, what was it like to see hockey take off in South Florida in 1996?
JOVANOVSKI: Everything was hockey. From the light posts on I-95 to the flags and billboards, everything was about the Panthers. We were the talk of the town. It really put Florida on the map as far as growing youth hockey. That cup run was really something special.
OLIVE: You had nine points in 22 playoff games that season. How much did it mean to yourself to be able to reward the team's faith in you on draft day and really contribute to what remains as Florida's only run to the Stanley Cup Final?
JOVANOVSKI: I was just a piece of the puzzle. We had John Vanbiesbrouck, who had a stellar year, and then we all as a group chipped in to do what we did. You look at our team and it really wasn't built around one guy. We were all just pieces of the puzzle. But having that opportunity as a young guy, going to the Finals, I couldn't have dreamt of it any better. The problem with that is then I went 20 years without getting another sniff [Laughs]. Was I spoiled early? Watching Ovie [Alexander Ovechkin] celebrate after this year's Cup, I think I would have been the same way. It's such a long road to make the playoffs, especially now with more teams. It's the hardest trophy to win in sports. I mean, how sore was Ovie after those playoffs? He's a wrecking ball that paid the price. It's exceptional. I wish we had the opportunity to win one here as a group, but we did some special things and helped the area out with hockey itself.
OLIVE: Looking at the current roster, do you believe this is the closest the Panthers have been to contending for a Stanley Cup since your trip in 1996?
JOVANOVSKI: I certainly do. I think you look at the job that Boogey [Panthers coach Bob Boughner] has done, especially with the previous year being such a tough year, you look at it and how they were a couple wins away from getting to the dance. The team has done it the right way, letting their draft picks develop, adding a few pieces here and there in free agency, and building a team for the long haul. The future's bright.