ST. CATHARINES, Ontario — If business were as usual, the Winnipeg Jets would have been at the Garden Thursday night, the Bruins’ faithful allowed yet another chance to peek under the hood of the franchise’s future. That’s assuming, of course, that Dougie Hamilton were in a Black-and-Gold sweater, logged requisite minutes on the blue line, and continued his anticipated near-seamless transition to full-time NHL work as Boston’s 19-year-old cornerstone defenseman in waiting.
“He does a lot of things very well,’’ offered Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli, who, like the rest of us, must wait for lockout détente to be reached in order to see anyone, raw rookie or seasoned vet, play at the Garden in 2012-13. “I’ve said a lot about him over the course of a couple of years. I try not to say too many things because, again, I don’t want him coming in here as the next great thing — or coming in here with everyone’s perception being that he is the next great thing. I’d rather he grow into that.’’
As the growing goes, Hamilton has that covered just fine. He is now 6 feet 5 inches, an inch taller than when the Bruins selected him No. 9 overall in June 2011 draft, and his weight is up some 12-15 pounds over the last 18 months to 205. He looks and plays like the whole package of hope and promise. He is a fine skater, a strong shooter, a fourth-year junior with the OHL’s Niagara IceDogs who was firmly on course weeks ago to make the sizable leap to the big leagues.
But the NHL being what it is, Hamilton instead is in Finland with the rest of Team Canada’s top teenagers, tuning up for the upcoming World Junior Championships, to be held (Dec. 26-Jan. 5) in Ufa, Russia. On loan from the IceDogs, Hamilton will play in the World Juniors for a second straight year, provided the NHL and its players can’t suddenly make happy over a new collective bargaining agreement. In that case, he would yank a Spoked-B over that maple leaf sweater.
“I am trying not to think about that too much,’’ said Hamilton, talking in a quiet corner of the IceDogs’ home arena recently, prior to hitching up again with Team Canada’s camp in Calgary. “I’m really set on World Juniors right now and my focus is all on that.’’
Turning the page
By the eye of Niagara coach Marty Williamson, Hamilton’s focus turned slightly fuzzy at the start of the IceDogs’ season. Touted as a can’t-miss prospect headed into the draft, no one, including Williamson, figured Hamilton would be anywhere near St. Catharines this season, perhaps other than to visit his old digs over the NHL’s Christmas break or while the Bruins made stops in nearby Buffalo or Toronto.
But Bruins training camp never happened, plans across the league derailed when the CBA expired Sept. 15, triggering a lockout, the league’s third self-imposed kick in the keister in 18 years. Boston vets such as Zdeno Chara, Dennis Seidenberg, and others scrambled to find work in Europe. Kids like Hamilton, ineligible to be assigned to the minors while still classified as juniors, were called back to their home rooms. Instead of trying to play the highest level of hockey in the world, it was like being told to go back to high school.
“Dougie was pretty much told toward the end [of the summer] that, you know, there was pretty much a spot on [the Bruins] for him,’’ recalled Williamson. “So Dougie’s attitude really kind of changed — and I don’t blame Dougie for this at all, I think it’s a natural thing — but you know, [emotionally] he really went to the next level. Then all of a sudden the lockout started and he came back and all of a sudden he was indifferent to it. Just for the first week or so. He didn’t want to be in our league . . . he was past it.’’
To Hamilton’s credit, noted Williamson, he quickly snapped back, playing and producing again like an elite prospect instead of a jilted junior. Through 32 OHL games, he has eight goals and 41 points, an impressive 1.28 points per game, actually a notch ahead of his 1.11 ppg over the previous two seasons. Williamson rolls him out in all situations, even strength, power play, and shorthanded, typically positioning him as a focal point of the offense.
“There’s still stuff that I need to improve on,’’ said Hamilton, whose family moved here from Toronto when his brother Freddie, now a center with the AHL Worcester Sharks, was drafted by the IceDogs in 2008. “But I think I’ve definitely improved as my career’s gone on, and now being in my fourth season, it’s gotten easier every year. So I guess if you develop and get better every year I think that’s how it should be. I definitely think it has been a little easier this year.’’
Hamilton is a big, strong kid, imposing at times on the ice, particularly in a league of Clearasiled dreamers. As a pro, he projects more as a jumbo-sized puck mover and point producer than, say, a Chara steel-curtain wannabe. In the weeks and months leading up to the 2011 draft, he was most often compared with the likes of Brent Burns, Jay Bouwmeester, and Rob Blake, all of them NHL big men with decent or better offensive abilities but varying defensive/physical inclinations and skills.
Williamson believes time alongside Chara, be it in games or practice, will help Hamilton manufacture a needed physical presence to his game, one that hasn’t been a necessity for him to develop in junior.
“He’s 6-foot-5. He will fill out that frame to 215 or 220 when he gets into his low-or-middle 20s,” said Williamson, his club with a legitimate shot at winning the Memorial Cup, especially if Hamilton remains on the roster. “There’s just not too many holes in his game. There are small things that he’s going to learn. If he fills out and uses his body more, he’ll realize just how easy he can make the game for himself. I think he is going to have an unbelievable mentor there for him. When you talk about a big man who plays defense, who better to learn from than Chara?’’
Height isn’t an abundant commodity in the Hamilton home. Brother Freddie is the standard-cut, 6-foot, 185-pound pivot, a fifth-round pick of the Sharks in 2010. Lynn, a stay-at-home mom, is 5-8. Doug, an environmental attorney, is no more than 6-2 with barely a frozen patch of hockey background.
“Growing up, he had all sisters,’’ said Doug Hamilton’s towering defenseman of a son. “He might have played house league hockey for a year, but they all wanted to be skiers, so he didn’t have much say in it, I guess.’’
What Lynn and Doug might not have offered in size or hockey savvy, they more than passed on in the way of big dreams. Both were Olympians, suiting up for Canada in the 1984 Games in Los Angeles, Doug as a rower and Lynn a basketball player. When mom and dad have scaled up the side of Olympus, the road to the NHL isn’t so intimidating.
“They definitely helped us a lot,’’ said Hamilton. “Having my brother a year or two ahead of me helped, too, a year or two older having him as another role model. Growing up, my brother and I found hockey, and I don’t think our parents really cared what sport we did. But it was what we fell in love with. We learned a lot from them. For me, I saw early that your dreams can come true with both parents in the Olympics, so playing in the NHL doesn’t seem like a far-fetched thing. For both me and my brother, we set high goals for ourselves — maybe not necessarily goals, but dreams. We both think we can reach that and we learned a lot from [our parents] on how we can get there.’’
For now, there’s a much-anticipated audition awaiting him in Boston. If the CBA gets settled, NHL clubs plan on short training camps, which also will mean short rosters. Chiarelli said earlier this week that he has been in constant contact with Hockey Canada about Hamilton, and he reserves the right to call him to Boston at any hour prior to or during the World Junior tournament.
Chiarelli will talk with Hockey Canada organizers about Hamilton again this weekend and likely at least once more as the tournament unfolds. If NHL camps are ordered open, Chiarelli wants him here from the start. After all, he is the club’s highest-touted blue line prospect since the franchise made Gord Kluzak the No. 1 overall pick in 1982. This may or may not be Hamilton’s time, but it’s high time that everyone begins to find out.
“Just let him grow, let him develop,’’ mused Chiarelli, “and everyone will be very happy with what he becomes — even what he is to start.’’