The buttons were mystifying. Dougie Hamilton knew where to put the clothes, that much was obvious. But he was baffled by the choices on the washing machine: Water temperature? Water level? Time? Pressure?
“I didn’t know anything,” Hamilton admitted.
He had signed a contract worth a total of $4.575 million, and his new bosses with the Bruins had set him up to live with fellow defenseman Adam McQuaid last season. But he had never done a load of laundry, not by himself.
“So I just asked [McQuaid] what he did, and I had to ask my mom what the best way was, and I figured it out,” Hamilton said.
Such is life for a player making his way through professional hockey at the tender ages of 19 and 20, performing in front of thousands of people at a time when most of his peers are sophomores in college or taking on their first jobs. While they are studying for midterms, Hamilton is under a constant spotlight, playing alongside Zdeno Chara against the Detroit Red Wings in the playoffs.
There are four current Bruins who played full seasons in the NHL as teenagers: Jarome Iginla, Patrice Bergeron, Milan Lucic, and Hamilton, who is finishing his second season in the league as he approaches his 21st birthday in June.
For players who make it at that age, it is exactly where they want to be. There’s the money, the fame, the ability to play hockey at the highest level — perks that no 19-year-old would trade for the drudgery and anonymity of junior or college hockey.
But, as Bergeron discovered a decade ago, and as Hamilton has learned in the last two years, it is not always easy. Young players sometimes struggle to belong, to fit in amongst a group of not-quite peers, while the team has found it must set limits on college-aged kids tempted by their first tastes of freedom.
The issue of young players in the league was one the NHL and NHLPA recognized in their new collective bargaining agreement, adding a Rookie Orientation Program, something the other major North American pro leagues have had all along. The Bruins sent Hamilton and Torey Krug to the inaugural session, which occurred just before training camp in September.
The purpose, according to the CBA, is “to educate Players regarding the challenges they may face as an NHL Player and the life skills they will need to develop in order to meet those challenges.”
Like, say, laundry.
Between two worlds
When Bergeron would go home in the summer, back to his friends, back to his peers, he wasn’t always comfortable. He spent his days during the season living with the 30-year-old Martin Lapointe and his family, dressing and playing next to guys more than a decade his senior, all while sometimes coping with language barriers.
He played professional hockey. He babysat Lapointe’s children. He couldn’t exactly relate to his childhood friends anymore.
“It was kind of weird sometimes to talk about stuff because I was pretty much living with guys that were close to 30 years old and they were in school with people their own age,” said Bergeron, who played his first season at 18. “I wasn’t experiencing the same things.”
His friends started skewing older, and still do. He understood them more. They were now his peers.
And yet, that makes for another strange dynamic, a dynamic in which 20-year-olds (Hamilton) are sharing the dressing room — and even a defensive pairing — with 37-year-olds (Chara), a dynamic that can leave a very young player caught between two worlds.
“What I’ve noticed with guys especially that come into the league young, you notice that they’re almost forced to grow up pretty fast,” McQuaid said. “You look at other guys that came in at 18 that are now 28, a lot of them are married, have three or four kids.
“Bergy’s not a whole lot older than a lot of guys, but he’s looked at as being so much more of a veteran or older guy because he’s been around. I think part of it is it almost forces guys to grow up a little faster than maybe they want to.”
The room, at times, can fill with talk of investments and children, mortgages and preschools, none of which are top of the mind to a 19-year-old, even one already making NHL money.
“It’s hard to relate to the guys here a little bit,” Hamilton said. “I think that was kind of a change coming in last year, coming in from junior where everyone’s your age or you start to become the older guy. Now you’re hanging out with guys that are five, 10 years older than you. I didn’t really have much experience with that.”
When Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli has contemplated sending one of his young players to the NHL as a teenager, he starts with one fairly easy question: Will this player benefit from more time in junior hockey?
“How will his development be impacted if he had to play in the juniors now?” Chiarelli said. “What type of player is he? Can he benefit? Or would his game go the other way?”
If Chiarelli believes more time will help, then that is as far as it goes. Chiarelli simply packs him off to juniors, where the player can grow into himself far from the limelight of Boston.
It’s that second question, however, that’s the thorny one: “My next question is can he live a pro’s life at this age?” Chiarelli said.
Over his career, Chiarelli has made the move with plenty of players — from Tyler Seguin, Phil Kessel, and Lucic in Boston to Mike Fisher, Jason Spezza, and Martin Havlat in Ottawa — judging them all mentally ready for it, or at least, ready enough.
“They’re only 18 or 19 or 20, there’s going to be a lot of little areas where they have to improve off the ice,” Chiarelli said. “You know that. You’re never going to get someone who’s perfect when they’re 18, 19, or 20, in that sense. It’s when there is a real red flag on a youngster that you know they can’t handle it. They all have to be at a certain level of maturity.”
Still, no one is fully ready for that transition. No one is quite mature enough.
“Those you think can do it, they’re never perfect,” Chiarelli said. “There’s always part of them that’s below that line.”
There certainly was with Seguin.
“With Tyler, it was like no way he could go back and play junior,” Chiarelli said. “It was pure talent. And I knew there were going to be problems with him. I talk about those guys that are still at that mature line or just under it, he was one of them. I just figured we could work our way, we could figure it out.
“If I would have kept him in junior, I don’t know what would have happened. From an off-ice perspective, I don’t know. At least we had some type of control.”
With the 19-year-old in the NHL, the team could keep an eye on Seguin. But it wasn’t optimal. The team wasn’t able to find either a family or a teammate to live with Seguin, so they had him live on the same floor of the same building as McQuaid, who had played 19 games in the league the previous season, and who was then 24. They had similar concerns and issues with Kessel, who had a rocky time living in the guest house of a local family.
“Both those guys, skill- and talent-wise, I couldn’t keep them back,” Chiarelli said. So he — and the team — dealt with the consequences, and managed the players the best they could.
“We had set a bunch of conditions with him if he were to live on his own,” Chiarelli said of Seguin. “That’s what I mean about being on top of it. He had to submit really his week in advance. And he was actually really good about it. One thing with Tyler was that he tried.”
Seguin, of course, was traded to the Stars last summer, with the front office making reference to off-ice issues, to a lack of maturity and professionalism, accompanied by reports that the club was forced to guard him during the postseason to ensure he remained in his room. Seguin’s family disputed those reports at the time.
The Bruins haven’t had to keep the same tabs on Hamilton. That’s partly because he was living with McQuaid, whom the team asked to “just keep an eye on him,” and to ease the transition. As last season progressed, Chiarelli would check in every now and then, inquiring about how the situation was going. He hasn’t done the same this year.
“Dougie is a little more self-sufficient that way,” Chiarelli said. “I think he goes out and does [things] more than having to be told what to do. That’s the exception to the rule, by the way. Normally you’ve got to really be on top of a player.”
Figuring it out
There are moments when it is clear that Hamilton is young, that he has gotten here early, that he still has growing up to do. There have been missteps with, yes, laundry, as well as with the media in a town hungry to know all it can about its stars.
These are the times when it becomes clear to McQuaid just how inexperienced his roommate is. Three weeks ago, Kessel caught Hamilton with a high stick in a game in Toronto. The defenseman was cut under his left eye, and the eye was blackened.
It was his first black eye.
“I was telling him you’ve got to keep the stitches moist so they don’t scab,” McQuaid said. “Just stuff like that. I feel so far removed from the first time I went through that. So it’s interesting. There’s times like that when you’re kind of like, whoa.”
Hamilton, too, still feels his age. He still feels young. This year, though, has been far different than last season. He is more comfortable, more confident, more able to focus his energies on playing and not worrying about all the life matters that he had to figure out in his rookie year — as he said, “the city, the teammates, the rinks, the media, and everything.” The mantra that the Bruins don’t have rookies — which comes down from Chara — has helped.
It has helped, too, that there have been a few more youngsters around the Bruins this season, players such as Ryan Spooner (22), Jordan Caron (23), and Krug (23).
“I think it’s good for him,” McQuaid said. “His more — I don’t want to say childish side — but his younger side comes out when he’s around those guys. So I think it’s good because he’s not always dealing with older guys that are talking about maybe more serious things like finances or their kids or whatever the case may be. That’s maybe the furthest thing from his mind.”
Still, Hamilton, and those who came before him, are essentially on their own, doing their best to puzzle out their lives and their professions in the public eye, learning how to act and what to think and where to be.
“It’s hard to imagine someone at that age, you’re so young and you’re kind of trying to — most people are just worried about trying to find their way, you know what I mean?” McQuaid said. “And he’s got all these other things that he has to think about and deal with.”
That includes the washing machine. It also includes learning to cook, which Hamilton said has been “a lot of trial and some error.”
Because, as McQuaid put it, for others who go to college or who get jobs or who aren’t thrust into the professional ranks in their teenage years, “You’re going through it with other people your own age, so it’s not as big of a deal to ask a question like, ‘How do you know when your chicken is done?’ ”
By now, McQuaid is pretty sure Hamilton has learned enough not to give himself Salmonella poisoning. Another hurdle cleared.
“I think he’s past that stage,” McQuaid said. “I think he’s good to go now. If it hasn’t happened yet, it isn’t going to happen.”Amalie Benjamin can be reached at email@example.com.