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.’’Continued...