Great expectations. That’s what every defenseman the Boston Bruins have drafted over the past decade has had thrust upon them, as fans have been eager to anoint every blue-chip blueliner as the next Ray Bourque.
Eddie Shore to Bobby Orr to Bourque, the Black and Gold have had a longstanding tradition of introducing the world to some of the greatest defensemen in the history of the National Hockey League. But since the final years of No. 77’s tenure, the B’s have repeatedly tried and failed to foster another homegrown star on the back end.
The hope now is that Dougie Hamilton, who the Bruins selected ninth overall in 2011, can be the one to end the club’s search for its next great defender. With a wealth of talent and the poise of an experienced pro on full display, the 19-year-old Ontario native has looked like the real deal throughout his first month as an NHLer.
“Anybody who watched the game had to see that this guy was outstanding,” Bruins coach Claude Julien told reporters Jan. 23 after Hamilton shined against the Rangers at Madison Square Garden. “Not good, outstanding. He was so poised and confident, and if anybody thinks he can’t play in this league, they should take some time and watch this game.”
Those who have watched Hamilton, be it in his first few weeks as a pro or during his days with the OHL’s Niagara IceDogs, have been quick to liken his game to one hockey legend or the other. But Hamilton’s not worried about equaling the accomplishments of stars from years past, or even resembling them for that matter.
“Nope,” the rookie d-man said when asked if he watched Bourque, who played his last game a week before Hamilton celebrated his 8th birthday, while growing up. “Didn’t watch him, didn’t watch Bobby Orr, didn’t watch Larry Robinson or any of those guys.”
That isn’t to say that being mentioned in the same breath as those names isn’t humbling, it’s just something that Hamilton doesn’t plan on getting too caught up on as he tries to find his way in the big leagues.
“It’s nice, obviously, but at the end of the day it’s just about who I am,” he said. “You can’t really have comparisons or expectations of what I’m going to be like in the future. I just go day by day and try to get better. That’s all I can do.”
Long before being touted as a top prospect capable of skating the path to hockey superstardom, Hamilton had some familial footsteps to follow. His mother, Lynn, was a member of Canada’s women’s basketball team at the 1984 Olympics, where his father, Doug, won a bronze medal in rowing.
A life spent not pursuing athletic greatness was likely never within the realm of possibilities for Hamilton and older brother Freddie.
“Probably not,” said Freddie, who was drafted by the Sharks in 2010 and now plays for their AHL affiliate in nearby Worcester. “With them both being athletes, and being around their pictures and medals and things like that, it definitely made us want to be like them.”
After playing minor midget hockey for St. Catharines, Dougie was selected 29th in the OHL Draft by Niagara in 2009, uniting him with Freddie, who had just completed his first season with the IceDogs. The elder of the Hamilton brothers witnessed his brother rapidly develop.
“It was huge,” said Freddie. “It’s been so exciting these last few years to watch him grow as a player and as a person. He wasn’t the biggest guy at the end of his minor hockey career, but he worked really hard then and I think that’s why he’s so good now. He was always really good, and now he’s got the size. It’s really fun to see how far he’s come. It’s pretty cool to think about how far he can go in the future, too.”
Following a third OHL season in which he was named the league’s Defenseman of the Year and helped the IceDogs reach the Memorial Cup, the general consensus was that the next step in Dougie’s development would come in Boston. The wiser faction of Bruins fans knew to temper their expectations. Hamilton is, after all, just a teenager. He also plays a position that often takes a player more time to grow into at the NHL level. An optimistic outlook foresaw him being eased in and hopefully getting acclimated to the speed and intensity of the NHL by the end of the lockout-shortened season.
Well, so much for that idea.
In just his second NHL game, Hamilton played over 23 minutes of ice time. Over the first month of his pro career, he solidified a spot in the top four on Boston’s blue line, saw time on the top pairing with captain and perennial Norris Trophy candidate Zdeno Chara and earned a role on the Black and Gold’s power play. Not bad for a kid just trying to learn the ropes.
“I had no expectations coming in,” the well-spoken, down-to-earth Hamilton said, “but I think I’m pretty happy with how I’m doing adjusting and things like that, and feeling comfortable out there. I’m just trying to enjoy myself as much as I can and get better every day.”
And as for playing a big role in the Hub of Hockey right off the hop?
“It feels really good,” said Hamilton. “I’m used to playing a lot and being responsible in situations and things like that. I’m really happy with the opportunity I’ve gotten and I’m just trying to do the best I can with it.”
With “Teach me how to Dougie” shirts — capitalizing on the dance-inducing track by Cali Swag District — making merchandisers outside TD Garden a pretty penny, and his profile now raised even higher following his highly anticipated arrival, it’d be easy for a kid like Hamilton to be a bit overwhelmed by it all.
“He’s taking it really well,” Freddie said. “I think he’s taking it more as excitement than pressure. I don’t think he worries about what the fans or the media think of how he plays. He’s done a good job of just focusing on how he plays and handling the pressure.”
Year after year, a batch of talented rookies enter the league expecting the good times to keep rolling. But it takes more than just talent to hit the ground running.
“I think character is a big part of it. He has all the talent and the smarts to be a great player,” said Freddie, as both he and Dougie were exceptional, award-winning students. “I think everyone needs character to make the NHL, especially at such a young age like he’s at.”
But witnessing his through-the-roof hockey IQ, precision passing, strong positional play in his own zone and keen ability to get shots through traffic, only his fresh face and not-yet-filled-out frame give away Hamilton’s youth.
“He’s a smart kid,” said Freddie, who noted Dougie always had a strong interest in business when asked what career alternatives the two considered. “He can really see the ice well, he’s playing really well in their system right now and making smart plays. He definitely doesn’t look like a 19-year-old out there.”
While Dennis Seidenberg is Hamilton’s partner on the ice, the bronze-medal winner at the 2012 World Junior Championship is teaming up with Adam McQuaid off of it. Freddie said Dougie describes his new roommate as a “really, really nice guy” and things have gone well. Living with McQuaid is just another opportunity for the impressionable first-year pro to soak up as much knowledge as he can from his experienced teammates.
“It’s huge just learning from them, watching them and trying to be like them,” said Hamilton. “That’s what I’m trying to do: just get better and learn from them.”
Now living away from home for the first time in his life, Dougie’s also welcomed advice from Freddie, whose team plays an hour away from TD Garden at Worcester’s DCU Center.
Freddie’s greatly enjoyed giving his brother a few pointers on life as a pro and making the trek up to Boston to see him in action. He understands if Dougie can’t return the favor.
“Yeah, he doesn’t have a car, so it’ll be tough for him,” Freddie said. “I think it’s just going to be me heading to him most of the time.”
On Feb. 15, Dougie and the Bruins were up in Buffalo, which gave his parents and a group of friends the opportunity to come down from the Toronto area to see him play. They picked a good one. With Boston on the power play late in the first period and winger Milan Lucic screening in front, David Krejci sent a pass back to Hamilton near the top of the circle. He fired a slapper past Ryan Miller, notching the first goal of his NHL career.
“Looking at him now, it’s pretty amazing that he got passed up eight times to go ninth overall in the 2011 draft,” Milan Lucic told the Boston Globe when asked about Hamilton’s early NHL success. “We’re real fortunate to have him. He’s got a lot of skill, he’s got a lot of poise, he plays with a lot of confidence.”
“I can’t really describe it. It’s a dream come true for me,” Hamilton told the Boston Herald of scoring his first goal. “It was just a lot of excitement. I couldn’t stop smiling I guess ’til the second period started. I was shaking, too, from all the adrenaline. It was just a lot of fun and I’m happy I got to do it in front of a lot friends and family.”
After Lucic fetched the puck out of the net, a giddy Hamilton skated it back over to the Bruins’ bench. For just a moment in time, the wise-beyond-his-years rookie that’s appeared as calm, cool and collected as a seasoned veteran looked every bit the part of a kid just living the dream.
This article originally appeared in the March 2013 issue of New England Hockey Journal.
Jesse Connolly is the Bruins
beat writer for New England Hockey Journal and is the
editor of hockeyjournal.com.