Dougie Hamilton had a leg up — and a giant one at that — on the competition before his plane touched down in Calgary on Saturday.
None of the other 13 blue-line hopefuls at the Canadian world junior hockey selection camp can draw from the experience of trading passes with six-foot-nine, 255-pound Zdeno Chara at the Boston Bruins’ main training camp.
"The first day I saw the roster sheet I was paired with Chara. I got to skate around with him, do drills and watch and learn from him," the six-foot-five Hamilton said in a phone interview before the Team Canada selection camp. "It’s pretty surreal. You look over and you’re making ‘D’ to ‘D’ passes to Chara, it just puts a smile on your face."
A four-time finalist and 2009 recipient of the Norris Trophy as the National Hockey League’s best all-around defenceman, Chara took Hamilton under his wing in September, helping the 18-year-old defenceman during drills and offering advice on passing and positioning in the defensive zone.
"He just told me to 'play my game, do what you do best and have fun. You’re here for a reason.' That was cool for me to have him come up and say that," said Hamilton, who was later named to the 22-man Canadian roster along with his brother and Niagara IceDogs teammate, Freddie.
"One of the biggest strengths of [Chara’s] game is how good he is physically and how good a skater he is for how big he is," said Hamilton, who has grown four inches and increased his weight from 170 pounds to 195 in two-plus seasons in the Ontario Hockey League.
"He’s definitely the leader on that [Bruins] team. He’s really vocal and smart and tells everyone where to go [on the ice], where they should be. It makes it easier on you as a ‘D’ partner. You listen to him and you know where people are."
Dougie Hamilton is trying to lend some of that experience — he also attended the Canadian world junior development camp in August and the world under-18 camp the previous summer — to IceDogs rearguard Jesse Graham, who’s in his NHL draft year and partnered with Hamilton last season.
"My offensive game has improved a lot," Hamilton said. "Last year, me and [Graham] were playing against the [opposition’s] top lines and this year we’re doing the same. I’m just talking to him and telling him where to be."
An improved shot and soaring confidence has seen Hamilton match his goal total of 12 in 37 fewer games this season while Graham, 17, had 18 points in 32 contests through Dec. 11, which ties his 63-game output of a year ago.
'Coming back [to junior] I wanted to be a dominant player ... play my game and improve on everything. I think I’ve done that so far.'— Niagara IceDogs defenceman Dougie Hamilton
Never ‘the big guy’ during his minor hockey days, Hamilton has learned to use his size to get an edge on the competition. The Toronto native believes he is just getting over the awkward stage of growing into his body.
Battling 200-pound Bruins players in one-on-one drills and building confidence has done more than made the third-year OHLer understand he’s ‘pretty close’ to realizing his dream of playing in the NHL.
"I think it’s made my skills better. It’s helped me physically, being able to push guys and make hits," said Hamilton, the ninth overall pick in the 2011 NHL entry draft who recently signed an entry-level contract with the Bruins. "It’s also helped defensively with my reach.
"Coming back [to junior] I wanted to be a dominant player, try to be one of the best guys on the ice every night, play my game and improve on everything. I think I’ve done that so far."
Top D-man for October
Hamilton is tops in OHL scoring among defencemen with 45 points — Ottawa’s Cody Ceci is next with 32 points — sixth overall in league scoring and boasts a plus-9 rating after being named the OHL’s top defenceman in October.
Bruins assistant general manager Jim Benning told the Boston Globe in November that Hamilton is demonstrating he can be a complete player.
"He’s got another whole summer to develop, and then we’ll see when he shows up next year where he’s at," Benning said. "His game in his own end, he’s getting better. When there’s a chance to finish a check or separate a forward from the puck, he’s shown an ability to do that."
As much as Hamilton has become a force in his own end, it appears the Brock University business student is most proud of the strides he has made offensively.
Hamilton scored three goals in his rookie OHL season in 2009-10 and fired home another 12 last season while posting a plus-35 rating.
"I think my shot’s better," he said, "and I think I have the confidence when the puck’s on my stick that I can make plays and score goals. When I jump into the play, get a pass and the shot’s there for me, I think I can score, and most of my goals [this season] have been from that and slapshots from the point."
Sounds a lot like how Chara plays the game.