It only seems like December is Curtis Hamilton Month here at The Copper & Blue, but a third article focusing on Hamilton is purely coincidence. When the opportunity arose to chat with Hamilton, we couldn't pass on the opportunity. I caught up with Hamilton the morning after he returned from a five-game road trip, a trip in which the Blades went 4-1, ending with a 3-0 shutout of Martin Marincin's Prince George Cougars. Hamilton was resting up for the short turnaround as he is leaving Sunday morning for Canada's World Juniors Team Selection Camp, where his previous strong two-way play in the Preliminary Camp has many believing Hamilton will be utilized as a checking forward and penalty killer in Buffalo.
Copper & Blue: In 2006, you were drafted 36th overall in the WHL bantam draft. A few years later, you were taken 46th overall in the NHL draft, which obviously draws from a much larger pool of players. What areas do you think you improved most over that time period?
Curtis Hamilton: Well, I was able to work on my speed and acceleration, which was a little bit of a knock on me when I was younger, still in Bantams before I was drafted. When I was coming up through my first couple of years in Saskatoon, Lorne Molleken is a great coach here, and he really preached on working on the defensive side of the game before the offensive side, from my end out, and I think it's made me more of a complete player than I would have been if I were anywhere else.
C & B: You have a reputation as a fine two-way player, and now in your fourth season in the WHL, you've been a dominant offensive player for the first time. Is this something you're focused on, or has something just clicked in the offensive end?
Hamilton: I've always been able to score goals and get points, all through minor hockey and even in my second year here, I had twenty goals and twenty-eight assists. But last year, it wasn't really working for me - I was injured a number of times and nothing was really going my way. But this year I've been fortunate enough to play with Josh Nicholls and Marek Viedensky who are both highly-skilled offensive players, so I just have to make sure I'm working hard to get them the puck and they'll give it back. My linemates are a huge part of it, but I've also grown up as a player and it's my fourth year in the league and I understand how things unfold now.
C & B: You talked about your injuries last season, a teammate of yours, Teigan Zahn is also coming back from a horrific injury. Have the two of you connected over your medical misery? Were you able to support each other during rehabilitation?
Hamilton: I would say so, yeah. I think it was my first broken collarbone last year, maybe my second, I'm not sure, but he broke his leg, it was a pretty bad break. He needed surgery like I did, so there were a number of games where he was out hobbling on crutches and I was out in a sling watching the games together. We got to know each other, especially when the team was on the road, we'd be home together rehabbing. He's a great guy, he's our captain and a great leader and will stick up for anyone.
C & B: You mentioned the two broken collarbones - it seems like you're healthy, are you playing at 100%?
Hamilton: Yeah, I've done a pretty good job of maintaining the strength in my left shoulder, and everything has been holding up. As far as the collarbone goes, it's pretty strong - there is a plate and a couple of screws in there, so it's held together pretty tightly. You know, I separated my shoulder too, which is even more difficult for some people, but it healed nicely and I just have to make sure I keep my strength.
C & B: Did you have any conversations with the Oilers leading up to the draft? Did they express interest at that time and did they express concern over the injuries?
Hamilton: When I was at the Draft Combine, I had a meeting with them. I was healthy enough to do most of the physical testing and the interview went very well. As far as the injury goes, I think with every team, the first question they asked me was about the injuries.
C & B: A few of the other players on your team were drafted by other NHL clubs. For example,
Hamilton: We room together on the road and when they played last weekend, the highlights came on and we bothered each other about it, but not much. (Hamilton laughs) We've not been with these teams for a year yet, so there's not any animosity between us.
C & B: Do you have a preferred nickname?
Hamilton: Most guys call me "Hammy". We've got some pretty simple nicknames going on here in Saskatoon.
C & B: On a points per game basis, the Blades are the best team in the WHL right now and the best offensive team in the W. You've got the NHL talent - is this a team headed deep into the WHL playoffs and maybe looking at a trip to the Memorial Cup?
Hamilton: This is the third year in a row where we've had a really competitive team here and some people thought we might be down this year just based on the amount of players we lost, but I've got to give credit to a lot of our younger guys that have really stepped up and filled the roles of the guys that left last year. They've been a huge part of this. We have some really good young players and our older players have played well together. You have to give Lorne and Dave Struch a lot of credit as well.
C & B: You played against Martin Marincin the other night. He's scoring a load of points for Prince George. Did you get to match up against him at all, and can you talk about his game?
Hamilton: I was out there a couple of times with him. He's a bigger guy with a good shot. He gets to play a lot of minutes there and he played pretty well against us. You look at his stats and it's pretty impressive for his first year over here to put up stats like that. Prince George has been a better team too, and he's been a big part of that. He was a good pick by the Oilers and definitely a good player.
C & B: Is it going to be hard to leave the team to go to the World Juniors Selection Camp?
Hamilton: Yeah, I think so. It's a couple of games before Christmas, but every point counts especially when you're trying to get into the playoffs at the end of the year or get home ice advantage. But it's only for a short time and it's a huge opportunity for me, so if I have to miss one or two games or whatever it's going to be, at the end of the day, it's worth it.
C & B: We had a reporter at the World Juniors Camp and he was impressed with your play in all zones. He pointed out that you were one of the few players on the ice that he would call a two-way player. Is that your game, or did you see an opportunity at camp?
Hamilton: I don't know about that, I think it's just the way I've been playing. It's the way I've been taught in this league and I've been successful thus far, and I wasn't drafted as a goal scoring guy - I think I had seven goals last year - but they knew I was a two-way guy and that's why they picked me. I enjoy playing the two way game, I guess some guys don't like it because they just like scoring goals, but I enjoy penalty killing, blocking shots and being counted on for the defensive side of the game too.
C & B: I spoke with a WHL scout about you and he talked about your anticipation on the penalty kill. Two way play, work on the penalty kill, do these things come naturally to you or do you study them and work at it?
Hamilton: When I was younger, I watched a lot of hockey, obviously, growing up in Kelowna with my dad and the Rockets, and I don't want to say I studied it, but I was really interested in the finer points of the game. Things like anticipation, like you said, and reading plays - watching guys, seeing what their options are and what they were going to do with the puck. I think that's the really interesting part of the game. I still watch a lot of hockey and now I watch what NHL guys are doing, to understand how they read plays and try and do my best to do the same in this league.
C & B: I talked with Tyler Pitlick recently and we talked about how fast the game was during training camp. Did you struggle with adjusting to the speed of the NHL game in camp?
Hamilton: I get a chance to skate with some NHL guys up in Kelowna, so I get a look at the speed there. Obviously it's not as quick as an NHL training camp because it's summer form on the ice. The puck moves a lot faster and you always have to keep your feet moving. Everyone is much stronger there as well, so in this league you might be going up against a sixteen-year old where you can just lift his stick and take the puck, but every guy at that camp was probably stronger than me so both the strength and speed were tough to adjust to. Once you've practiced enough and get used to it, it's not too bad.
C & B: Aside from the speed of the game, who or what made the biggest impression on you at training camp?
Hamilton: The NHL pros made an impression. Some were quieter than I expected and it's pretty mind-blowing, you know you're watching these guys when you were younger and the next thing you know you're lacing up your skates with them. It's something I'll never forget. There was no one person in particular, but even the young guys they have - Jordan Eberle and Taylor Hall - they're just down-to-earth people. A lot of people think they're cocky or have their head up in the clouds, but they were down-to-earth and pretty good guys. I don't want to say I was surprised by that, but it's nice to know that everyone seems to be on the same page.
C & B: Who was your roommate in rookie camp and later in training camp?
Hamilton: I was with Cam Abney, and I didn't really know him before camp, but we're both from the WHL and both from British Columbia, so we were both on the same page for most of camp.
C & B: Obviously, your goal at next year's training camp will be to make the Oilers, but if you don't, would you prefer another season in the WHL or transition to pro hockey and the AHL?
Hamilton: Every guy wants to play in the NHL, but if it doesn't come true, the AHL will be a good learning experience for me. You talked about the speed and the strength in the NHL, but it's the same kind of thing in the AHL. But if I had to come back here, it wouldn't be the end of the world. We have a good coach here and I like the situation here. If I were to end up in the AHL, that would be great, but I'm in a win-win.
C & B: You've mentioned Coach Molleken a couple of times now, he's obviously had a big impact on you. What's been the biggest impact and is he still helping you with the finer points?
Hamilton: When you come in here when you're sixteen or seventeen, he really preaches the defensive side of the game first and working your way out. We play a pretty simple game here - we do a lot of cycling and dumping the puck, trying to wear teams down. He coached in the NHL for a bit, so he knows what it takes to get there, and like I said, we play from our end out and I've really bought into that.
C & B: You've got a great hockey upbringing between your father and now Coach Molleken; have you talked with them about what it's going to take to make the NHL?
Hamilton: I think consistency is key. I've done a good job of playing consistently here, but there's more. The off-ice stuff like training every day and the little things you need to do to make sure you're ready to play every day, and keep up with your strength - I think those are the big things. I just had to get into a routine with those things. It's been tough, but I think I've done a pretty good job of that.
C & B: Good luck at the World Juniors and good luck the rest of the way with the Blades. You've got a bunch of Oiler fans rooting for you.
Hamilton: Thank you very much.
Special thanks to Chelsea Kerr-Lazeski, Communications Manager for the Saskatoon Blades for coordinating my conversation with Curtis.