September 29, 2012
Dougie Hamilton and Ryan Strome are back in junior to lead — not to read about the NHL lockout.
What do 19-year-old prospects do when The Show is shut down? Fans of the Boston Bruins and New York Islanders respectively might feel it's only a small step for Hamilton to be a top-four defenceman or for Strome to be immediately below John Tavares on New York's depth chart at centre. Each probably was a good bet to play NHL games this fall, the same way ex-IceDog Alex Pietrangelo did with the St. Louis Blues three seasons ago before, coincidentally, being traded to Barrie for a package that included a then-rookie Strome. With little sign of progress in the CBA talks, the two are settling into being the elders on a transitioning team.
"For guys like me and Dougie, it's a chance to take a bit of a leadership role now that a lot of guys are gone," says Strome, who had the bookend markers Friday in Niagara's 4-2 comeback win at Ottawa. "We don't know how long we're going to be here, so it's a chance to help the young guys out because one day they're going to be the face of the franchise and get this team back to success.
"Being back in the OHL is definitely not a bad fallback," adds Strome, a potential returnee for Team Canada. At least we're playing hockey and we have chance to work on what we need to improve. Some players aren't playing right now and for us to continue playing in the best development league in the world isn't a bad option."
Playing an OHL game at Scotiabank Place was deja vu for Hamilton. He actually played a NHL exhibition game with the Bruins there last fall. It might not be what he had in mind, but he knows his game still needs work to be pro-ready.
"Being here is a chance to get ready for the NHL game," says the league's reigning defensive scorer. "I've got a chance to get stronger, play more physical, try to do the things that I would be doing if I was in Boston. I don't think it's a negative.
"I don't focus on it [the lockout] too much," Hamilton adds. "At first I did, but I'm here now."
At least there's certainty with the lockout in effect. Hockey is all about good habits and being a creature of routine. Not knowing before the lockout began three weeks ago was a distraction.
"It was just kind of weird because we didn't know what to expect," Strome says. "There's no timeline, so you're not really sure how to prepare or what to do. But that's over with now, we just have to focus on the games ahead."
This was supposed to be a transition year in St. Catharines. Most of the cohort who helped the IceDogs be the only OHL team to reach the conference finals in 2011 and '12 has moved on. Hamilton is playing separately from his older brother, San Jose Sharks prospect Freddie Hamilton, for the first time as an OHLer.
"It's weird without the 'D' on my jersey [nameplate]," Dougie Hamilton says. "It's a little bit of an adjustment. Hopefully in a couple years we'll be playing against each other and hopefully some day we'll be teammates again."
Instead of rebuilding, the IceDogs are playing with house money, off to a 3-0 start. Coach-GM Marty Williamson is pushing Hamilton and Strome to lead vocally rather than just by example.
"We don't know how long we're going to have them, so one of the things I really wanted them to do is mentor our young guys as much as they can," Wiliamson says. "Those guys have great habits. If they can pass something on, we're going to be a much better team for it... They've come back with wonderful attitudes."
Now every lost puck battle or time they're on for a goal against can be a jumping-off point for someone to wonder about the so-called NHL hangover, hockey's version of senioritis. Strome's standard line is that the absence NHL games means more scouts have their eyes in junior. That goes triple for the Mississauga, Ont., native since IceDogs wing Mitchell Theoret and defenceman Jesse Graham, Hamilton's partner, are late-round Islanders picks. The Bruins also had a scout at the Niagara-Ottawa game on Friday eyeing Hamilton.
The judging never ends, even after making The Show. It's part of the understanding that getting to the NHL doesn't mean staying long-term, so the extra pressure might not hurt.
"There's going to be more people who are watching and it's another chance to prove that you are ready," Strome says.
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Contact him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.