Hamilton was in his mid-teens and a blossoming defenseman in the Mississauga Reps minor hockey system. Reps coach George Stavro estimated Hamilton was about 5-foot-10 and "maybe 160 pounds soaking wet."
Like any teenager, Hamilton was a little unsure about his future and a little bored. The Reps were loaded and dominating with Hamilton, future Carolina Hurricanes draft pick Phillip Di Giuseppe, future Minnesota Wild draft pick Tyler Graovac and Harvard recruit Mark Luzar leading the way.
Hamilton also had an itching to try something new, so Stavro allowed Hamilton to spend a season as a forward.
"I remember sitting down with him and his parents saying, 'You know what? If you want it, go for it,'" Stavro said. "I'd been coaching for years at that point and he was probably the smartest hockey-IQ kid I had on the roster. I had a few that are in the NHL, but he was the one guy that could think the game. And I told him, I said, 'Try it.' It's minor hockey; think outside the box. And he went up to forward for a year, had fun and moved back to defense the following year. And he was just more dominant. It made him a better hockey player."
Hamilton's stint at forward is one of many experiences throughout his career that have helped him mature into an all-around budding star at 21 years old and in his third NHL season. Hamilton's continued improvement has been a major piece of the Bruins' solution to the absence of injured perennial Norris Trophy candidate and ice-time leader Zdeno Chara, who sustained a torn posterior cruciate ligament in his knee during a game Oct. 23 against the New York Islanders. In Chara's absence the Bruins won eight of their first 11 games. They'll try to continue that run of strong play Saturday at home against the Montreal Canadiens (7 p.m. ET, NHLN-US,TVA SPORTS, SN)
Through 20 games this season Hamilton has four goals and 11 points while playing a Bruins-high 22:34 per game. Last season he had seven goals and 25 points in 64 games while averaging about three minutes fewer. With the emphasis on puck possession around the League, Hamilton's offensive skills and creativity help the Bruins continually take the play at the opponent and worry a little less about defending their own zone. Hamilton uses the tools he began to acquire while with the Reps as a teenager.
"I was a defenseman and I kind of wasn't growing and stuff and I was a little bit bored of that," Hamilton said. "I think I played on a really good team too. So you're not really into [the game]. The forwards are playing in the [offensive] zone and you're just standing there. I liked playing forward. Definitely I wasn't as good as I was on defense, but I think learning stuff about where forwards are and stuff on the rush and things like that, it definitely helped me."
Stavro said Hamilton was his second-best forward that season. But the next season he went back to defense and continued to improve at both ends of the ice. Eventually Hamilton went through a growth spurt and became one of the best all-around defensemen in the Ontario Hockey League while playing for the Niagara IceDogs. In 2011-12, his final season of junior hockey, he was named the Canadian Hockey League's best defenseman after he had 17 goals and 72 points in 50 games.
Hamilton had been selected by the Bruins with the ninth pick of the 2011 NHL Draft, and one season later he was in the NHL.
During his first two seasons Hamilton's development progressed incrementally. This season, even before the injury to Chara (as well as to defensemen Kevan Miller, Torey Krug, David Warsofsky and Adam McQuaid), Hamilton was expected to take a larger step toward becoming Chara's heir apparent. Hamilton handled the pressure of that notion with confidence as a player who already had played more than 100 regular-season games plus almost 20 games in the Stanley Cup Playoffs before turning 21.
"I think it's more comfortable obviously everywhere," Hamilton said. "I think around this city, around the team, in the room and then on the ice as well, I think that as you get older and better the game slows down a bit. So I think I felt that a little bit. So just trying to play with confidence and try to make plays and keep playing hard."
Hamilton's confidence often manifests itself in dynamic offensive plays one doesn't regularly see from defensemen. As a key cog in the Bruins' revitalized power play, Hamilton has shown a knack for scoring from different angles, from near and from far. At full strength he's become adept at knowing when to join the rush and when to pinch. The Bruins' system allows for plenty of forward support to allow a player like Hamilton to be aggressive.
And then there's just the way he sometimes can operate with the puck in open ice that can't be taught. One of Hamilton's four goals, an end-to-end rush that left two Toronto Maple Leafs defenders in the dust last month, is a perfect example of that.
That's the type of play the Bruins have grown used to watching.
"I'm getting accustomed to it," Bruins coach Claude Julien said. "We've asked our [defensemen] to support the attack. And in re-watching the game, watching a video clip, he was taking off to support the attack and then we kind of bobbled the puck a little bit. He just sort of slowed down and cut back to the middle and the puck came loose and he just pounced on it. To me that's just a great read-and-reaction kind of situation. I thought that was a great play on his part.
"He's a player right now, I talk about confidence, even defensively, he’s a lot more physical and he's standing up to people a lot better than he used to in the past. I guess I put that in the confidence category as well."
Hamilton still has to get bigger and stronger to compete in the defensive zone, and each offseason he does the most he can. There undoubtedly are bigger and better years ahead.
Without putting a number value on Hamilton's reliability, all one needs to know about his improved defensive play is that he was a regular on a pair with Chara before the injury and recently has been asked to play important minutes with veteran Dennis Seidenberg or as the elder statesman on a pair with 21-year-old rookie Joe Morrow.
"He's just a workhorse," Seidenberg said. "He logs a lot of minutes, he can skate, he moves the puck up there, he's got a good shot and it's good to have a guy like that. We always knew he could do it and now he has to do it."
While his defensive game matures, Hamilton's offensive game continues to impress. It's hard to believe he went the first six games this season without a point. Then he broke out with a two-point game against the Buffalo Sabres on Oct. 18. Some of those first six games, especially opening night when he lamented a preponderance of "brain farts" on his part, might have derailed the confidence of a lesser young defensemen. Hamilton just took his lowlights and devised a plot to avoid them in the future.
"I think it just depends on the game and the situation and stuff," Hamilton said. "I think I learned from the first game that you can't really force things and try too hard and stuff like that. So it's just about reading the situations and everything and the score of the game and all that stuff. And when I have the chance I'm more confident to take advantage of it and try. I don't think I'm necessarily leading the rushes and flying around the ice but trying to do everything a little bit, I guess."
Hamilton continues to be willing to try everything, and soon enough he may be able to actually do everything. The Bruins, with or without Chara, should reap the benefits of Hamilton's abilities and adventurousness.