Troy Hamilton hasn’t taken a traditional hockey path but it’s led him to junior anyway.
The five-foot-nine, 160-pound forward debuted with the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League’s Estevan Bruins last season, just two years removed from spending his 15- and 16-year-old seasons playing high school hockey with the Vincent Massey Vikings.
"I wasn’t really thinking about playing junior hockey but was for sure hoping that I could play," Hamilton said of his mindset at the time. "Luckily I got those invites that I kind of feel like everyone gets from your team, which are kind of courtesy invites from the (Manitoba Junior Hockey League) teams. I went to one to Winnipeg and then they listed me at the end of my second season in high school."
Hamilton posted 19 points in 35 games in 2015-16 with the bantam AAA Wheat Kings in his Western Hockey League and MJHL draft year, and went unselected.
In his rookie high school season in 2016-17, the 16-year-old Grade 10 student had three goals and an assist in 10 games, but a year later he exploded for 38 goals and 38 assists in 24 games as the Vikings won their fourth straight Westman High School Hockey League title. He was listed by the Winnipeg Blues, and also called up by the U18 Wheat Kings for a single game.
In his Grade 12 season in 2018-19, he made the full-time jump to the U18 squad and it couldn’t have gone much better.
He posted 36 goals and 40 assists in 48 Manitoba U18 AAA Hockey League games to finish sixth in league scoring with 76 points.
"It was awesome," Hamilton said. "It was great right off the bat. I was given the opportunity to play with Nolan Ritchie and Calder Anderson, who are two really good players to play with in your first year. They made it really easy, and the coaches, all of them were supporting me there and helping me out."
The Wheat Kings beat the Winnipeg Wild in the league final to win Brandon’s first AAA crown since 2014. They didn’t perform as well at western regionals and failed to advance to the national championship, however, but Estevan noticed his game and claimed his SJHL rights.
The next jump was even bigger after Hamilton attended Estevan’s camp and decided to stay. He admits it took time to find his way.
"It was pretty difficult," Hamilton said. "It’s a lot faster than what I was used to and I was playing against a lot older guys who were a lot more physical and a lot stronger. It took a while to get used to it and it was tough but I did pretty good I thought."
As a result, Hamilton’s game had to evolve. He said part of that was toughening up his game without losing its best elements.
"I think I’ve gotten a bit more physical," Hamilton said. "I’ve always kind of been like that but now with fighting allowed, I haven’t gotten away from the offensive play but I’ve also brought a better defensive game than I did before. I like to stick up for my teammates."
He certainly started off well. Hamilton scored his first junior goal in his second game, on Sept. 21 against the Battlefords North Stars, and in his first seven games had six points.
"I was coming off a pretty good year in Brandon the year before," Hamilton said. "I had a bunch of confidence from last season that helped me to get off to a pretty good start, I thought. We had good young guys on our team, which helped a lot too."
The good start came despite some bad luck early on, however.
He missed time at the start of camp and in late November to concussions and was out of the lineup again in February with an injured left knee that got infected. The knee was fine by the time he returned for the playoffs.
At the same time, he was living away from home for the first time, meaning he also had a major off-ice transition.
"It was good," Hamilton said. "My billets were awesome to me and my family. I couldn’t have had better ones for my first full year. It was really good. It was definitely weird not being with my family and friends, but eventually you make new friends."
The Bruins went 31-23-3-1 and finished second in the Viterra Division. In the playoffs, they faced the Sherwood Division’s Melfort Mustangs (32-17-6-3) in the quarterfinals.
Hamilton said the playoff run at the U18 level proved to be useful experience.
"It was really good," Hamilton said. "Honestly, it was the best experience ever, winning. I thought it helped me quite a bit, especially in this year’s playoffs. I think I was the only one of all the Estevan guys to actually win a midget championship. I think it helped me. I thought I had a pretty good playoffs, even though it was cut short."
He certainly did. Hamilton scored the winner and the insurance goal in a 4-1 victory over the Melfort Mustangs in Game 1 of their best-of-seven quarterfinal and was named second star. He was held without a point in the next three games as the Mustangs roared back to take a 3-1 lead by March 11.
Unfortunately for the Bruins, they had made the 480-km trip north to Melfort before the final decision was made.
"It was tough," Hamilton said. "We definitely thought we could have come back for sure … It was hard to see those 20-year-olds go because we definitely got close to them."
After the first wave of COVID-19 hit hard in March, Hamilton came home to Brandon. He admits it wasn’t an easy time.
"It was tough, especially when you couldn’t really do much, or even go to the gym," said Hamilton, adding rumours flew about when the 2020-21 SJHL season would begin.
"That was tough. You would hear it was the regular starting time and then that got pushed back. You would hear rumours from all of your teammates and friends back home talking like ‘This is when we’re going to start’ and ‘Oh no, it’s not starting.’
"We’re doing an early training camp in Estevan so I’ll be heading out there soon, and I think we’ll be starting our regular training camp on (Sept. 7). That kind of gives us a bit of hope."
In a normal year, the SJHL would start on Sept. 11. The league subsequently pushed that back two weeks to Sept. 25, and then rolled it back another two weeks to Oct. 9.
The league is now waiting to hear from the Saskatchewan government about when they can take to the ice. Whenever hockey starts, Hamilton expects he’ll be far ahead of where he was a year ago as a rookie.
"I think I’m going to have a lot more confidence right off the bat, and I think that’s just because I’ll be older than some other players in the league," Hamilton said. "I think I had a good end to the season so hopefully I can just keep that going even though it was a long break if I work hard."
Since he is entering his 19-year-old season — his birthday is on Nov. 2 — he hopes to carve out a bigger role when it happens.
"I’m hoping to be more of one of the go-to guys on the team that they want to put out in the last minute or if we’re down one or up one," Hamilton said. "Just to be that guy."
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