A stellar last season of junior hockey and a hardworking summer now behind him, Curtis Hamilton is poised to take the next step.
With a three-year entry level pro contract under his belt, the Kelowna minor product has his sights firmly set on a full-time job in the system of the NHL’s Edmonton Oilers.
Hamilton, 19, will head to Edmonton Thursday, then continue on to Penticton this weekend for the 2011 Young Stars Tournament, featuring the top young prospects from the Oilers, Vancouver Canucks, Winnipeg Jets, San Joe Sharks and Calgary Flames organizations.
While the chance of cracking the big club’s roster in his rookie season is slim, the 6-foot-2, 207-pound forward plans to hold nothing back at Oilers’ camp.
A more likely destination for Hamilton is the club’s American Hockey League affiliate in Oklahoma City.
“I’m going in with the mindset of doing my best and making the Oilers, but with the good young players they have, the signings, and the way things have shaped up there, the odds are against me,” said Hamilton, the Oilers second-round choice, 48th overall, in the 2010 NHL entry draft.
“If I end up in Oklahoma City, then that’s a good step for me. It’s an awesome program, they have a lot of good players down there too. So if I start there, no problem.”
Hamilton gave the Oilers every reason to believe he would be a significant piece of their long-term future after logging a solid 2010-11 season with the Western Hockey League’s Saskatoon Blades.
After playing in just 26 games the previous season due to a pair of shoulder injuries, Hamilton rebounded with some big numbers—26 goals and 82 points in 62 games, while leading the WHL in plus-minus with a +48 rating.
As a member of Team Canada at the 2011 World Junior Championship, he added four goals in seven games and demonstrated his ability to play a steady two-way game on the biggest junior stage of all.
What the Oilers like most about Hamilton is the wide range of attributes he brings to the ice.
“Obviously he’s a big guy, we like his size…he’s very smart hockey player, and a very good penalty killer too,” said Mike Sillinger, the Oilers director of player personnel. “He had a real good year coming back from the injury problems. Sometimes with a shoulder injury like that a guy can be a little gun-shy. But going into corners and using his size, he adapted very well and stayed healthy all year.
“He knows how to play his role,” added Sillinger, “nothing flashy, he just does lots of things well and he’s intelligent.”
Sillinger said the American Hockey League would likely be the best place for Hamilton’s early development as the young forward reaches for his long-term goal of playing with the Oilers.
“I’d like to see him in Oklahoma City,” Sillinger said of Hamilton. “We had lot of young guys there last year and halfway through the season a bunch of our 20-year-old players were getting lots of ice time and really developed well.
“There Curtis might be able to play a pretty decent role, get some power play time, kill penalties and just grow as a player. Young players have to make that transition and the AHL is a great place to do it. People sometimes downplay the league but it’s a really good league, the next big thing to the NHL.”
Practicing and working out over the summer in Kelowna with a number of NHL and AHL players, Hamilton learned a little bit more about the level of commitment it takes to not only make it, but to stay in the pro ranks.
“Every summer you have to get a little stronger,” said Hamilton, who turns 20 on Dec. 4. “You look at the guys who are out skating with us right now, the pro guys, even the older guys, they’re in the gym every day working harder because everyone who’s in the gym is making gains. You’ve got to be getting better both on and off the ice, trying to get better always.”
Whatever the challenges are, Hamilton is more than willing to meet them head on, to realize his lifelong goal of playing the pro game and, eventually, in the NHL.
“It’s been a long time coming,” he said. “I know it’ll be a big step up but I’m excited for it and looking forward to it.”
The Oilers first game of the Young Stars Tournament is Sunday, Sept. 11 at 4 p.m. against the Canucks at the South Okangan Events Centre.