NEWARK, N.J. — Something was moving in the shadows behind Andreas Johnsson.
The New Jersey Devils forward was giving a postgame interview after their recent win over the Pittsburgh Penguins. It soon became clear he wasn’t alone. As he talked remotely to studio host Erika Wachter, the contours of a face started to become visible over his right shoulder, creeping on him like a demon in a horror movie. But as the face moved further into the light, it revealed the not-very-demonic-at-all visage of teammate Dougie Hamilton.
The defenseman stared into the camera, unblinkingly. He slowly moved his head behind Johnsson and then over his left shoulder and did the same, drawing a laugh from Wachter. Hamilton then turned and scurried away back to the locker room, crouching down to stay out of the TV camera’s view.
The scene was a reminder that while being one of the most effective — and well-compensated — defensemen in the NHL, Hamilton is a different sort of fellow.
The kind who sometimes stands with his soles pointed inward, giving interviews while balancing on the outside edges of his feet. The kind who engages in theoretical conversations about which role in a “Money Heist” episode he’d most likely play. “My favorite guy in the show is The Professor. I think that’s the role,” he told ESPN recently. “Although I don’t know if I’d be good at it. I don’t think I’d be a successful thief.”
And the kind that interview-bombs his teammates. It’s just what Dougie does.
“He’s a super nice guy. You just gotta like Dougie,” Devils captain Nico Hischier said.
Hamilton has gained the reputation for being one of the best offensive defensemen in the NHL, ranking eighth in points per 60 minutes for backliners (1.29) since 2018-19. In that span, he attempted 949 shots in 191 games, one of many reasons he’s become a darling of the analytics community. He’s the kind of creative playmaker who has earned his green light from coaches to freelance offensively, because he’s solid enough defensively to cover for it and because it’ll usually result in great things in the attacking zone.
“They don’t really talk to me about it. That’s when I’m at my best, when I’m playing like that,” Hamilton said. “It’s nice that they let me do that and I just have to make the right decisions.”
He had a decision to make off the ice last summer. Hamilton was the most prominent defenseman to hit the unrestricted free-agent market after the Carolina Hurricanes allowed him to test the waters. The Devils reeled him in with a blockbuster seven-year, $63 million contract. It’s the biggest free-agent deal in the franchise’s history, although Hamilton insists the weight of that deal isn’t carried with him into the Devils’ locker room.
“It’s definitely weird. I don’t feel like that. I don’t want to portray that at all,” Hamilton said. “For me, I just feel like I’m a new guy. I don’t have an aura or anything like that. I’m just trying to fit in. I don’t want to be above anyone else.”
The only place Hamilton, 28, feels above his teammates is in age. He’s the fourth-oldest skater on a roster that features nine players 23 and under.
“I’m pretty old compared to a lot of these guys here,” he said. “There have definitely been times when I looked around and I’m skating with a bunch of 19-year-olds and thinking this is crazy.”
It’s made him think back to his time as a young player, back when the Boston Bruins drafted him ninth overall in the 2011 NHL draft. He sometimes tries to picture who would have been “the Dougie Hamilton” to him on those Boston teams, giving life advice to a 19-year-old upstart.
“I’ll be sitting there, having lunch and realizing that I’m on the other side of the table now,” he said. “I want to be a leader and help the guys. I’ve been through a lot of different stuff.”
Hamilton has been through two trades and four different franchises during his 10 seasons in the NHL, and the departures haven’t always been easy. The Bruins framed his departure as one of avarice, having rejected “a significant offer” in their eyes. When the Calgary Flames traded him to Carolina, his reputation was bizarrely maligned by former Sportsnet broadcaster John Shannon, who said in radio interview that “the whole team would go for lunch at Moxies and Dougie Hamilton would go to the museum.”
Only in the NHL would an affinity for art and knowledge be considered a detriment.
Hamilton still hears about the museum thing three years later. He finds it somewhat amusing.
“I mean, I don’t really care. There’s a lot of stuff said about me that’s not true. A lot of perceptions. But for me, you care about the people you respect, and that’s who you listen to. If you don’t really respect the person, then their opinion of you doesn’t matter,” he said.
“People don’t know who I really am.”
Who is Dougie Hamilton?
In the offseason, Hamilton enjoys biking to stay in shape. He rides with his brother, former NHL player Freddie Hamilton, and their father, Doug.
“I just try to keep up with my dad, pretty much,” Dougie said. “We would go work out in the summer. He sets the pace. We just try to keep up.”
Hamilton grew up in Toronto, in a family with some serious Canadian sports legacies. His father won a bronze medal in the men’s quadruple sculls event at the 1984 Summer Olympics. His mother, Lynn, was an Olympic women’s basketball player for Canada in those same Los Angeles Games.
“My mom would say that all [my] skill stuff comes from her, but the rest of it comes from my dad,” he said.
Hamilton said it wasn’t a given that he’d become an athlete. “They never put pressure on me to even play sports. For me and my brother, they just wanted us to be the best that we could be in whatever we chose to do, whether it was sports or schoolwork,” he said.
But the Hamilton boys eventually settled lacing up the skates.
“I don’t know why we picked hockey,” Dougie said. “My parents never played it as kids or anything. They had to learn hockey as we learned hockey.”
Despite having two Olympians at the head of the family table, Hamilton said they never put undue stress or expectations on him.
“I only put pressure on myself,” he said. “I always knew I was going to be an NHL player. I never imagined anything else. I always deep down thought I would be in the NHL. But there were times when that path got harder.”
One of those times: puberty.
Hamilton said he hit adolescence late. His body was smaller than most of his peers. “That’s when you start to have doubts. That’s when you start to think you might not be able to live up to what your parents were able to do, and stuff like that,” he said.
His small stature was one of the reasons he started playing forward after starting out as a defenseman. It didn’t last — he was back playing defense within two years — but he said he “learned some stuff” in his more offensive role that remains in his game today.
But from the start, Hamilton enjoyed being a defenseman, and creating offense from that position.
“I started as a defenseman and pretty much played offensively my whole life. I never sat back. I don’t think my parents every wanted me to sit back. I was always a good skater, and as a defenseman you get to skate more,” he said.
“It’s also a matter of perspective. As a defenseman, you get to see the ice more. It’s like the difference between being a quarterback and being a wide receiver. You kind of have everyone in front of you. It’s different.”
He was a defensemen for four seasons with the Niagara IceDogs of the OHL, before debuting with the Bruins in January 2013. When Boston drafted him, Hamilton said, “I thought I would be there forever.”
Instead, Hamilton lasted three seasons in Boston and began changing addresses with a frequency usually not associated with star players.
‘You want to be wanted’
Hamilton’s favorite player growing up wasn’t a defenseman. Like many young players in Toronto at the time, it was Maple Leafs forward Mats Sundin.
Sundin famously played for two franchises in 17 seasons, finishing his career in Vancouver at age 39. Hamilton is on his fourth franchise in 10 seasons, before he’s turned 29.
“I mean, I know why I have,” he said.
So why have you?
“Only I know,” Hamilton said with a laugh. “I mean, everyone has different perceptions and thoughts. But I know the reasons why things happen.”
After those three seasons in Boston, the Bruins traded him to Calgary for three draft picks in June 2015. GM Don Sweeney indicated at the time that after Hamilton, then a restricted free agent, rejected what he and the club believed was a considerable proposal, that rejection “sort of changed things” in their negotiations going forward.
“You never think you’re going to get traded. But it’s a business. And you learn that,” Hamilton said.
Three years later, Hamilton was traded again in June 2018, as the Flames sent him to the Hurricanes in a package that brought Noah Hanifin and Elias Lindholm to Calgary. “Someone once said that once you’d been traded, then it’s easier to be traded again,” Hamilton said.
His departure from Raleigh after three seasons wasn’t via a trade but through free agency, as Hamilton’s six-year, $34.5 million contract was up after the 2020-21 season. Carolina’s approach to the pending free-agent star was peculiar: It gave him permission to speak to other teams over a month before the start of free agency.
For the Hurricanes, it opened up a few options for their negotiation with Hamilton. Like the potential for a sign-and-trade with another team if they wanted him for eight years. Or perhaps he would see the grass wasn’t greener than it was in North Carolina and decide to stay under the terms that the team desired.
“The whole process was a little bit …” Hamilton pauses. “It’s like, you don’t really know what to expect when you’re going through it.”
On the eve of free agency, GM Don Waddell said the Hurricanes and Hamilton had “gotten closer” to a new contract. “It’s got to be fit for him and it’s got to fit for us. But I feel pretty good that we’ll be able to get this done,” he said.
But Hamilton said that wasn’t the vibe he was feeling from Carolina during the process.
“I think at the end of the day, you want to be wanted. And I never felt that from them. They would say how much they liked me and all that stuff, but they never showed that,” he said.
The Devils? They showed it.
“When New Jersey was interested, that was an easy decision for me,” he said. “When you’re wanted and you’re appreciated, then that’s where you want to be.”
New Jersey has appreciated him thus far. Hamilton has six points in seven games, forming an effective defensive duo with fellow Devils newbie Ryan Graves. GM Tom Fitzgerald said Hamilton has excelled at the “four S’s” for his team: size, skating, sense and skill.
“When I watch him play, he has such a presence on the ice out there,” Fitzgerald said. “He seems to never have a bad day. Great attitude.”
Hamilton said he isn’t embarrassed or frustrated by his path to the Devils, spending three-year stretches with three other teams.
“I think for me, looking back at those nine years, I’ve actually enjoyed being in different experiences in different cities. Playing with different teams in different markets. I’ve enjoyed it. But it’s gone by really quick,” he said.
The frustrating part for Hamilton was when he’d put some roots down in these markets. “You get comfortable in a place. You start to make friendships,” he said. “Ones away from hockey. And then you have to leave that. And that change is hard.”
He hopes that change has ended with the Devils. They signed him while in a rebuild, but in a promising one.
“The talent and the pieces we have are pretty impressive,” Hamilton said. “It’s hard to say. Playing with some of these guys, there’s a lot of talent. It’s crazy to look at some of the guys and how young they are. Look at Nico. It feels like he’s been around for a while, but he’s like 22.
“Hopefully I can be here for the rest of my career.”