Portland coach Mike Johnston if fully aware of who Justin Hamonic is. After playing the Tri-City Americans three times in the last month, the 6-foot-4, 210-pound defenseman leaves an impression.
“He’s a big, physical guy,” Johnston said. “He is imposing out there. He takes up a lot of space and closes in on guys quick. He doesn't give you a lot of room, especially in the neutral zone, so you really have to be aware of where he is on the ice.”
Hamonic, 19, has come a long way since his rookie season two years ago when he played just 39 games.
“He’s probably one of the best examples of that slow, steady climb,” said Tri-City coach Jim Hiller. “This year, he seems to have taken a real leap from preseason to now. He thinks the game really well. He’s being more assertive and taking charge. We rely on him a lot more and that builds confidence. In big opportunities, he has been able to rise to the challenge.”
A native of Winnipeg, Manitoba, Hamonic was taken in the fifth round of the 2009 WHL bantam draft. When he came into the league at 17, the Americans had a strong corps of defensemen that included Zach Yuen, Drydn Dow, Mitch Topping, Sam Grist and Derek Ryckman. Hamonic knew he would have to earn his ice time.
“I knew coming in I was one of the young guys and I wouldn’t play a lot,” Hamonic said. “We had good forwards (Brendan Shinnimin, Adam Hughesman and Patrick Holland) and a strong D. I stuck it out and worked hard and improved every day. It’s paid off throughout my career. That’s the thing I’m trying to pass on to the young guys — don’t give up, don’t lose hope. It will pay off if you work hard.”
Hamonic’s hard work and perseverance have come back to him tenfold.
After playing 39 games during his rookie season, he played all 15 playoff games. Last season, he played all 72 regular-season games and the playoffs. He has one career goal and 13 assists.
“Looking back, this is why I worked hard,” Hamonic said. “I’m trying to help the team as much as I can on the ice, and if that’s playing as much as I am now, I love to do it. Things I’ve done in the off season and the past two years are paying off now.”
“The type of player he is, the type of contributions that he makes get overlooked a lot of times because the game happens so fast,” Hiller said. “Not a lot of goals and assists — it’s the things in between, that’s where he excels. As coaches and teammates, we get it. We appreciate all that he does in big time moments that don’t show up on the scoreboard.”
Hamonic is your quintessential stay-at-home defenseman. He isn’t as rugged as some of the league’s other top defensemen, but he’s reliable.
“Trust is one of the big things out there,” Hamonic said. “As much as I can gain Jim’s trust, he will put me out there in situations that are crucial in the game and that’s when I want to be playing. That’s one of things I try to do is make the smart play at the time that we need.”
Hiller said Hamonic is one player he can always count on, but he isn’t without his weaknesses.
“He is dependable night after night, and he’s being more physical,” Hiller said. “Guys with big bodies, you want to be mean and more aggressive. That part has been an evolution for him. He needs to be a little bit more rugged and hopefully he will pick that up a bit more.”
Hiller can praise Hamonic and fans can appreciate his play, but there’s one player who counts on him to be at his best every night — goalie Eric Comrie.
“Hamo is just a rock back there,” Comrie said. “Every single day you are going to get the same effort from him. Every single time there is a battle out front he wins it. Every time there is a battle along the board he wins it. He is a warrior out there. There’s no other word to describe him. He blocks everything. Doesn’t matter if it’s coming for his face, he’s going to put his teeth in front of the puck.
“He’s the hardest working man I have ever met in my life. He’s earned every bit of everything he has. I really hope (NHL) teams notice that.”
In addition to his defensive play, Hamonic also is one of the Americans’ top penalty killers. Tri-City ranks seventh among the 22 WHL teams in the penalty kill standings.
“We do a great job on the penalty kill from Marcus (Messier) to Tops (Topping) and Eric has helped us out a lot,” Hamonic said. “It’s one of the things we can take pride in this year. I have done it my whole life and it’s one of the things I like to do. Others like to score goals, I’d rather block shots. That’s just me. That’s what I love to do.”
As an opposing coach, Johnston appreciates Hamonic’s play on special teams.
“He is imposing out there,” Johnston said. “He takes up a lot of space, he closes in on guys quick. He’s rangy (a measured wing span of 6 feet, 7 1/2 inches) and he battles.”
And as much as Comrie relies on Hamonic’s defensive play, the team benefits from his leadership. Topping is the team captain and Hamonic and Connor Rankin are the alternate captains.
“He’s probably the most important player on our team and the most underrated,” Comrie said. “He goes out there every single night and you know what you are going to get out of No. 6. His greatest strength is his defensive play and blocking pucks, but his leadership is another one.”
For Hamonic, it’s all part of paying it forward.
“I learned from some of the older guys and I’m passing that on to the younger guys,” Hamonic said. “That’s why Tri-City has been so successful the past 8-10 years. I want to try and keep that tradition alive.”