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FOREWORD

BY RYAN HAMILTON

I literally became obsessed with hockey. It was to the point where every time I was at school I committed all my projects to hockey, to an extent that my teacher had to specifically ask my parents for me not to do it any longer.

My mom still has some of that school stuff. She's kept a lot of that stuff and when I look back on it I start to think I maybe had a problem for a little bit.

I fell in love with the game and always wanted it to be part of my life. I was fortunate to do that.

GENUINE ARTICLE

BY CHRIS WESCOTT

Ryan Hamilton couldn't give a proper, firm handshake with his right hand - so he instead settled for a less formal, left-handed greeting.

After blocking a shot with his surgically repaired hand in a recent game, the veteran was feeling the soreness, but didn't wish to be rude and skip on the proper pleasantries.

He's an old-school hockey player in a new-school world. He wears his scars and soreness on his sleeve like an open book, and his genuine nature shines through. He doesn't give you clichés, he doesn't waste your time, he looks you in the eyes when he talks to you, and he's always thoughtful with his conversation.

As a former Oilers coach once said, he's the kind of man you'd hope your daughter would one day marry.

Hamilton is the kind of person his teammates gravitate toward. It doesn't matter if you're a fourth-line grinder, the seventh defenceman, the extra forward, a member of the media, a coach, a first-round pick, or the team's leading scorer - Hamilton treats you with respect and a kind of open friendship.

As captain of the American Hockey League's Bakersfield Condors, Hamilton leads not often with pre-game fire-lighting, rah-rah, let's-go-get-them speeches. It's more about his genuine nature and how he interacts with every member of the team. He shows them he cares so they'll want to follow, and then he leads by example on the ice.

It's the kind of leadership that can rub off on young prospects, and it's almost certainly the kind of leadership that leaves an impression.

LOVE OF THE GAME

Obsessed with the sport of hockey, Hamilton committed his childhood, his formative years, and now adulthood to it. He credits his parents with kindling an early love of all sports.

"My mom and dad, absolutely," he said. "I was growing up in southwestern Ontario, hockey is the number one sport, obviously. I remember watching my older cousins play when I was growing up. It was a thing where whenever I was shown something, I wanted to stick with it and work at it as hard as I could."

Hamilton played all of the sports he could growing up, but he was particularly big into soccer and basketball. However, once he started playing hockey in the summer and winter, "I just fell in love with it."

"I literally became obsessed with it," he said.

Book reports, diagrams, art pieces, creative writing - whatever the school project - hockey was the common theme.

"My mom still has some of that school stuff. She's kept a lot of that stuff and when I look back on it I start to think I maybe had a problem for a little bit."

It was obviously a good problem to have, because he would use those passions to form what has become a long, successful professional career. And when that career as a player comes to an end, he hopes to trade in his sweater and a spot on the bench, for a suit and a spot behind it.

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"When you're young, you're always focused on the playing aspect," said Hamilton, who aspires to get into coaching. "You're always working on ways to get better and stuff like that. As you get older, you start to see the game from another perspective that comes with experience. I'm absorbing as much as I can through our coaching staff (in Bakersfield). I'm really trying to prepare myself for that transition into coaching, hopefully one day.

"In saying that, I hope to play for a long while and hopefully my body stays up, I feel healthy and all of that. But I'd love to stay in the hockey world. Every day I'm enjoying the game more and more. I'm seeing different perspectives from on and off the ice. It's something I really enjoy and want to be a part of."

Growing up, Hamilton was always planning on going to school, because of the value of education his parents instilled in him. But the more he played the game, the more he sunk into the sport. He just had to be a part of it, somehow.

"I fell in love with the game and always wanted it to be part of my life. I was fortunate to do that."

Injuries derailed his chances of getting drafted, but he says that never got in his head.

Hamilton vividly remembers his last year in junior - during a breakout 2005-06 campaign in which the forward scored a career-high 46 goals for the Barrie Colts in the Ontario Hockey League - getting a phone call from the assistant general manager of the Minnesota Wild after a practice.

"They were looking into whether or not they wanted to sign me. It happened so fast."

But he never let that sink in that this one phone call could be the start of a career.

"I never really dwelled on it. It was always about trying to be a better hockey player every day."

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Hamilton would suit up for the Wild's AHL affiliate, the Houston Aeros, during the 2006-07 season for the first time as a pro. His rookie year, he'd score seven goals.

He'd meet his wife, Alexa, roughly a year after he turned pro - and they recently celebrated the birth of their second child just before Christmas.

Following that first season came a big jump. His sophomore campaign saw him pot 20. Things were trending up. Injuries limited his next two seasons with the Aeros, but Hamilton's career would hit a crossroads with a day he says he'll always remember.

"The day when I got traded from the Minnesota organization to Toronto, we did team paintballing with the guys, having just a great day, then driving home and getting the phone call that I had just been traded. That was a crazy experience I'll never forget."

A team bonding event turned into a wild day of making plans to move back home.

He'd play 12 NHL games for the Toronto Maple Leafs over the next few seasons, but one of his most memorable hockey moments came with a team from Alberta.

Hamilton signed with the Oilers on July 5, 2013. On Feb. 10, 2015, Hamilton achieved a life-long dream of scoring his first NHL goal. He got the call-up from the Oilers, but then the real journey began.

"I remember getting the call and trying to get to New York, landing, and then rushing to get to the hotel on time," said Hamilton.

It was a day that may seem like a blur - and yet perfectly clear.

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"The one thing about that is whenever you're in a rush, you don't have time to have nerves or anything like that," he said. "I remember being real calm and really enjoying the moment."

At 10:17 of the first period, in a game against the Islanders - and at the youthful age of 29 - Hamilton got the goal.

Hamilton tipped a Nail Yakupov shot past Jaroslav Halak, on a power play, making a memory in the process.

"I remember calling my mom and dad right after the game," Hamilton said. "It was special."

Now 32, Hamilton has continued to carve out a successful professional career for himself in the minors. If you're good enough and bring enough leadership to the table, you can make a very nice living in the AHL.

After 16 NHL games with the Oil in 2014-15, Hamilton has become one of the faces of the Condors, with whom he's proudly worn the captain's "C" each of the last three seasons.

He wore the letter in Toronto with the Marlies as well, which is where a lot of his other fond hockey memories were born - including going to the Calder Cup Finals.

"But a lot of my fondest memories are just the good times with teammates," said Hamilton. "When I talk to older guys or guys who are done playing, that's what most say. It's about the camaraderie, being in the locker room with the guys, the road trips, the bonds and memories.

"Hockey is a small world, but you kind of get assigned friends every year that you accept and you become brothers. Later on, down the road in life, you meet up with those guys and it's like nothing ever changed. Those are the things I'll remember the most for sure."

For Hamilton, the term "brothers" is taken almost literally.

LEADING IS CARING

"When you're living in a hotel, it's not like you're eating at home. You're in restaurants all the time," said Condors Coach Gerry Fleming. "He'll bring guys over his house and make sure they get a home-cooked meal or just get out of the hotel, just to get around a family or home environment. He does those things."

From inviting teammates over for dinner, to making an effort to talk to each guy in the room and really get to know them, to laying it all on the line for his teammates on the ice, Hamilton is in a constant state of leading by caring.

What's even more impressive is he does those things naturally, although he's learned along the way from leaders like former Marlies Captain - and also former Oilers farm-team captain - Ben Ondrus.

I remember Ben was one of my captains in Toronto and he was one of the guys who I respected. He wasn't a rah-rah guy either," said Hamilton.

Hamilton could write a book on leadership, although it may all come from experience and from watching other players, and not from extensive research on the topic.

"In regards to leadership, I've seen that you have to be genuine," he explained. "You can't fake it. Guys aren't stupid. They know if you're saying it to be cliché or something like that. You have to have that feel for it. I think if you care, and care about the team then it works both ways as well. That's kind of my philosophy on things."

That genuine nature shines through, but it's also "the effort he gives game in and game out and in practice" that makes his messaging stick, according to Fleming.

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You're more likely to follow someone who you see putting in the effort themselves.

"He's not only a solid guy, but he's a good person. He really is. He takes his craft very seriously and leads by example. I'd say that's his style of leading," said the Condors coach.

For the Oilers young prospects on the farm, watching Hamilton compete is like stepping into a classroom every day, every practice, every game. You watch him play, and any given night he's taking a big hit behind the net to keep the puck alive, he's driving wild-eyed to the net to make a play, he's battling along the boards, he's yelling instructions and encouragement from the bench, and he's playing with passion and sportsmanship - the way the game should be played.

He's a throwback kind of guy, not relying on skill, but rather drive and competitive fire.

"His effort and compete level is just through the roof, in practices and games," said Fleming. "The way he conducts himself, his professionalism, and Ryan is a very sportsmanlike player. He doesn't play dirty, he plays hard, he plays the right way, and you're not going to see him play cheap at all."

Former Oilers farmhands and prospects talk about how Hamilton was an influence, and how he's one of the better people you could meet or play with. Casually over the years in the Oilers system, his name has come up in conversation about who has been helpful to development and becoming acclimated to the pro game.

Current prospects echo the same.

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"He's our captain for a reason," said rookie defenceman Ryan Mantha. "I think he's been a captain almost everywhere he's been. He's a great leader, a great guy. He's honestly, I think, the perfect human being. He does all the little things right with his attention to details, and our team couldn't ask for a better leader."

"Hamilton is our captain, and he's one guy where we're trying to learn to be a pro off the ice, and he's been a big help with that," said fellow rookie Caleb Jones.

Fleming lets Hamilton do his thing, seeing his captain as another coach out there.

"He's definitely a voice in the room, without a doubt," said Fleming. "He's a mentor to the other guys and he's a good mentor to have for the young guys. They look up to him, they respect him, and they understand how vital he is to this team, and this community."

Hamilton says he's "always trying to lend a hand and trying to help out guys and make guys better players and better people off the ice." But he's unsure of his true impact on anyone else.

"That's really flattering and would probably be one of the accomplishments I would really cherish when I'm done playing, if I could have helped some young players blossom into careers in the NHL," he said. "That would be a fantastic feeling and I hope that's the case and guys can learn from me and that's what you try to do."

There's no doubt that Hamilton is going to leave his mark on hockey somehow - as a player, as a teammate, as a coach, or wherever his career takes him. While the playing part of his career continues on, the mark he's left has already begun to show.

"He's touched whoever he's played with," said Fleming. "He's a good teammate and he's a good leader. He'll leave his mark or his trace on whoever he's played with."

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