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Preds hope Hamhuis is bad to the bone

Posted: Thursday January 09, 2003 9:06 PM
 

By Amy K. Nelson, Special to CNNSI.com

BOSTON (Ticker) -- Rising from a virtual unknown to a first-round pick in the NHL draft could have a whiplash effect on a hockey player. But Dan Hamhuis has remained focused throughout his NHL-bound path.

Hamhuis rose from the ashen, of sorts, as the 12th overall pick by the Nashville Predators in the 2001 draft.

His selection was not a total shock, of course, considering Hamhuis put up back-to-back seasons of 100-plus points as a defenseman in juniors.

Now, in his first professional season with the Milwaukee Admirals in the American Hockey League, Hamhuis is learning that smarts are what will likely land him at the next level.

Undrafted out of bantam hockey, Hamhuis had to win a spot with the Prince George Cougars in the Western Hockey League. He impressed the coaches and won a job by virtue of his hard play, becoming a member of the 1998-99 squad at the tender age of 15.

Hamhuis started slowly with just four points in 54 games as a rookie. But three years and two appearances for Team Canada at the World Junior Tournament later, Hamhuis was on his way.

"Nobody ever expected anything out of me," said Hamhuis. "I just always kind of outdid everybody's expectations. No way did I expect myself to make a World Junior team at age 18, and did that. It's nice to kind of surprise myself."

During his tenure in juniors, the Smithers, British Columbia native slowly made a name for himself with superior two-way play and great hip-checking, despite his average size of 6-0 and 175 pounds.

Never did he struggle with being a Canadian household name at age 16, nor was he ever touted as the "next". Hamhuis, instead, just plugged along. But having grown up in Canada with daily exposure on TV and in the newspapers, Hamhuis has witnessed the hype and seen it affect many around him.

"It's tough playing with high expectations," said Hamhuis. "Some guys back home, they're said to be the next Gretzky when they were 15. That's a lot of pressure to live up to."

For Hamhuis, it was the opposite. It was more the "work my tail off to just earn a chance" attitude.

That mentality and extra effort is how Hamhuis arrived at Milwaukee coach Peter Horacheck's team.

Horacheck sees solid and steadily development in his young pupil. Still, he wants Hamhuis to work on typical things in areas which young hockey players need grooming in. Included are making good decisions, moving the puck quicker and improving footwork.

"(We want him) to be proactive rather reactive," said Horacheck. "He hits guys very hard, steps up on guys in the neutral zone, has some great open-ice hits, which is a lost art, and hits guys going down the wall. He hits as much as anybody, but when he's down low with bigger guys he has to be smarter."

Now in the pros, the 20-year-old Hamhuis is exposed to a nightly barrage of big and fast men on the forecheck. To compensate for his average size, Hamhuis says his battles on the ice are won by playing with intelligence rather than reckless abandon.

"When I'm out on the ice, I have to be smart about it," said Hamhuis, "maybe hit a guy when he's off-balance or not expecting it. That's when I can knock a guy off the puck or use my stick a little bit better to poke-check the puck away instead of using the body."

Hamhuis will be the first to admit that he is neither the strongest guy nor the fastest skater on the ice, but his past penchant for proving people wrong, whether intended or not, should serve as a barometer for his NHL potential.

"If guys think they're going to beat me pretty easily, they might be surprised," said Hamhuis. "I might throw the hip check out or poke-check them. I might not be one of the stronger guys but have to be smarter."

As the all-time assist leader (123) with Prince George, Hamhuis' vision and exceptional passing abilities cannot go unnoticed. He may have just 12 points in 32 games this season, but he'll find a way to adjust. He always has in the past.

With time, that kid who came out of nowhere could be the next one on the NHL's doorstep.


 
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