Local hockey player returns to WHL after injury
A former Airdrie Xtreme’s debut WHL season ended earlier and more painfully than expected.
Only a month before the end of his rookie season with the Red Deer Rebels, 18-year-old Joel Hamilton fractured the L1 and L2 vertebrae in his back after being checked into the boards in a game against the Moose Jaw Warriors, Feb. 12.
Eight months later, the former Airdrie Xtreme forward is back in the game and back in the Rebels lineup for the 2012-2013 season.
“(This season’s) gone a lot better than I thought it would,” Hamilton said. “The start of the year was a little bit slower as far as playing time, but that was because we were trying to figure out where guys belonged and getting things sorted out. The past couple of weeks, I’ve been playing a lot of minutes in all situations and it’s been going real well. I couldn’t ask for a whole lot more. It’s been a good opportunity and I’ve loved it so far.”
The Cochrane native played most of his minor hockey in the town before playing with the Xtreme for the 2008-2009 season and two years with the Edge Mountaineers prep team. Hamilton was one of 11 Xtreme players who were taken in the 2009 WHL Bantam Draft, which was a team record. He was drafted by the Rebels in the fourth round, 71st overall and played 44 games with the team last season before the injury cut his year short.
“Last year, I gained a lot of experience and that was huge for me as a first-year guy,” he said. “Coming into this year, it was a lot easier to get used to the speed and it didn’t take as long to get used to the new play. Just as far as the little things, like being patient with the pick and being able to get confidence while you play, has been a lot easier this year.”
He got back into the groove, but it wasn’t an easy road. The severity of his injury kept Hamilton from doing much of anything for the first few months, yet alone resume training. Eventually, he graduated to light-resistance training and then into a full on- and off-ice regiment, and by the end of the summer, he’d made a full recovery. However, just as the physical nature of his injury placed limitations on him, so did the mental roadblocks.
“There were a lot frustrating days where I just wanted to snap back into it and had to accept the fact that it was a slow process. It was hard mentally, but now I feel like it’s not a problem,” he said.
While he did make a full recovery and was back to his normal strength and speed at the training camp in September, Rebels Head Coach Jesse Wallin said there was some trepidation about how Hamilton would readjust to the physicality of the game.
“It was a pretty rare and serious injury,” Wallin said. “Early on, we were concerned he’d be a bit hesitant, but that wasn’t the case at all. He stepped in and went about his business. He plays with some grit and he hasn’t let his injury hold him back at all.”
With Kayle Doetzel out with a broken jaw, Hamilton has assumed the role of assistant captain until the defenceman returns. Wallin said the recovery from his injury has shown Hamilton’s potential to become one of the team’s leaders.
“It’s a testament to his character,” Wallin said. “He’s a competitor and he works hard. He leads by example and his commitment to returning from his injury is a good example of that.”
The chance to grow into a leader on the ice is a challenge Hamilton is willing to accept. It’s one of the aspects he’s hoping to grow into as the season continues. Eclipsing his points total is another goal he’d like to achieve.
In the games he played last year, Hamilton recorded five goals and 13 assists, a total he is on his way to increasing. In the Rebels’ first 12 games of this season, he has six points and is on pace to double his 2011-2012 total.
“I’ve started off pretty well and I just hope it keeps getting better,” he said.”