Catching Up With Travis Hamonic

The New York Islanders are currently on the outside looking in on the final match-ups of the Stanley Cup playoffs. The Pittsburgh Penguins, who elimated the Isles in six games, are currently set to battle the Boston Bruins to see who will fight for the Cup from the Eastern Conference (Photo credit: douglasgaller30/Flickr). 

One Islanders skater, Travis Hamonic, has been spending time in his cottage up north in Canada, enjoying some personal time away from the game. 

The 22-year old defenseman is someone I have followed since his days in the WHL after being drafted by the Islanders with the 53rd overall pick of the 2008 Entry Draft. Since then, he has emerged from an inexperienced rookie into a reliable top-four defender, responsible for shutting down an opponent's top scorers. 

Hamonic called me this afternoon (once he found a spot with good cell service) to discuss his game, the first round match-up against the Pens and the culture that has overtaken the Islanders locker room. 

A lot of teams have a player in the playoffs who elevates his game to a new level. I mentioned in a previous post how players like Josh Bailey and Matt Martin could be one of those players for the Islanders. Shamefully, I neglected to mention the defense and you turned out to be one of those players who really stood out, going head-to-head with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in your first round series against the Pittsburgh Penguins. What was it like to be given the responsibility of battling two of the best players in the league on a nightly basis?

Well, you play to get to the playoffs. I don't know how many times you've won the Cup playing street hockey as a kid, right there, you dream of doing that. But first to get an opportunity, to have it, you got to get into the playoffs. And then when you are in the playoffs, you don't know how many opportunities like that you are going to get in your career. There are worse things to reflect on, but you don't know. Nothing is ever set in stone on this team. You might just get that one opportunity to have, or you might get five, or you might get twelve. I had some time to think and heading into the playoffs my mindset was that I was going to do everything I possibly could to help the team win and get to that goal, get to that Stanley Cup. I thought I had a pretty good season but obviously everyone at playoff time has to elevate their games and I did what the coaching staff wanted me to do. I did what I had to do to try to be more of a factor and obviously I tried to up my play, which I did. Physically I tried to add to my play up a couple notches and I think I did. I'm at my best when I'm being physical like that. The coaching staff put up a pretty big challenge for me to play against Crosby and Malkin and that's something I think I had a lot of fun with. The way I played, I think a lot of it was because I was having so much fun.

In regards to your physical play, you started out your NHL career as a player who took a lot of penalty minutes, dropped the gloves from time to time, and was constantly looking hit your opponents. Coming after your third year in the league, how would you evaluate your overall play compared to your rookie season?

As far as dropping the gloves, I'm a firm believer that there is a specific time and place and when to being doing it and when not too. We have a lot of guys that step up and do a great job doing that. As far as the whole dropping the gloves, that's not really my role on the team. But it is something I can bring to the table and I always say that there are a few reasons why you fight and that's my philosophy on it. It didn't seem like as many situations presented themselves to me as far as mixing it up with your gloves. But I think maybe that first year, maybe first year and a half, you kind of get chasing those hits a little bit because I wanted to assert myself, not only on the team, but in the league as well, knowing that it's going to be hard playing against me. And I think maybe early on when I was a little younger, I was twenty years old still trying to learn the pro game of what to do and what not to do.

And then this last year especially, I think you start to learn a little bit more that the hits are just going to come to you. If you are in position you can be physical. I think especially in the playoffs, that the pretty big hits that I delivered, I think a lot of that was sitting back. You got to read when to step up, when to do it and when not too. There's also a fine line of when to step up and make the hit and try not to get yourself so far out of position that you can't get back into the play. So I think that side of my game has evolved. My penalty minutes may not be as high but I think I serve my team best when I'm on the ice and not in the penalty box. So that was an issue where I wanted to take less penalties and I think I addressed that and as far as my game overall I think it has progressed really well over the three years. (clydeorama/Flickr)

Offensively, maybe I didn't put up as much numbers as I would have liked to, but I was getting a lot of chances with the puck. I thought that this year was my best season offensively as far as creating. At the end of the day, that wasn't necessarily my role. My role was to be a shut down defenseman and that was something I was very happy with. At the end of the day, if I had to pick one or the other, that's the one I'm picking every day of the week; to be that shut down hard-nosed guy that no one really wants to play against. And the other forwards know that it's going to be a hard night playing against me, and if they're going to be at me, they're going to have to work for it.

A few years ago during the Islanders' first round battle against the Tampa Bay Lightning, the crowd became frustrated with the lack of effort they saw on home ice and started a "We Suck" chant during one of the games. This year, this Islanders team loses in six games but not one fan booed. Instead, your team was treated to a standing ovation and one more "Let's Go Islanders" chant despite being eliminated from the playoffs. What do you think that says about how this team has restored pride to Long Island?

First thing that obviously comes to mind is I think that the manager has done a great job. You see all the young players coming through, and it's good to get some older guys, but especially Garth has done a great job drafting, he's done a great job building this team and I think we're finally - you know it's been a long time for some of the fans who had not seen playoff hockey in a while. And there have been some hard times for this organization, 100 percent, and missed the playoffs all those years. It's frustrating but we grew as a team and I think we took a big step in the right direction. You know, are we where want to be? No, we're sitting at home and the playoffs are still going on. As far as an organization we're taking steps and definitely in the right direction. I think the fan base just wanted something to cheer about. And New Yorkers are hard working, hard-nosed people, blue collar people and they just wanted to see a team on the ice, in my opinion, that is just going to work. And work hard. And if we're losing, it's not because of a lack of effort. And I think that's what we saw in the playoffs. Obviously it didn't turn out the way we wanted it too, but those were some of the best games we played all season as far as effort.  We gave the fans a heck of a lot to cheer about but on the flip side, to play in front of a crowd like that really helped our game. I think that made us step our game up a little bit more. We kind of fed off each other, on the crowd in the game when the players went on. It made a big difference. The fans had something to cheer about, now they got a little bit of a playoff hockey, but now we know that standard. We got to keep up the pace now and can't take two steps forward and one back next year. We got to make sure we keep taking steps forward and give the crowd something to cheer about and that's obviously a big help.

After game six, Matt Martin talked about how this team has been viewed as a laughing stock in the past and he felt that this series against the Penguins displayed that the Islanders deserve better respect from around the league. Part of that respect comes into free agency, as many players have been reluctant to sign with the Islanders. Do you hope that this team's recent success may help land some big name UFA's? Or is this more of a mission that the core wants to accomplish on its own?

Well, as far as how the team gets put together, that's a little above my pay grade. You're going to have to ask Garth or Cappy that question. Obviously they've done a really good job. When they started this rebuild four or five years ago, that was an area that - now a days in the NHL you have to build from within. And they've done a great job of finding so much depth and we have so many good young players that are up and around the team already. It makes a significant difference for us when you have depth like that in the playoffs. But as far as our team going forward, you can't build a whole team in an off-season as far as going out and acquiring 20 free agents. You just can't do that. So obviously the core of our group is in the locker room already. That's up to management to make those decisions, on who comes back and who doesn't, and who to try to bring in as  free agents and who you don't. That's their fun part in their job. Whoever we have coming out of the organization, we want to set a standard in that room where it doesn't matter what name is on the back of the jersey. We're going to be confident with whoever we have on the ice and whoever we have coming through. It's something bigger than us and it's something bigger than your own personal agenda; it's something that we have as a team. I think that's the culture that we want to have and I know personally that's the culture that I want to play in and I think that's where we are going right now as a team. (douglasgallery30/Flickr)

Before the Islanders clinched a playoff spot, there was still a possibility that you guys would have a first round match-up with the Winnipeg Jets. Was part of you hoping for the chance of a playoff round close to home in front of family and friends against the team you grew up watching? Or was it something you didn't let become a distraction?

(Laughs) Now that I think about it, it probably saved me a lot of money in tickets since we didn't end up playing them. No, there could have been a thousand different match-ups. That was something that was so far in the back of mind. I wasn't really thinking much about it. If the case had happened that we would have played them in the playoffs, it would have just been like playing any other team and I think personally that's how I would have had to approach it. It would have been fun playing in front of family and friends like that but I had already done it twice this season and that was enough for me. If we ended up playing them in the playoffs it would have just been another game for me and I think that's in the professionalism of your job and your business that would have come into place. The fact that we didn't probably saved me a couple thousand of tickets for sure.

Speaking of the playoffs, are there any active players that you are friends with that you are secretly rooting for since your team was eliminated?

I'm not going to say that I'm cheering for any team in particular but I am more of a family friend with the Toews'. We have cottages thirty seconds away from each other on the lake and I was just over there with his brother fishing there two days ago. I've known his younger brother David since I was six years old. Jonathan, as a friend standpoint, he's a pretty special player and I know he's chasing that Cup right now. I'm indifferent as to who wins, but from a personal standpoint I think it would be neat.

Recently John Tavares lost the EA Sports NHL 2014 cover vote to Sergei Bobrovsky. Teammate Colin McDonald was campaigning for Tavares so he wouldn't have to pay rent next year since he shares an apartment with him. It looks like he's going to have to pay up now.

Yeah Mac's going to have to stop freeloading. (Laughs) I can't say enough good things about Johnny, and I don't play video games but if Johnny was on the cover I probably would have to go buy about 20, or 25 games just to support it. He is an exceptional player and he's just one of those guys that's the heart and soul of our team. He really is the face of our organization. He's had a lot of great things in his career, he's got a lot of accolades and I'm sure there's going to be a time when he's going to get on that cover and it would have been neat if it was now. I think it's one of those things he would've liked, but he's got a bigger vote coming up with the Hart Trophy right now.

Are there any big plans in the off-season?

You know what, no. I'm just going to the gym this week, it seems like there's a couple of weeks I'm just going to take a break and regroup and get right back at it. But probably I'm going to go on a golfing trip or two here or there. I spend a lot of time on the golf course. And like I said I just recently bought a cottage last season. I don't get a chance to just relax there for the better part of my summer and enjoy my time with most of my family. I have a good group of close friends that I consider my family as well. It will just give me an opportunity to step away from the game and get an opportunity and chance to reevaluate where you're at in your life and realize how fortunate I really am, and just try to spend those moments with my family because during the season you don't get too many opportunities for that. It's kind of nice, when it's all said and done to just sit back from the situation and enjoy your time fishing and golfing and kind of just hang out until next season comes around.

-Rob McGowan