While the rest of last year’s Condors took flight at the end of the season, team captain Ryan Hamilton settled into life in Bakersfield as he stayed put and made the town his home.
In nine previous years of playing professional hockey, Hamilton had never spent the summer where he played. But, then again, Hamilton had never played in California before, either.
He and his wife, Alexa, quickly learned to like the city last season, Hamilton signed a two-year deal with the Condors in April and their daughter, Madeline, is almost 2 years old. It seemed like a perfect time and spot to stay a while as a family, so the Hamiltons did just that.
“(Getting the two-year contract) played a huge factor, but we also knew what a great city it is,” Hamilton said. “There are so many friendly people, and we were starting to meet people outside of hockey as well. Plus, the California living. It was a special opportunity to be so close to so many things.”
The Hamiltons spent a lot of time exploring California with family and friends who came out for their first visits to California.
“We pretty much went to most of the beaches we could,” Hamilton said. “Coming from (Oshawa, Ontario, about 90 minutes east of Toronto), a beach to me is pretty cool.”
Then there was a trip to San Francisco, a wedding to attend in Banff National Park in Canada and the requisite trip to Yosemite National Park.
“Awesome, incredible,” Hamilton said of his Yosemite experience. “That was one of the coolest things we did. My in-laws came from Texas and we went up there and spent a couple of days in the park.
“Seeing the falls and going up and looking down from Glacier Point, that was spectacular.”
But now the focus has switched back to hockey, and Hamilton is ready to go for his 10th professional season.
Condors coach Gerry Fleming said getting Hamilton re-signed soon after his initial two-year-contract with Edmonton expired was a priority.
“He’s a big part of what we’re trying to accomplish here,” Fleming said. “He’s the ultimate pro. He’s our captain. You’re not going to find a guy who works harder, who cares more about his teammates and his team and goes out and plays hard. He competes every night he’s out there.
“With his veteran leadership and a young corps of guys, it’s nice they can have a guy like that to look up to and use as an example of how they want to emulate themselves throughout their career.”
Hamilton, 31, is the elder statesman of the team. If his career could be summed up in a word, it might be perseverance.
Undrafted out of juniors, Hamilton was signed by the Minnesota Wild in 2006 and played for the Houston Aeros for the first 3½ years of his career.
His first NHL game did not come until late in the 2012 season, his sixth pro season, when he played two games for Toronto, the team he rooted for growing up.
“It was cool; it was special,” Hamilton said of his first NHL experience. “I was just battling away (in the AHL), enjoying what you’re doing but battling, and it just happened so quick. I was fortunate I was healthy at that time and I was able to get that opportunity.”
Hamilton played another 10 games with Toronto at the NHL level the following season and signed as a free agent with Edmonton in 2013.
“I had a really good camp (with the Oilers) and played a game (in the regular season) but tore my MCL in my very first shift,” he said. “I was injured for a while after that.”
Hamilton played in 16 games with the Oilers in 2014-15 and spent all of last year playing for Bakersfield, where he had 33 points (20 goals, 13 assists) in 60 games.
He said that if he never gets into another NHL game, he won’t change the way he plays.
“I relish my role down here,” Hamilton said. “I love working with these young guys and love watching guys get opportunities to play up in Edmonton and do well. It makes me extremely happy and a lot of times proud, too. I enjoy that.”
But most of all, Hamilton still enjoys playing.
“I think when you get older you realize what an amazing opportunity it is to play professional hockey, and to do it for such a long time is real special,” he said. “So I think you actually enjoy it more and more as you get older.”
But Hamilton admits he’s started to think about life after hockey.
“I think (the longer you play), you appreciate the game more and more,” he said. “I like to absorb everything I can. We have a great coaching staff to learn from, and maybe there’s a possibility of staying in game in some capacity afterward.
“There’s also classes to take. It’s time to start preparing for life after hockey. It’s inevitable. You will stop playing. Keep playing as long as you can but prepare for the future by learning.”
While he has one eye on the future, Hamilton said he has plenty left to accomplish on the ice.
“I’m a player, and right now I want to play,” he said. “The one thing I learned at a really early age is you gotta keep bettering yourself and develop. That is the one key thing I did every offseason, including this offseason as well. I always want to be a better hockey player when I return for the next season.”
That next season for the new year-round Bakersfield resident starts Tuesday night in Winnipeg, Manitoba.