Jeff Hamilton ’01 just cannot stay away from Connecticut ice rinks.
This summer, the former Yale men’s ice hockey star returned from Europe to join the American Hockey League’s Bridgeport Sound Tigers. Hamilton signed with the National Hockey League’s New York Islanders, the parent team of the the Sound Tigers.
In 2001, Hamilton culminated his Yale experience by breaking Mark Kaufman’s ’93 Yale career scoring record of 160 points with 173 career points.
After graduating, Hamilton went to Finland to play in the Finnish Elite League. He returned to the United States this summer and signed with the Islanders.
Sound Tigers’ head coach Steve Sterling said the Tigers were still figuring out exactly what role Hamilton will play on the team. Impressed by Hamilton’s skill with the puck, Sterling is excited to see what Hamilton can do.
Hamilton’s strength lies in his ability to score.
“Jeff [Hamilton] has a lot of offensive tools,” said Dave Baseggio ’89, assistant coach for the Sound Tigers and former captain of the Yale hockey team.
Sterling said that because Hamilton spent last year in Europe, he plays with more maturity than the average college graduate on the Bridgeport squad.
“You can see the way he carries himself well on the rink,” Sterling said. “He’s had success in the past, and he’s learned some lessons.”
But differences between European and American professional ice hockey could initially affect Hamilton’s play.
“European hockey is much different than North American hockey,” Sterling said. “We will see if [Hamilton] can make the mental and physical adjustments.”
Teams in the American hockey league play 80-game seasons, while clubs in Finland played at most 40 games, Sterling said. European teams tend to focus more on skill and finesse than American players do.
“In Northern American Hockey, the guys are bigger, faster and stronger,” Sterling said. “The biggest factor for Jeff [Hamilton] will be if he can survive the grind and rigor in pro hockey.”
Hamilton always has played center before, but the Sound Tigers plan to place Hamilton on the wing where he can be in a better position to score.
And Hamilton must improve his defense to become a more complete player.
“[Hamilton] needs to improve his defensive game,” Baseggio said. “He has done well so far as a rookie, but he needs to learn to be more consistent.”
Sterling said a a player typically remains in the American Hockey League for one to three years, depending on his talent, health and maturity.
“It’s very early to tell when [Hamilton] will move up to the NHL,” Baseggio said. “Right now, he’s learning how to play in the American league; you’ve got to learn to crawl before you walk.”
Hamilton could not be reached for comment over the past week. In Sept. 2001, Hamilton told the Yale Daily News, “[Pro hockey] will be a big jump, but I think I am ready for it. I’ll be fine offensively. I just have to work on my defense, and after a couple of months that should come around as well.”
Hamilton’s success is no surprise to Yale coach Tim Taylor or any of his former teammates.
“[Hamilton] always worked really hard. Everybody’s excited about his opportunity,” Yale captain Denis Nam ’02 said.
Taylor said Hamilton needs to prove to everyone, including himself, that he can compete despite his undersized 5-foot-9-inch frame. Hamilton’s skills and skating already have improved drastically since he graduated, Taylor said.
Hamilton had a tremendous Yale career. He helped lead the 1997-98 team to the Ivy League Championship. He reached the ECAC All-Rookie squad and scored 47 points in 33 games as a sophomore.
Hamilton was a three-time All-American and was named one of the country’s top 10 collegiate hockey players in 1999. Twice, he was Ivy League Player of the Year — in 1999 and 2001 — and was Yale’s first player to be a three-time All-ECAC first team selection.
Hamilton also was the first Eli to be recognized twice as a Hobey Baker Finalist, in the 1998-99 and 2000-01 seasons. The Hobey Baker award goes annually to the nation’s best collegiate hockey player.
Hamilton set other offensive records for Yale, including single-season game-winning goals and career game-winning goals.
In Finland, Hamilton proved he can compete at the professional level by leading his team in scoring.
Besides his athletic ability and hockey talent, Hamilton’s dedication and leadership adds to his value as a player.
“He was hilarious; he always had a joke to tell,” Nam said.
And while Taylor, the winningest coach in Yale’s history, has coached other Elis who progressed to professional leagues, he said that few had Hamilton’s desire.
“I’ve never coached a kid who loved the game as much as [Hamilton],” Taylor said.