VANCOUVER – Living in the heart of country music is a long way from the forests of Smithers, B.C., but it might have been the best place for Dan Hamhuis of the Vancouver Canucks to begin his NHL career.
Hamhuis will renew some old acquaintances when the Canucks face the Nashville Predators in Game 1 of their Western Conference semifinal series. The big defenceman was a first-round draft pick of the Predators and played six seasons in Nashville.
“We really enjoyed living in Nashville,” Hamhuis said with a fond smile. “It’s not a really hustle, bustle city. It’s a little bit smaller.
“It probably made for a good transition for me as young player coming from a small town not to be overwhelmed by a big city. We started a family there and enjoyed our time.”
Hamhuis joined the Canucks as a free agent in July, signing a six-year, US$27-million contract. He still has several friends on the Predators.
“I know a lot of their guys, some closer than others,” he said. “We’re not going to talk too much during the playoffs.
“We’ll wait for it to be over.”
The Canucks and Predators split their games this season. Hamhuis didn’t play either game in Nashville because of injuries.
“When I was there in March, even though I wasn’t playing, they did a real nice video tribute to the years I was there,” he said. “I don’t think we left on bad terms.
“I have nothing but great things to say about the town and organization.”
The six-foot, 200-pound Hamhuis was born in Smithers, a town of about 6,000 people in northern B.C. He played his junior hockey in nearby Prince George. In 2002 Hamhuis was the Western Hockey League player of the year and the Canadian Major Junior defenceman of the year.
The Predators selected him 12th overall in the 2001 draft. Nashville coach Barry Trotz watch Hamhuis grow from a raw rookie brimming with talent to one of his most trusted players.
“Hammer was a just a solid two-way guy,” Trotz said. “We used him a lot in a stopper role.
“He was a guy that kept growing as we did. He grew up through the organization. As he got better, we got better.”
Playing in Nashville allowed Hamhuis the off-ice anonymity a hockey player might not enjoy in a Canadian city.
“There is certainly a little more privacy there,” Hamhuis said. “It’s a culture that is very used to having celebrities around.
“The (NFL) Tennessee Titians are there, the country music stars. Some of the college athletes are huge stars down there. It’s a small town, and there are lots of celebrities in it. They are kind of used to that. They are supportive but it wasn’t overwhelming ever.”
Hamhuis didn’t even mind the country music.
“I liked it before,” he said. “Going there made me appreciate it even more.
“I got into some of the behind-the-scenes concerts and writers’ things, which was kind of unique. There is something special about Nashville.”
Nashville, which finished fifth in the Western Conference with a 43-26-13 record for 99 points, eliminated the fourth-seeded Anaheim Ducks in six games. It’s the first time in the team’s 13-year history the Predators advanced to the second round of the playoffs.
“It’s great for a smaller market town to have a team that is doing well,” Hamhuis said. “They’ve got some great fans, probably very underrated.
“It’s a fan base that’s very excited about their team and excited to get into the second round.”
Canuck coach Alain Vigneault has already been picking Hamhuis’s brain for a scouting report.
“He asked me a few questions today about certain tendencies that I can remember from Nashville, certain players and systems,” Hamhuis said.
One of the Predators’ strengths is their strong defence and the goaltending of Pekka Rinne. Both Rinne and the Canucks’ Roberto Luongo are finalists for the Vezina Trophy, awarded to the league’s top netminder.
Hamhuis, who tied his career high with six goals this year with Vancouver, chuckledwhen asked if knows any secrets on how to beat Rinne.
“I never found any in practice,” he said. “He’s tall and lanky, extremely athletic.
“He’s been playing well for them all season. We will just have to do what you do with most goalies, make it difficult with traffic and get tips and rebounds on him.”