Happy homecoming for Islanders' Hamonic

New York Islanders defenseman Travis Hamonic (3), of

New York Islanders defenseman Travis Hamonic (3), of Canada, and defenseman Mark Streit (2), of Switzerland, wrestle with Dallas Stars center Steve Ott (29), also of Canada, in front of the Islanders' goal during the first period. (Dec. 3, 2011) (Credit: AP)

After it was over, Travis Hamonic was smiling.

After he played a career-high 28:56, after he blocked seven Jets shots, including a blast by Dustin Byfuglien in the second period that cracked his shin guard, and after his Islanders grabbed a 3-2 shootout win over the Jets, Hamonic looked relieved.

"It was something I'll never forget," he said after the Winnipeg television crews were done interviewing the local kid making his return home. "You can't wipe this smile off my face."

The same was true for Hamonic's mother, Lisa, and his older brother, Jesse. Lisa Hamonic, like her youngest son, had been a bundle of nerves leading up to Tuesday's game, thinking of all that had gone into Travis' hockey career and the one huge absence: Gerald, her husband, Travis' father and the biggest reason Travis would be out on the ice at MTS Centre.

"When Travis was very small and first started to skate, Gerald was always there and he'd swear to me, 'You know, he really has so much talent!' " Lisa Hamonic said.

Gerald Hamonic died of a heart attack 11 years ago, when Travis was 10 and older children Carly, Melissa and Jesse were teenagers. After a few years, with the older children in university and Travis growing into a promising youth hockey player, Lisa Hamonic sold the grain farm the family owned and operated in St. Malo, a French-speaking community of 500 an hour south of Winnipeg, and moved closer to the city.

And with his father gone -- Gerald Hamonic was so integral to youth hockey in southern Manitoba that when he died, patches honoring him were sewn onto players' jerseys -- everyone picked up the slack to get Travis to rinks and to his games.

"His brother and sisters drove him when they could," said Lisa Hamonic, a nurse in a Winnipeg hospital. "The sacrifices everyone made, family and friends, really helped make Travis who he is. His father was just an amazing man, and I see so much of him in Travis."

From the moment the Atlanta Thrashers were sold and moved to Winnipeg in the summer, Travis was eager for Tuesday to arrive. MTS Centre, an unobtrusive building in downtown Winnipeg, is the center of town, more than just geographically. The return of the Jets has injected some life into a sleepy prairie city, and its small capacity of 15,004 has been met for every one of the Jets' first 19 home games.

On Tuesday, there were more road jerseys and colors than ever before. "It's great timing, because a lot of his buddies are home from school, like I am," said Scott MacAulay, a junior at Northern Michigan who was Hamonic's first defense partner (age 6).

MacAulay and six other friends sat in an empty arena last Monday, watching Hamonic and the Islanders practice.

"It's going to be a great night," he said. "He's the only one of our buddies in the NHL, and to have him playing here is great."

Jesse Hamonic has been in Edmonton the last few years, working in marketing. He wouldn't have missed this trip home to see his kid brother play, but he was heading home for more than that: He moved back to Winnipeg 10 days ago to start a new job.

"Home means a lot to our family," said Travis, whose oldest sister lives in St. Malo with her husband and two small children. "My dad was from St. Malo, my mom's from another small town, Beausejour. I'm proud to be from a small farm town and have everyone supporting me. There are going to be a lot of people at this game who have helped me over the years, people I can never pay back . . . Maybe if I go out and play a good game, that will be some small way of showing them all how much they meant to me."

After the morning skate Tuesday, the local media surrounded Hamonic, who always handles himself like a man much older than 21. That morning, he was chattering a mile a minute -- in English and French, his first language -- and his teammates were quietly chuckling at his obvious anxiety.

"We're going to be nervous, so I can only imagine what it's going to be like for him," Jesse Hamonic said. "But we'll all be there. And our dad will be watching, too."

On his first shift Tuesday, Hamonic stepped up in center ice and sent Jets wing Tanner Glass flying. That hit shook out all the nerves and was the precursor to one of Hamonic's best games as a pro: five hits, seven blocks, an assist and a win.

"I know we'll be back there again, and it will always be great to play at home," he said. "But that first one will always be special. Going to Jets games with my dad when I was 5 and 6 years old, dreaming about playing for them or against them one day . . . It's a dream come true. And a lot of people helped make it happen."

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