Luke DeCock

In Dougie Hamilton’s return to Boston, at least one warm (and sugary) embrace awaits

Canes, Bruins set for Game 1 in Boston

Carolina Hurricanes defenseman Dougie Hamilton, who played his first three NHL seasons for the Boston Bruins, talks about the challenge of facing them in the Eastern Conference finals after Canes practice May 8, 2019.
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Carolina Hurricanes defenseman Dougie Hamilton, who played his first three NHL seasons for the Boston Bruins, talks about the challenge of facing them in the Eastern Conference finals after Canes practice May 8, 2019.

Opposing players in town to play the Boston Bruins regularly stop by Mike’s Pastry, the historic North End pastry shop famous for its cannoli and other Italian sweets, to get a trademark blue-and-white box to go. It’s a regular stop on the NHL rotation.

Not in the spring. Once the regular season ends, visiting players are not allowed. The doors of Mike’s Pastry are open to locals and tourists alike, but closed to the Bruins’ playoff opponents, the Carolina Hurricanes included.

“We’re not allowed to have any other players during the playoffs,” said Dori Papa, a member of the family that has owned the shop since 1946. “Usually all the teams come here. We know the trainers. We know everybody. But during the playoffs, we don’t let anybody come in the store.”

Except one somebody.

“Hell yeah, Dougie will come,” Papa said. “All the doors are open for him! Playoffs, win, lose, he’s part of our family.”

There are, to say the least, mixed emotions surrounding Dougie Hamilton’s return to Boston, where the Hurricanes defenseman began his career as a first-round draft pick and was ushered out of town with the same whispers that ushered him out of Calgary, about him not being a team player and too bookish and the like.

Mike’s Pastry employee Val Sinani, sporting a Carolina Hurricanes shirt, brings a fresh tray of cannolis from the kitchen to the serving counter on Thursday, May 9, 2019 in Boston, Mass. Robert Willett

Except in Boston, they’re more like shouts than whispers, especially if you go by the barometer of Boston sports radio hosts, assuming your local gutter has run dry and that’s all that’s left.

“He’s such a prick,” said one of the hosts of WBZ’s “Toucher & Rich” show said on the air Wednesday morning, his identity indiscernible among a jumble of voices. “And every team knows it. Every interaction I’ve had with him.”

This was part of a larger discussion about how much the radio hosts disliked Hamilton, which has somehow been an odd leitmotif to his career, at least until he got to the Hurricanes, where his playoffs have been punctuated by one bad moment (stepping out of the Alex Ovechkin check in Game 5 of the first round) and several good ones (including the return pat on Brock Nelson’s head in the handshake line after the sweep of the New York Islanders, after Nelson had done the same to Curtis McElhinney in Game 3 of that series).

New York Islander coach Barry Trotz congratulates Carolina Hurricanes’ Dougie Hamilton (19) after the Hurricanes rolled to a 5-2 victory and clinched their series on Friday, May 3, 2019 at PNC Arena in Raleigh, N. Robert Willett

Hamilton, typically, addressed his return to Boston under these circumstances in laconic fashion.

“It’s definitely exciting,” Hamilton said. “To me it’s just another team right now. On to the next round. There’s history and stuff there, but it’s a long time ago now. It feels like a long time ago. I don’t think there’s much more than that.”

But all of that sports-radio talk about Hamilton enrages Papa, as much as it did when he was traded to Calgary four years ago. She got to know Hamilton and his then-Bruins roommate Adam McQuaid during his time in Boston, regular customers who became part of the extended Papa family even more than the typical Bruins player.

“He’s one of the most amazing people in the whole world,” Papa said in a phone interview Wednesday, while the business of the busy pastry shop clattered along in the background. “I don’t think it’s that he’s shy. He’s just very private. I cried when he left the Bruins.”

Later, with a sigh: “I wish people knew really who Dougie Hamilton is.”

In the bakery, there are several pictures of Hamilton on the shop’s wall of famous customers. There are several NHL players, but few appear as regularly as Hamilton does. One with Angelo Papa, the owner. One with McQuaid. One of him making cannoli.

Making cannoli?

“He came in to say hi and we were short on staff,” Dori Papa said. “He made cannoli for two hours straight. We didn’t pay him!”

She expects to see Hamilton in the shop again, if not Wednesday after the team’s arrival, then Thursday before Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals or Friday.

“If he doesn’t come,” Papa said, “I’ll drag him in here.”

That won’t be necessary. It’s definitely on Hamilton’s agenda.

“Oh yeah,” Hamilton said, earlier Wednesday. “100 percent.”

Mike’s Pastry owner Angelo Papa poses with Dougie Hamilton, right, on the wall of fame in the kitchen of the famous bakery in Boston’s North End. Hamilton became part of the Mike’s Pastry family when he played with the Boston Bruins. Robert Willett

Papa has seen Hamilton on TV since leaving Boston, doing interviews wearing a Mike’s Pastry hat or T-shirt. She is as conflicted about this series as she is a defender and protector of Hamilton, wanting her beloved Bruins to win and Hamilton somehow to win as well.

“Don’t ask me, please,” Papa said. “I love the kid. Forget it! I’ve known him since he was 19, he’s one of my favorites in my whole world. I can’t go against the Bruins, but I love him.”

It’s a cold reality for her to embrace, but in Hamilton’s return to Boston, there will be at least one warm embrace for him in his former home, a place waiting for him among the pastry.

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Sports columnist Luke DeCock has covered the Summer Olympics, the Final Four, the Super Bowl and the Carolina Hurricanes’ Stanley Cup. He joined The News & Observer in 2000 to cover the Hurricanes and the NHL before becoming a columnist in 2008. A native of Evanston, Ill., he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and has won multiple national and state awards for his columns and feature writing while twice being named North Carolina Sportswriter of the Year.