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Hicketts whets appetite for NHL dream in Red Wings debut

Toby Murray/Detroit Red Wings

 

Even the most patient of people would have a tough time sitting through 210 trips to the podium by National Hockey League teams. It would be even tougher to watch, hoping to hear your name called, only to be left off that list.

Welcome to the life of Joe Hicketts. Joe was disappointed to not hear his name called at the 2014 NHL Draft, but not surprised. An injury had limited his 2013-14 Western Hockey League campaign with the Victoria Royals to just 36 games where he managed to replicate his production of 30 points (6G-24) from his rookie season.

“I knew it wasn’t going to be my only opportunity,” Hicketts said of the draft. “I was hoping to get a tryout somewhere. I had to work hard to get myself ready and in the best shape.

“I got an opportunity with Detroit and made the most of it and here I am today.”

Those who know Joe well enough know that he wouldn’t back down from a challenge faced by players all across the globe each year: after being passed over once by NHL teams, what do I do to get better?

In the four seasons since, Joe has answered the question quite succinctly, making his NHL debut last week with the Detroit Red Wings.

“Leading up to it, it felt like, ‘Is it ever going to happen?'” Hicketts said. “Once it came, there was a little perspective put into it.

“Being as young as I am, 21, getting a chance to play in the NHL is something that obviously you dream of as a kid. The fact that I got there and was able to play, it was just excitement and actually playing.”

The Red Wings took notice of Hicketts, a product of Kamloops, B.C., in September 2014, signing him to a three-year, entry-level contract. With the benefit of two full years with the Royals after his signing, Hicketts is now more than pro-ready and is ready to prove he belonged on that draft list in 2014.

Hicketts had pressure on him from the moment his name was called in the 2011 WHL Bantam Draft. Selected 12th overall by the Royals, the team’s first pick since moving from Chilliwack, B.C. to Victoria, where he eagerly made the most of an opportunity to become one of the franchise’s all-time greats.

When he did arrive, joining the team for the 2012-13 WHL regular season, Hicketts brought more to the club than just nearly two decades of experience watching Kamloops Blazers games; he brought a desire to succeed. To be blunt, the Royals had not had a great first year on the Island, winning 24 games and getting swept by the aforementioned Blazers in the first round.

As Hicketts described the experience, the Royals not only had to be good on the ice, but show fans off the ice that they were worthy of the attention in a market already rich with hockey at other levels and with three previous WHL teams unable to stay in the market.

“There was excitement,” Hicketts added. “Coming from Chilliwack [to Victoria], they hadn’t had a Western Hokey League team in a while.

“People had their hockey fix and we were in the business of trying to promote the brand and build our brand to where people wanted to come watch us.”

As Hicketts’ play improved, so too did the Royals, who won 35 games in Hicketts’ first season with the club, followed by 48 and 39-win campaigns in the following two seasons. That all built to Hicketts’ final year with the Royals, his second as captain, where he finished seventh in scoring among WHL defencemen with 61 points (8G-53A) as the Royals also captured 2015-16 Scotty Munro Memorial Trophy as the regular season champions with a 50-16-3-3 record.

Over those 224 WHL games, Hicketts overcame injury, loss, and pain, in order to succeed. He earned an appreciation for how his days were structured to include time on the ice and time in the classroom to keep his mind active.

“The way we were structured practice-wise, practicing in the morning, doing school later in the afternoon was a big thing for me moving up into the professional ranks,” Hicketts continued. “You need a mindset of getting ready to go in the morning and then really using your time wisely in the afternoon.”

Making an immediate jump to the American Hockey League’s Grand Rapid Griffins for the 2016-17 season, Hicketts continued to make the most of his time, tallying 34 points (7G-27A) in his first professional season. Then came the post-season, where he contributed eight points (1G-7A) in 19 games as the Griffins won the Calder Cup.

With gold medals from the 2013 Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament and 2015 IIHF World Junior Championship, Hicketts was a winner with the Royals, throughout his junior hockey career, and now a winner with the Griffins in his first season of professional hockey no less.

“Teams are looking for winners these days,” he continued. “To be able to say that you won at the second-best level in hockey and to do it in your first year I think it really helped me develop.”

Of course, it all seems like a million miles from the summer of 2014 and Hicketts is happy he didn’t get down on himself when

“You’ve just got to put your head down and keep working,” Hicketts said, offering advice for similar players in his position. “I’ve been told countless times by even NHL general managers [that I’m] too small, too slow, not in good enough shape.

“To make it, I’ve played one game and obviously there’s that fire now that you want to play more but it all starts in the gym, working on your shot, your skating. With today’s game, there’s so many resources that are available to help you.”

One of those resources came from his parents, who were with him growing up through minor hockey and made it to his debut.

“From the amount of time, effort, and money they put into me growing up through minor hockey, to get there to that point to see them after the game and how excited they were for me, it’s something that I think makes the whole journey up to this point worth it.”

When it came to his new group of teammates for that one night, they liked what they saw from the Kamloops product.

“He fit right in,” Red Wings forward Dylan Larkin mentioned in his post-game comments. “I don’t know how many blocked shots he had, but there was a couple real big ones.

“You see his smile coming back to the bench there’s no teeth. He loves blocking shots, he loves doing things for the team and he performed. It was really cool to watch it.”

Red Wings head coach Jeff Blashill echoed the Larkin’s comments.

“I thought Joe played well. He gave up a couple chances on some pinches, but what I like about him is he doesn’t let that get him down. He knows he did it and he just keeps playing.”

As for Hicketts, was his NHL debut everything he had hoped for during the countless gym and on-ice sessions?

“It was everything and more.”

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