If we rewind the hockey calendar to the first few weeks of the 2013-14 Western Hockey League season, Joe Hicketts of the Victoria Royals was then a highly-touted defenseman, projected to hear his named called by a NHL team in the early rounds at the 2014 NHL Draft.
Hicketts had played an important role with Team Canada at the 2013 Ivan Hlinka Memorial Tournament where the players collected gold medals. He played in all five games in the Czech Republic, chipping in with two assists, second only in scoring among defensemen to Aaron Ekblad of the Barrie Colts. The success internationally served to hasten a rise in confidence for Hicketts as he entered his draft year. The experience was also valuable as he prides himself as an absolute student of the game.
“That was a great opportunity,” Hicketts said in an interview with Hockey’s Future in September of 2013. “I got to see international teams and how different teams play the game. The Finnish national team is really a puck control team and I’ve seen how they like to turn back and regroup. Over here, North American teams tend to dump the puck in. So it gave me an opportunity to get used to the different styles of play. You see pro players getting those opportunities, too.”
Like many prospects in the WHL, Hicketts took a philosophical approach into last season, saying all of the right things early on in the regular season.
“Its exciting, this is a big year for my future,” Hicketts said at the time. “I’m just looking forward to taking it game by game. I can’t get too far ahead of myself. Sure, there are a lot of eyes on me, but they’re on our team. We have a good group of guys and we’re expected to be one of the top teams this year. I think the added pressure will help us to perform better.”
However, about a month after Hockey’s Future spoke with Hicketts, it all went horribly wrong for the 5’8, 185-pounder when he suffered a serious upper body injury in late October in a home game against the Kelowna Rockets. At the time he suffered the injury, Hicketts was leading the Royals with a +5 rating. But following surgery, he was relegated to the sidelines for what turned out to be 36 games. Amid the modern-day sporting world’s shroud-of-secrecy approach that results in earth-shattering revelations such as “upper-body” and “lower-body” injury reports, it was frequently speculated to be a shoulder problem. But Hicketts shared with Hockey’s Future that it was in fact a tricep issue.
When Hicketts was ready to return to the lineup late last season, the Royals were prepared to be patient. But according to head coach Dave Lowry, Hicketts simply forced the issue.
“First and foremost after surgery, he had to make sure his injury was completely healed before he started to ramp up his conditioning,” Lowry said when Hockey’s Future traveled to Victoria to meet with Hicketts just prior to the post-season. “Joe was a guy that paid close attention to what we were doing even though he wasn’t playing. He was around every day and was involved.
“The big thing was to make sure that when he came back, we didn’t over-extend him, didn’t over use him. But he’s a guy that eats up a lot of quality minutes. He was real excited his first weekend back and he was a guy realistically that we were maybe going to play in one game that weekend. We weren’t going to play him both games, but he was so good that he forced us to have to play him on that second night.”
All told, Hicketts produced 24 points in 36 games for the Royals, an excellent performance considering that as a rookie the year before, he’d counted 24 points in 67 games.
Victoria pushed through last season, compiling a 48-20-1-3 standard, its best record since the team’s inception as the Chilliwack Bruins prior to the 2006-07 campaign. The Royals then swept the Spokane Chiefs in the first round of the playoffs before suffering that same fate at the hands of the Portland Winterhawks. In what may have been the most nasty series played during the entire WHL 2013-14 post-season, Hicketts was injured in perhaps an unnecessary altercation with Winterhawks’ defenseman Derek Pouliot.
A tumultuous season had come to an end.
For Hicketts, what had begun as his draft year with very high hopes, had evolved, or perhaps in some ways devolved, over the course of an eventful six months or so.
He was not among the 120 prospects invited to the NHL Combine in Toronto. Then surprisingly, NHL teams completely ignored him on Draft Day in Philadelphia. In fact, following the NHL Draft, an informal survey among Hockey’s Future writers saw Hicketts name surface as the best player from the WHL not taken at the draft.
“I had spoken with Dave (Lowry) in early June and he told me it wouldn’t be the end of the world if I didn’t get drafted,” Hicketts said. “But I was obviously hoping to get drafted. I think it’s every kid’s dream if they want to play in the NHL.
“I was looking forward to Draft Day, but I was really disappointed. But I also knew that I could continue to work really hard to get a chance to create some interest.”
Detroit comes calling
The record will show that all 30 NHL teams whiffed at the draft. But it was the Detroit Red Wings’ amateur scouting staff that had kept Hicketts in their crosshairs.
According to Hicketts, there was some contact between his agent, Shayne Corson, and Tyler Wright of the Red Wings, which resulted in an invitation to skate with the Red Wings. And another member of the team’s scouting staff, Jeff Finley from Kelowna, couldn’t have been happier for Hicketts.
“I remember Joe playing for Victoria in Kelowna as a 15-year-old,” Finley said of a 2011-12 regular season game where Hockey’s Future was also in attendance. “He was hard to ignore then.”
It was a game Hicketts also recalls fondly.
“Yeah, I remember that game, too,” he said. “I remember a hip check, I think I caught Ryan Olsen. It seems like a long time ago. I didn’t think anyone would remember that from so early in my career, but it’s kind of cool that a guy who did remember it, happened to be a scout for the Red Wings. It’s funny the things that people remember.”
Wright, Finley and the Red Wings organization evaluated Hicketts at their development camp, with Hicketts then playing in the annual rookie tournament in Traverse City. The Wings were impressed from the outset and insisted he attend their main training camp.
“Just his hockey sense out there,” Finley grinned. “You just don’t expect that from a young guy, but we thought he may have been as good or better than some of our older guys at that tournament.”
Suffice to say that 5’8” defensemen are not necessarily in high demand among NHL teams, but Hicketts continued to force the Red Wings to take notice. In fact, he impressed the organization so much that the Wings had no interest in allowing him to remain eligible for selection at the 2015 NHL Draft. On September 24th, the 18-year-old put pen to paper on an entry-level contract.
Back to Victoria
It has been said that hardships make or break people. For Hicketts, he is excited to be back in the WHL this season, proud of how he has been able to handle the adventures and adversity over the past calendar.
“Yeah, definitely, I’ve had to work really hard,” said Hicketts. “And that’s maybe even a bit more satisfying then actually getting drafted. I had to put in a lot of work during the off-season, and even coming back from the injury, so to be rewarded for those efforts is nice. I sure did get some help along the way. It’s a great feeling.”
While his personal hockey road map became tremendously tumultuous over the past year, Hicketts is living the dream. He arrived in the WHL as the Royals’ first selection, 12th overall, at the 2011 WHL Bantam Draft. He is back in Victoria now and is off to a good start offensively with 15 points in 11 games.
Hicketts, originally from Kamloops, B.C., remembers his roots in hockey.
“I think it started in Atom really, ever since I was going to school and missing school to play,” Hicketts said when asked when he felt he knew that he wanted to make hockey his life’s work. “I knew it was important to stay on top of schooling, but I also knew this is what I wanted to do.
“The dream of playing in the WHL and then hopefully pro, it was important for me to make that choice early on. Not only did I have to prepare myself physically, but also mentally. It isn’t always about punching the heavy weights around the gym at a young age, but learning the dynamics and getting a feel for what it’s going to take to get to the next level.”
Spoken like a true student of the game!
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