If there is any upside associated with finishing the regular season among the Western Hockey League cellar dwellers, it’s the assurance a club’s position in the annual bantam draft could glean a legitimate top prospect.
Such was the case for the Seattle Thunderbirds after the 2003-04 season. The team mustered only 24 wins and failed to qualify for the postseason. However, a silver lining came in form of the third pick in the WHL bantam draft. Their selection was Calgary, Alberta native, Thomas Hickey.
T-Birds head coach Rob Sumner recalled, “We chose Thomas third overall. He was the guy we had targeted for that spot and he’s certainly lived up to everything you would expect from a guy taken that high.”
And yet it wasn’t a done deal at the time for either the parties involved. When asked by Hockey’s Future if he ever had any aspirations of playing in the Alberta Junior Hockey League, Hickey was quick to confirm it was a definite consideration.
“I grew up in Calgary and played all of my minor hockey there,” Hickey explained. “In bantam and midget I played for the Calgary Royals organization. Growing up there, I watched a lot of AJHL games, mostly the Calgary Canucks and Calgary Royals.
“I mean when your 12 or 13 you don’t really know what you’re gonna do,” he continued. “I’d always go out and watch the Canucks and Royals. As a younger guy, you aspire to play a high level of hockey and that was it at the time. Once I got older when I had to make a decision about where to play in the coming years, I realized major junior was the route I wanted to take and it’s turned out well so far.”
According to Sumner, things have turned out much better than Hickey suggests.
“Thomas has played a huge role for us,” Sumner confirmed. “He came in and played games for us at 15 years of age and at that age he was an impact player in our games. At 16, he was a regular for us from Day 1 and a huge part of our team.
“At 17 now, boy, if you can elevate that role at all, he has managed to do it. We’ve got a couple older guys on the back end and a bunch of younger guys and he’s a young guy who plays like an older one. He’s a top-notch guy offensively and rock solid defensively. His biggest attribute is he tries to make an impact in every game he plays.”
Hickey, who will celebrate his 18th birthday in February, is prepared to be patient in his development, although he suggests he can be a productive offensive defenseman. Through 18 games this season, Hickey has scored once and added 11 assists. He played in 69 games last season, scoring once and adding 27 assists. As a 15-year-old, he played five games in Seattle and collected three points.
“I’ve really been trying to develop my game this year, putting more of an emphasis on playing well defensively,” Hickey said. “I know I’m capable of a lot of things offensively, but so far I’ve tried to calm that down a bit and be very strong in the defensive zone. But I love to join the rush, hop into odd-man rushes, and even carry the puck up ice and create chances that way as well.”
According to Sumner, one of the primary reasons Hickey has become comfortable heading up ice into the attacking zone is the confidence he has developed by playing with veteran T-Birds rearguard, Scott Jackson (STL).
“Even last year and so far this year, for the most part, we have Thomas partnered with Scott Jackson, who’s obviously an elite guy,” Sumner smiled. “On one hand when Thomas came in, it was a chance for a younger guy to play with an experienced guy, but they’ve become two of our best guys and we like to have them together against the other team’s best players.
“It’s worked out very well that way, but I think if you asked him he’d tell you along the way Jackson has been a real positive influence.”
Hickey fully agrees with his head coach.
“I can’t even explain how much it helped me last year coming in as a 16-year-old,” Hickey sighed. “When I didn’t even know what kind of role I was going to be put into and then they paired me up with Jacko, I mean, he’s been the No. 1 d-man here for years.
“He’s really helped me along and we’ve become good friends now. He helped me with the transition to major junior, you know, convincing me to just play my own game and don’t worry about too many things. And he’s always there for an outlet pass. He talks to me a lot and we’ve played together a lot. He’s just a real good player.”
Like many young players, moving away from home to pursue a hockey career can be a challenge in itself. Yet Hickey feels he was well prepared and has been able to make the most of the opportunity.
“I think I’m pretty fortunate compared to some of the guys on the team, some of the guys from smaller towns in Alberta and Saskatchewan,” Hickey said. “There is maybe a bit of a culture shock when you come over to a big city like Seattle. But for me it’s not that different because Calgary is such a big city. You know, the culture is even different in Seattle than Calgary but it’s something I’ve embraced. It’s a change of scenery, but once you get on the ice there’s not much difference there.”
Since the move to Seattle, Hickey has been able to remain squarely in the crosshairs of Hockey Canada, which is based in Calgary. The 5’11, 185-pound Hickey has had plenty of experience with Canada’s national junior programs. This past summer, his roommate during the trip overseas with the U18 team was Luke Schenn of the Kelowna Rockets, who is a highly-touted prospect for the 2008 NHL Entry Draft.
“I got to play in the U17 championships last Christmas in Regina and just recently I got to take part in the U18 World Junior Championship,” Hickey confirmed. “It was a great experience and we won gold there at the U18. It was a great group of guys and I made so many good friends. I learned a lot of new things. Certainly it was a culture change going over to Slovakia and the Czech Republic. It’s been a real good experience with Hockey Canada.”
Hickey is currently ranked 10th among WHL skaters by the Central Scouting Service in its preliminary rankings for the 2007 NHL Entry Draft. International Scouting Service has Hickey ranked 16th among skaters across the world. He is aware the rankings exist, and is humbled by the recognition.
“It’s an honor to be recognized by those services because I know they get to see a lot of good players,” Hickey said. “Just to be mentioned in that category is nice but really, I try not to focus on that too much. I’m just keeping to myself and playing my game. At the end of the season, when that time rolls around, then hopefully all those other things will take care of themselves.”
Throughout the climb toward an NHL career, Hickey maintains he has been blessed by being able to play for coaches who have all had an impact on his game. However, there is one person he holds in particularly high esteem.
“I learned from all my coaches and I think the biggest thing is that they let me play my style,“ Hickey recalled. “But my dad, Dennis, has been a big part of my hockey career. He’s just really motivational and doesn’t get down on me.
“He’s always giving me positive feedback and I think that really helps.”
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