UNDER THE RADAR
Diminutive defenseman Joe Hicketts slipped past the notice of NHL teams, but only because scouts failed to account for the measure of his heart and passion for the game.
Story and photo by Mark Newman
Joe Hicketts hardly seems like an underdog, given the unbelievable enthusiasm and passion he has for his sport.
And yet to many of those scouts tasked with identifying potential National Hockey League talent, he was largely an unknown quantity, thanks mainly to the fact that he was unusually small for a defenseman. At 5-foot-8, he would be shorter than any player currently patrolling the blue line in the world’s top league.
Undersized, undrafted and underrated, Hicketts is nevertheless determined to buck the odds. Convinced he can achieve the unthinkable, he sees the opportunity to go from unwanted to an unlikely success story.
Of course, anyone taking the measure of his heart would know better than dismiss his chances. He is no Average Joe.
Hicketts has wanted to be a hockey player longer than he can remember. His father put him on skates at the age of 2-1/2. As he grew, he spent hours on roller skates in the basement, leaving the drywall filled with puck marks and holes. “I’ve gone back and watched the old VHS tapes of when I was learning to skate and you can just tell that I loved the game from an early age,” he said. “That’s the biggest thing. I knew that this is what I wanted to do even back then.”
He was a good student, but his most cherished classroom was not in school but on the outdoor rink located just beyond his backyard in Kamloops, British Columbia.
“It was an Olympic-size outdoor rink with lights,” he said. “From the time of grade one or grade two, over the winter, especially during Christmas and the holiday break, I remember my mom would bring me lunch and chicken noodle soup or hot chocolate. I’d go home for dinner for a half hour and then I’d race back.
“Getting to learn to skate on an outdoor rink was cool. I always had friends there and it was a lot of fun. I’d join in any game, whether it was older kids or guys my age. I ripped a lot of clothes hopping over the fence that separated the rink from the backyard of our house. Eventually my dad put in a gate for me.”
Mike and Lee-Gaye Hicketts knew their son was not to be denied and did their best to feed his passion. His father had a pretty good idea of what it would take to fulfill his dream. He was a referee in the Western Hockey League, a circuit that had produced Shane Doan, Marian Hossa, Jarome Iginla, Patrick Marleau, Chris Phillips and Brad Stuart, among many others.
“Being at all those Western Hockey League games gave me a sense of where I wanted to play,” Hicketts said. “When it came time to pick between college and the major junior route, I had seen enough WHL hockey that I knew that’s where I wanted to go.”
Hicketts had the blessing of his father, who had gone back to school to become a pharmacist after realizing that the days were numbered for the sawmill where he was employed. “My dad always preached hard work,” he said. “It’s still his biggest piece of advice. As you move up, everyone’s skills and speed are matched pretty closely, so it comes down to how hard you want to work at your job.”
From the beginning, Hicketts demonstrated a tenacity that was uncommon for his size. He was unafraid to play a physical game even when he was dwarfed by opponents. “I was actually one of the tallest guys on our peewee team,” he said. “I just don’t think I’ve grown since then.”
He played four seasons for the WHL’s Victoria Royals, where he was coached by Dave Lowry, a one-time scrappy hard-working forward who had played 1,084 games for five NHL teams. “Getting a chance to play for Dave Lowry meant a lot to my development,” he said. “Obviously, he taught me a lot about the game, but he also showed me how to be a pro and go about your business.”
Hicketts had been playing defense since he was in peewee hockey. “I played defense because I could skate backwards and half of the kids in Kamloops couldn’t,” he said. Lowry taught Hicketts the finer points of playing defense, most notably critical tools like playing with pace, puck movement and positioning.
“In major junior hockey, you don’t always learn the skills you need to learn to move forward,” he said. “Dave was instrumental in teaching me a lot of those habits that you need to play at the pro level.”
Hicketts suffered a serious upper body injury early into the season of his draft year (2013-14), an unlucky turn of events during his second season in Victoria. “Mentally, it kind of messed with me,” he said. “You spend all summer getting ready to be shape and 15 games into the year, I ended up having surgery.”
He sat out the next three months. “That was a grind,” he said. “You want to push yourself as much as you can to get back, but you have to be patient. I showed up at the rink every day just to be around the guys so they could bring my spirits up, which was probably the biggest help in terms of getting me through the whole process.”
Hicketts played well when he finally returned to the ice. He figured he still had a chance of being drafted.
“About three weeks before the draft, I got a call from my coach and asked him if he had heard anything,” Hicketts recalled. “He told me that he thought it would be better if I didn’t get drafted. That hit me hard. I probably said, ‘What do you mean?’ And he went on to explain that I might get an invite to camp from several different teams, whereas if I got drafted I was stuck with one organization.”
In retrospect, Hicketts is happy that his coach was right. He parlayed an invitation to the Red Wings’ development camp in 2014 into a spot on their prospects tournament team and ultimately earned an entry-level contract. “When the day happened and I didn’t get drafted, it was tough, but to be able to come to an organization like Detroit and earn a contract is something I’ll never forget. I’m really proud of it.”
His first time at the Red Wings’ training camp in Traverse City was an unforgettable experience.
“I remember that we were having breakfast and (Pavel) Datsyuk was somehow the last guy in line and there was one chair left and it happened to be at our table,” he said. “He sat right beside me. I don’t think I said a word to him all breakfast, but afterwards I texted all my buddies back home that I had just had breakfast with Datsyuk. It was so cool just to be there.”
Hicketts blossomed with two big seasons to complete his junior hockey career. He ranked among the top-scoring defensemen in the WHL both years and represented his country in the World Junior Championship tournament twice, winning the gold medal with Canada in 2015.
His first selection to the World Junior team came as a bit of a surprise, after he was uninvited to the evaluation camp the previous summer.
“Somehow I ended up making the selection camp in December,” he said. “My attitude was I would go and learn from some of the best defensemen in Canada who were a year older than me. Obviously I wanted to make the team, but I went into camp almost expecting to be cut.
“I planned to soak up as much of the experience as I could. It was unbelievable when I actually got the call to play on the team. Being there with (Connor) McDavid, (Sam) Reinhart, (Anthony) Duclair, (Curtis) Lazar and a long list of others was a huge honor.”
Hicketts was an alternate captain for Canada at the 2016 World Junior Championship. “Being named a captain the second year was icing on the cake,” he said. “I tried to share my experience from the year before. We wanted to create an environment where everyone came to compete every day but still had fun.”
And having fun is what it’s all about for Hicketts, who takes great delight in making open ice checks that level unprepared opponents.
“My passion has always been one of the strongest points in my game growing up,” he said. “I’ve never been the kind of guy who goes into the corner with bigger players thinking he’s going to lose the battle. I’ve always been hungrier and I think that’s what has helped me get to this point.”
Hicketts puts in considerable work in the gym to build strength, but he also finds a silver lining in being vertically challenged. “Being short provides me with a lower center of gravity, too, which really helps,” he said. “Even guys on our team will notice when we’re battling one-on-one in practice that being lower to the ice really helps me.”
This being his first year in the AHL, Hicketts feels it took him awhile to adjust, not only to living on his own but also to getting his timing down. “You can see that I’m gaining the confidence to step up and assert myself in certain situations. At the same time, I have to be careful not to get myself out of position.”
Hicketts’ first pro goal was a big one, an overtime game-winner on Nov. 12 in Milwaukee. “You want to get that first one out of the way. I was starting to squeeze my stick a little bit too much,” he said. “To finally get my first was special and I’ll never forget it. Having it be the game winner was even better.”
Griffins head coach Todd Nelson has been impressed by the progress made by young Hicketts, who won’t turn 21 until May 4.
“He’s a guy who plays with a lot of courage and passion,” Nelson said. “He’s like every other young player who has to learn to be consistent to establish himself at this level.”
For his part, Hicketts is maintaining a can-do attitude. “I try not to listen to all the doubts concerning my size,” he said. “Obviously, I’m aware of my stature.” He holds out hope that he hasn’t finished growing. “I’ve heard that you can grow until age 24 so I still have four years,” he said. “I’m holding out hope.”
When he’s told that Griffins teammate Louis-Marc Aubry sprouted eight inches in four years, Hicketts’ face brightens. “Hopefully he started at age 21,” he said.
All kidding aside, Hicketts will be content to let his enthusiasm grow even if his bones do not. “I just try to go out and have a lot of fun,” he said. “My game is molded around a lot of passion and excitement. I’ve grown up wanting to be a hockey player. It’s my dream.”