By Andrew Eide
If you look around the crowd at a T-Birds game you will probably notice an abundance of fans wearing a jersey with the number four on it. The name on the back of those sweaters reads "Hickey". Thomas Hickey was one of the more popular players to ever play for Seattle – playing between 2005-2009. Last year Hickey found himself a home in the NHL with the New York Islanders and is preparing for his second season on hockey's biggest stage.
Hickey was selected third overall by the T-Birds in the 2004 bantam draft. He played five games during that season as a 15-year-old and went on to have one of the best junior careers the club has seen. He played four more years in Seattle, won two gold medals for Canada in the World Junior Championships and was selected fourth overall by the Los Angeles Kings in the 2007 NHL draft.
After leaving Seattle, Hickey went on to play in the AHL for the Kings' Manchester Monarchs farm club. His path to the NHL was delayed by some untimely injuries and getting stuck in a numbers game with the Kings and their defensive prospects. Hickey admits being stuck in the AHL was a struggle, but he kept his head up and kept working.
"It's extremely difficult," he said of biding his time in the minors. "I think it's a struggle that a whole bunch of guys go through. You can't lose hope, you just have to understand that you just need the opportunity. If you work for it there's a chance you're going to get it and you have to be ready. There were frustrating times for sure but I just tried to keep myself prepared, confident and ready."
This past season Hickey's perseverance paid off. With the NHL locked out he once again began the year in Manchester and played in 33 games for the Monarchs. As the lockout was coming to an end, the Kings placed Hickey on waivers, where he was quickly claimed by the New York Islanders. Finally he was going to be in the NHL.
Hickey made his NHL debut in Winnipeg, against the Jets, on Jan. 27, 2013 – something he said was a great experience.
"It was a great feeling and then I wanted to build on it from there," he said of his debut. "It was something I was waiting for for a long time. To get that opportunity is one thing, to try and take advantage of it is another. I was very thankful that I got to both of those."
For a Canadian-born kid, having his first NHL game be in Canada was just icing on the cake.
"Being a guy that grew up in Western Canada, that's as close as we played to my hometown of Calgary so it was nice to have family in attendance," he said of his debut. "That's a special building to play in too, it's small, its loud and a Canadian market. I don't think I could have drawn it up better."
Looking back on his career with the T-Birds, Hickey remembers arriving in Seattle, which felt like a much bigger city than his native Calgary, Alberta. He says that there was a bit of a culture shock but looks back on his time here with a great fondness.
"It was probably the most fun time I've had in my life," he said of playing in Seattle. "I just went back to Seattle for a wedding, a former player, Ben Olson's wedding, and there were a couple of guys there and we just exchanged stories and it was just a bunch of laughs. It was always fun to come to the rink every day, we had a really great group of guys, just seemed like we were having fun all the time, that's what sticks out to me."
Hickey talked about how junior players, being younger, really bond together – more so than pro guys do. He still keeps in touch with his former T-Birds teammates.
"I've kept in touch with a lot of guys," he said. "I think those are friendships that last for a long time. Guys I keep in touch with all the time, talk to weekly, monthly and sometimes you get to catch up with someone you haven't seen in a while. They're relationships that you're going to have your entire life."
Even though he's busy patrolling the blue line for the Islanders, Hickey says he still tries to keep tabs on what Seattle is doing during the year.
"I remember the first couple of years after I finished playing I was checking every box score," he said. "I followed every game until you realize that with the turnover you don't really know anyone but I still keep in touch and hope the team's playing well for the fans' sake, we had some very good fans there. I was following this year in the playoffs when they had that series lead that unfortunately they couldn't capitalize on."
There has been a lot of talk lately about Seattle being a landing spot for either a relocated NHL team or an expansion team. Hickey said he thinks hockey could work here but that the team would have to do it right with all the options for sports fans in the region. If Seattle does get a team he looks forward to the prospect of playing an NHL game here.
"That would be really special," Hickey said of the idea. "When they were discussing all the Phoenix stuff earlier in the summer, that was sort of exciting because it would be great to go back there and play in front of a lot of people who supported you early in your career."
Hickey not only got his first taste of the NHL last year, he also got to play in his first Stanley Cup Playoff game. The Islanders played a spirited series against the Pittsburgh Penguins and Hickey appeared in two of the games for New York. Like the T-Birds players have mentioned this offseason about their postseason loss, losing that series left a bad taste in the Islanders' mouths. Something they plan on using to improve further.
"We have to play better than we did last year because no one really took us seriously until later in the season and now teams understand that we're a good hockey club," Hickey said of the Islanders. "No one is going to take us lightly, we have to be ready for every game."
Now with an NHL season under his belt, Hickey is working towards his second season with the Islanders. New York recently signed the defenseman to a two-year contract, which should keep him on the Island for a bit longer. After his long journey to get there, Hickey doesn't set any specific goals for himself.
"Just play, just try to get better all around." he said of this coming year. "I don't set goals like that (points), you just try to be the best you can be and go from there. Just start the season well and go from there."
With Thomas Hickey's popularity in Seattle, don't be surprised if you start to notice some blue and orange number 14 sweaters at the ShoWare Center this year.
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