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Photo: Sam Iannamico
09/16/2016 9:00 AM -

Sept. 15, 2016

By Brendan Savage, MLive

DETROIT Joe Hicketts has been defying the odds for years.

Hicketts wasn't blessed with great size and at 5-foot-8, 177 pounds will be one of the smallest players at both the Detroit Red Wings prospects tournament and training camp next week.

But size has never stopped Hicketts, who has excelled throughout his young career.

He spent the last two seasons as captain of the WHL's Victoria Royals, held the same responsibilities during international competition for Team Canada and was named the WHL's Western Conference Defenseman of the Year and Player of the Year last season.

Although he was never drafted, Hicketts parlayed an invitation to the Red Wings 2014 development camp into a spot on their prospects tournament team, playing so well that he earned an entry level contract.

So when Hicketts says he's reporting to training camp with this year with the goal of playing for the Red Wings, it's hard to tell him he's dreaming.

Deep down, Hicketts knows as well as anyone he's going to end up playing in Grand Rapids unless the Red Wings' defensive corps is decimated by injuries or stranded out in the middle of Grand Traverse Bay for a couple of months.

But he's overcome the odds so often that he's aiming high heading into his first full pro season.

"That's the attitude you have to take," said Hicketts, 20. "I don't think that you can come in saying that you want to play in the American League or East Coast. You come to training camp with the mindset that you're not going to get sent down.

"I probably have an idea of where I'm going to start. You always want to push yourself to play at the highest level you can. I think you got to show commitment, I think you got to show the ability to execute at a high level and be able to perform at any stage, whether you're tired, whether you're hurt, whether you've been on the ice for three hours or one hour.

"I think it's something you've got to be comfortable playing the way you play and be able to execute."

Hicketts is the kind of guy coaches love.

For starters, he just loves playing hockey. And the enjoyment he gets from being on the ice is evident in the way he carries himself around the rink.

He admitted he probably enjoys playing more than most players – and hockey players are notoriously competitive and passionate about their game.

"I've learned to kind of enjoy hockey more than anything," Hicketts said. "I think it helps coming to the rink every day. Some days can be a grind, some days you don't want to get up. But I've kind of made it to when I come to the rink, I can enjoy being here, seeing all the guys."

Despite his size, he plays a physically game is a surprisingly big hitter.

He threw some of the biggest hits during the two scrimmages at the Red Wings development camp in July and that didn't go unnoticed by Todd Nelson, who ran the camp and will be coaching Hicketts in Grand Rapids this season.

"That's the way Joe plays," Nelson said. "He's not a very big guy but he plays bigger than how tall he is. That's what he's done here in the past and that's what earned him a contract.

"It's not as intense (in the development camp) as it will be in the prospect tournament. That's where we'll see more of the physicality."

Hicketts ended his career with two big seasons for Victoria.

In 2014-15, Hicketts has 12 goals, 52 assists and a plus-17 rating in 62 games.

Last season, he had eight goals, 53 assists, 44 penalty minutes and a plus-38 rating in 59 games. In the playoffs, he had a goal and six assists in six games.

He ended the season in Grand Rapids, practicing with the Griffins.

"It was good, learned a lot of things," he said. "Obviously met Nellie last year. To see how Nellie runs practices at the American League level was another thing that I can kind of put in the memory bank and use to learn from moving forward."

Hicketts doesn't anticipate feeling any pressure now that he's going to be turning pro rather than returning to junior hockey.

"I think if anything it could be exciting," he said. "I think it's going to be something where the last couple years I figured I was going back to juniors so now it's excitement to trying to push for jobs at the next level, whether that's the National League or the American League.

"It's something that you look forward to, getting up there every day and competing with the best players in the world."