With an indomitable spirit, Joe Hicketts continues to show the spunk that stamps him as a dependable defenseman.
Story and photos by Mark Newman
It seems like only yesterday that Joe Hicketts was playing his first game for the Griffins after signing with the Red Wings as an undrafted free agent.
Now in his fourth season as a pro, the decidedly determined, diminutive defenseman has played more than 200 games in a Griffins jersey while making several trips to Detroit to provide invaluable service as a depth player.
“The time has gone fast, especially when you look at how much has changed with the roster, not only here but also in Detroit,” Hicketts said. “Things have changed, but these four years have taught me a lot. As I’ve learned the league, I’ve learned how to prepare myself to play. I think that comes with becoming a veteran. You can start showing younger guys and mentoring them as well.”
This past summer, the Red Wings showed their satisfaction with the progress exhibited by the 5-8, 180-pound Hicketts, whose swagger and self-confidence have allowed him to exceed the expectations of many observers – Detroit signed him to a new two-year contract.
“A two-year deal was important to me,” he said. “My exit meeting with management went really well, so another year of security – being in the plan for two more years – was something I wanted and was something that I was thankful that I got. I was happy to be back.”
Hicketts hopes to continue to build his NHL resume, which shows five games in 2017-18 and 11 games in 2018-19. His first recall this season led to a four-game stint in which he averaged 18:01 of ice time.
Making it to the NHL is a major accomplishment for any player, but especially for one who was spurned by every organization during the league’s annual draft.
“That’s what makes it so cool, knowing how much work I had to put in,” Hicketts said. “Sometimes when you’re drafted, you get more of the benefit of the doubt. Even first-rounders may get a little more of a look than third- or fifth-rounders. To go from being undrafted to playing in the NHL, it’s probably one of my biggest and most proud moments.”
It’s why Hicketts will never forget Jan. 22, 2018, when he made his NHL debut against New Jersey in a game that was attended by his parents.
“It was a dream come true, obviously, because you work your whole life to get there,” Hicketts said. “I was good until about 10 minutes and 30 seconds before the game. We skated for warmups and when the lights came on, it felt like the brightest lights ever. It felt like I was living in a fantasy world out there. Everything felt magnified.
“It was unreal. And when we went back to the room, I started to get that butterfly feeling. And all of a sudden, you get these other feelings. It’s not doubt, but you feel unsure. ‘What am I getting myself into?’ And my stomach started turning.
“When we went back out, I took one or two shifts and then I started to settle in. And I remember thinking, ‘I’ll be okay. I can play in this league.’ You just need to get rocked once. You’re thinking, ‘Oh, this is so cool,’ and then - bang! But that never happened. Or maybe it did and I just blocked it out.”
In his second NHL game, two months later, he recorded two assists against Pittsburgh, assisting on goals by Frans Nielsen and Darren Helm in a 5-2 win. “That was really cool,” he said. “Any time you can contribute offensively is a fantastic feeling. To get two assists in one game was very special. And then we went to Buffalo and I got another assist, so I had three points in three games. I thought about retiring.”
Hicketts has since made enough trips back and forth between Grand Rapids and Detroit that he is now comfortable with the process. In some ways, he thinks playing in the NHL is actually easier than playing in the AHL.
“The skill, the speed, and the size are similar between the two leagues, but that extra experience you find in the NHL makes it a little easier because everyone is a little smarter positionally,” he said. “In the NHL, when I’m trying to make a pass, I know my centerman is in the right spot because he’s done it for 12 years. I know my winger can help get the puck out. In the AHL, sometimes we’re a little out of sorts.”
For his part, Hicketts feels he is a smarter player today than he was when he joined the Griffins after four years of junior hockey with the WHL’s Victoria Royals. His play, if not less aggressive, is a bit more conservative. He still enjoys making big hits but is more careful when picking his spots.
“Against guys who are bigger, stronger, faster than in juniors, you have to take a risk assessment when you’re trying to do stuff,” he said. “I’ve learned to play smarter. In my first or second year, I was jumping every chance that I could. Now when I jump, I make sure it’s a really good time, that it’s a good opportunity to create a scoring chance. One, you’re not wasting energy. Two, you’re not putting yourself in a position to work harder. It’s all about playing smarter.”
As a rookie, Hicketts was a member of the 2017 Calder Cup champion team – a thrill that has only increased with time.
“It was unreal,” he said. “You win tournaments when you’re younger, whether it’s Pee Wee, Bantam or Midget, but it’s not the same as winning a title as a pro. So when you win the Cup in your first year, there’s so much you can learn. Every playoff game is equal to two or three regular season games of experience when you come back the following year.”
Of course, the peril of capturing a championship in your first year is that there’s a chance that it makes it all seem almost too easy.
“You think, ‘This is awesome. We can do this every year.’ And then you get the reality check,” Hicketts said. “In the last two years, we’ve had good teams but we’ve run into some trouble with injuries or suspensions and we’ve faced some really hard teams in series. We’ve taken both Manitoba and Chicago to five games, but they’ve been like wars.”
For Hicketts, it’s what makes playoff hockey so special.
“I love the playoffs,” he said. “All those little things that coaches say matter, like playing a full 60 minutes, actually matter in the playoffs. During the playoffs, everyone has a certain sharpness in their mentality. ‘We’re coming to work. We’re coming to compete. We’re going to leave it all out there.’ It’s a special time.”
Like every young player, Hicketts has benefitted from the experience of playing with veterans. Being able to play with veterans like Brian Lashoff, Dylan McIlrath and, more recently, Jonathan Ericsson has proven to be invaluable.
“Having veteran experience means a lot,” he said. “As a younger player, it helps to be playing with someone who knows what’s going on, someone who can play more of a defensive role. It also helps that you can pick their brain, whether it’s blocking shots on the penalty kill or making little plays to the middle of the ice. You try to be a sponge as much as you can.”
Hicketts now finds himself playing a similar role with the Red Wings’ youngest prospects.
“Now that I’m one of those older guys, I can play that role with (Moritz) Seider or (Gustav) Lindstrom,” he said. “If I can help those guys get to the next level while also helping myself get there, that’s what I’ll do. It’s all about paying it forward.”
Hicketts feels confident that his game has improved greatly during the past four years. “I’ve learned how to play within our system,” he said. “When I get the chance to let my skill come out, I’m going to try to use it. That’s important not only for me but for the entire team.”
In his first 11 AHL games with the Griffins this season, Hicketts registered nine points, all assists.
“Everybody likes points,” he said. “I’ve learned that you’ve got to be defensively responsible first. You’ve got to make sure to take care of your end and make sure you take care of the puck, but when you can do that and not cheat for the sake of plays, the points can come.
“At the end of the day, pro hockey is tough. It’s tough to get points in any league. So you’ve got to make sure that you win all the battles in your D-zone so you can spend more time in the O-zone. When you’re playing like that, the puck finds you, you get points, and everybody is happy.”
Hicketts is excited about what the Griffins can accomplish as a team this year.
“We have a lot of raw skill,” he said. “We have a lot of young guys and we need to learn how to play together. We have to learn how to distribute the puck, how to use our linemates and how to play like a team consistently, night after night. When we can do that from the drop of the puck to the last buzzer, we’ll find that we can win games.”
Hicketts continues to look at every game as an audition for his future.
“Every game you want to be the best player on the ice,” he said. “Of course, it’s not going to happen a lot of nights, but as long as you can come off the ice at the end of the night and say that you did your job and you played your best, that’s all you can do.”