TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. — Joe Hicketts got his professional start in Traverse City three years ago.
After getting passed over in the draft, Hicketts was a free agent invite to the Traverse City Prospects Tournament by the Detroit Red Wings in 2014. The left-handed defenseman played well–really well in fact–and later earned a contract with Detroit after training camp.
That’s why coming back to Traverse City each year has a special meaning for the former captain of the Victoria Royals.
“You come and see our first-year guys on free agent contracts, or the guys from other teams and it’s cool to look back and think that was me three years ago,” Hicketts said. “I just try to help them out, let them know to just have as much fun as possible out there.”
Hicketts took the same attitude to the 2016 tournament, and it should be a nice building block for his first professional season.
The defenseman appeared in all four games for Detroit, including the championship game against the Carolina Hurricanes. Hicketts was on Detroit’s top defensive pairing, moved the puck well and you didn’t notice him for all the right reasons.
“That’s what you have to do as a defenseman sometimes,” he said. “You have to become part of the game and once someone realizes you haven’t made a mistake all game, then they realize how effective you’ve been.”
Hicketts hard work earned him his first opportunity, and he’s taken that lesson to heart when talking about his future with Detroit. The Red Wings want him to improve his skating skills, and he needs to be more confident in the offensive zone when carrying the puck.
“The message the past couple years has been skating,” Hicketts said. “You don’t have to be fast, but you have to be quick. I think it’s fair to say the same thing goes for decision making.”
How well he makes that transition will impact his success this season. He’s expected to start the year in the AHL with the Grand Rapids Griffins, and many in the Detroit organization look at him as another diamond in the rough that will polish itself out in Western Michigan.
“Detroit obviously does a good job finding those kids who slip through the cracks,” one NHL Eastern conference scout said in Traverse City. “He’s a perfect example of that. They did their due diligence on him and invited him to camp three years ago, once he started impressing (in Traverse City) they were already first on his list.”
Hickett’s story is a reminder that the Traverse City Tournament is about more than established prospects. While big names tend to draw the most attention, about a 40 percent of the players are tryout free agent invites trying to further their career.
It creates a rather competitive atmosphere in the building and adds to the overall chippiness of some of the games as tryout invites will do anything to get noticed like Hicketts did.
“When you’re looking for a job or a contract like that, you’re going to go all out,” he said.