PROVIDENCE, R.I. – Justin Hickman would like nothing more than to skyrocket his way into the National Hockey League.
And when you’re playing at the AHL level, it makes it easy to wonder when the call will come. But, for now, Hickman is taking things one step at a time.
The 21-year-old Providence Bruins winger is coming off a shoulder injury that cost him much of last season, plus he is still finding his way in a new organization at a new level of hockey. Getting settled in and solidifying his game are the main priorities.
“Obviously it’s in everybody that’s playing hockey’s mind, especially in the American League,” said Hickman of playing in the NHL. “You’re that close, but you’re a long ways away. I think this year it’s been more just focusing on being able to bring my game here to Providence, show what I can do in the American League before making that next step. But it’s always in the back of my mind.”
Hickman had surgery on his shoulder last January while a member of the Seattle Thunderbirds of the Western Hockey League, and was still working himself back into hockey shape when the preseason began in September.
“I think through camp I was going off that adrenaline, that excitement of just getting back,” said Hickman, who tallied four goals and three assists through 51 games for Providence.
It wasn’t until a few months later that Hickman felt like himself on the ice. That's when he was able to focus more on his game, particularly what works at the professional level.
“Once the season began, [I was] just getting settled in to making plays and getting my head around the actual hockey plays that you need to get comfortable with, especially making the big jump from junior," said Hickman.
“But I think it’s going well now, the shoulder feels good.”
The difference in speed between the AHL and WHL, Hickman said, was the biggest adjustment.
“I think just the pace of play, it’s obviously a pro game,” said Hickman. “Everybody in the league is that much better, so whether it’s first line or fourth line you know they’ve got players on the other team that can really play and you’ve got to really bring it every day.
“Speed of the game is quick. It’s always getting faster. If I keep up speed and keep my feet moving and keep going North and South it’s better for me.”
Being able to play that type of heavy style made coming to the Bruins organization seem like a natural fit for the 6-foot-2, 224-pounder, who signed with the Black & Gold last March.
“The way [Boston] kind of based the game around, the way they’ve been known to play, it fits with me…a North-South guy, hard in the corners, battles hard, goes to the net,” said Hickman.
Hickman has also been getting used to the professional lifestyle outside of the rink. The British Columbia-native’s only pro experience came during a short five-game stint with the AHL’s Bridgeport Sound Tigers – the New York Islanders affiliate – in 2013-14.
“Away from the ice…we’re out of here by 12:30-1 [in the afternoon] every day,” said Hickman. “Just making sure that you’re eating right, drinking water, and staying focused on what’s coming up during the weekend for games.”
Hickman said it helps to have teammates in similar situations.
“Fortunately we have a lot of young guys so it makes it easier,” he said. “We’ve got a good group of us, we keep each other busy, keep each other preoccupied and stuff so that’s nice.”
Now that the breaking-in period is winding down, Hickman is looking forward to what the future may hold.
“It’s been already a long journey,” said Hickman. “But there’s a whole long road ahead and I’m excited for that. Every day just keep getting better and try to prove those people wrong that didn’t think I had what it takes to play pro.
“Now I’m here and I’m just trying to keep going to get to the next level.”