TRAVERSE CITY, MICH. -- Joe Hicketts won't be the first player you notice on the ice but you will notice him at some point.
Hicketts might be just 5-foot-8 and 20 years old but his skill and leadership ability always rise to the top.
No team selected Hicketts in the 2014 draft but he was invited to Red Wings development camp and impressed enough that he was invited to the prospects tournament.
After that, the Wings signed Hicketts to a three-year entry-level contract.
Hicketts has spent the last four years with the Victoria Royals of the Western Hockey League, culminating in an 8-goal, 53-assist, plus-38 performance in leading his team to the second round of the playoffs last season.
Now it is time for Hicketts to show what he can do at the professional level.
"He was a leader," said Jiri Fischer, director of player development. "He was definitely one of the leaders on the World Junior team. He was the only returnee on defense for Team Canada at the World Juniors, which is a huge honor. I saw him play in Finland and I saw him play for Dave Lowry, who I respect very much as a coach, played in Victoria. They were the top team after the regular season.
"Joe, he kept his production up again and he was one of the best leaders in the league so he is definitely ready for the next step. What the next step is is the camp and he seems like he can really manage pressure well. He came unsigned, undrafted into development camp and then he went to big camp, he earned a contract so he seems like he can handle pressure well and he’s coming into camp again and there’s spots, there’s jobs for grabs. He’s going to have to get established again."
Hicketts joined the AHL's Grand Rapids Griffins at the end of last season.
"I just practiced," Hicketts said during July's development camp. "It was good, learned a lot of things. Obviously met Nellie (coach Todd Nelson) 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."
Nelson liked what he saw from Hicketts.
"In the limited time that I’ve had Joe in Grand Rapids and based on last year, he’s a guy that plays bigger than he is and he’s got a great skills set," Nelson said. "He acts like a professional already. He has a certain swagger to him, an inner confidence. It’s not cockiness. He’s a confident man who knows what he has to do out there. If he’s with us in Grand Rapids, he’s going to be a big part of our defensive corps. We expect him to come in and do the same thing that Robbie Russo did for us last season."
Last season, Russo led all Griffins defensemen with 39 points (five goals, 34 assists) in 71 games and was an astonishing plus-40.
"Last year was good," Hicketts said. "We had a really good team. We were really young, which I don’t think anyone expected us to be as good as we were but at the end of the day we had a great group of guys that came to the rink every day and worked their hardest to get it to be the best team we could. I think that’s one of the reasons we accomplished as much as we did. With such a young group no one really cared about who got the credit. It was all about team success and we went on to break a lot of records, both individual and as a franchise. Definitely the most fun I’ve had in all my years."
Hicketts loved his experience in junior hockey but is excited for the challenge that lies ahead.
"I’m going to miss it a lot, obviously the friendships you make and living in such a great city like Victoria was something that is truly remarkable," Hicketts said. "But that being said, I think it’s time to move on and starting getting my career forged out."
Wherever Hicketts has been, he has always been chosen as an assistant captain or captain, whether it was with the Royals or Team Canada.
"I think it’s going to help a lot," Hicketts said. "A lot of guys from junior have leadership roles but I’ve been a captain in Victoria for two years, I was an assistant for half a year until I got hurt. So I think I can draw on that knowledge that I’ve learned from the past and kind of use that to kick start my pro career."
Hicketts is not putting any unnecessary expectations on himself as he begins his professional career.
"I don’t know if it’s going to be more pressure. I think if anything it could be exciting," Hicketts 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."
Mobile, puck-moving defensemen are a premium commodity in the NHL so while Hicketts is not putting expectations on himself, he's also not creating any limitations.
"I don’t think that you can come in saying that you want to play in the American League or East Coast," Hicketts said. "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."