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Wings prospect stars in WHL

by Dana Wakiji / Detroit Red Wings
Joe Hicketts flashes a gold smile after helping Team Canada win the World Junior Championships in 2015 at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto. (Photo by Getty Images)

DETROIT -- Joe Hicketts may not have been drafted but he has done nothing but impress since signing an entry-level contract with the Red Wings in September of 2014.

Hicketts, the captain of the Victoria Royals, was just named the Western Hockey League's Western Conference top defenseman and a first team All-Star.

"It's a great honor," Wings assistant general manager Ryan Martin said. "There's obviously been a lot of really good defensemen that have come before him that have won that award that have gone on to have great careers."

In addition, Hicketts, the WHL's Western Conference player of the year, is also up against Moose Jaw Warriors forward Dryden Hunt for WHL player of the year, to be announced May 4.

In 59 regular-season games, Hicketts has eight goals, 53 assists and is plus-38.

Hunt has 58 goals, 58 assists and is plus-12 in 72 games.

Martin said an injury in his draft year hampered Hicketts in his preparation for the under-18 tournament.

That and being just 5-foot-8 and 177 pounds led to teams not drafting Hicketts.

But when Hicketts came to the Wings' summer development camp, he immediately drew attention.

"He showed a lot of ability and skill and his hockey sense was off the charts, and his competitiveness," Martin said. "He's just a hockey player. He loves being around the rink, he just soaks in all in. When we brought him back in the fall and between the development and the fall main camp, he had time to train, he had time to get back in shape and his injury had taken care of itself. So he came out and he had a really good prospects tournament. We signed him because of his competitiveness and his hockey sense. He was a playmaker, he just seemed to make plays whenever he was on the ice."

Because of his size, there have been comparisons to former Wings defenseman Brian Rafalski, but Martin said they are different.

"Brian was an elite skater when he got to the NHL," Martin said. "He had to start his career coming out of college and going over to Europe first. Joe knows that he needs to continue to work on his foot speed and his skating as he gets up in the higher levels because when you play at that size, you've got to be able to be an elite skater in order to be able to play at the highest level."

Hicketts has also played for Team Canada in the last two world junior championships, helping win gold in 2015.

Hicketts, who turns 20 on May 4, is the captain of the Royals and has demonstrated leadership qualities at every level.

"He's taken on a leadership role every year that he's come to the development camp or the main camp, even though sometimes he's there with players who might be a couple years older than him," Martin said. "Because of his personality and because of the way he plays the game, I think he instantly earns everybody's respect, whether they're younger, just coming out of the draft or maybe a little bit older, they've been in the system with him, he seems to be one of those players that guys gravitate to.

"Because he loves being at the rink and he's got a good work ethic, he's one of those guys that coaches hand that responsibility to and know that it's going to get done the right way. We're pretty proud of his accomplishments as I'm sure he is as well."

The Royals begin the first round of the WHL playoffs Friday and Saturday at home against the Spokane Chiefs.

Once the Royals' season is done, the Wings hope to have him join the AHL's Grand Rapids Griffins.

Hicketts did so after last season as well.

"I can remember we were busing over to Utica and he had to go back for the ring ceremony for the last world junior," Martin said. "He was right back with us sitting on the bus driving over to Utica, that's how much he loves hockey. He wasn't going to play, he just wanted to be around and be part of a playoff run and see what that's like because it's a great development tool and a good learning experience for him."

Hicketts is expected to be with the Griffins next year.

"I think he'll be able to play the same way there as he does in junior, which is competitive, he had an edge from the back end, he can run a power play. There's going to be a period of adjustment certainly with strength and things like that but just get him in there and start playing and see where it takes us."

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