Joe Hicketts is a grizzled veteran of international hockey.
He captained the Canadian team at the Youth Olympics in Austria in 2011-12. He played in the U-17 World Hockey Challenge. He has played for a Canadian U-18 team. Last season, he played two games with Team WHL in the Canada-Russia series — he had a goal and an assist — and shortly thereafter, he was a key contributor to Canada’s national
junior team as it won gold in Montreal and Toronto.
Despite all that experience, the 19-year-old Kamloops native admits to being quite excited about playing at home on Tuesday.
Hicketts, the defenceman who captains the WHL’s Victoria Royals, will be Team WHL’s captain when it meets the touring Russians at the Sandman Centre on Tuesday, 7 p.m. Tonight, when the series opens in Kelowna, Hicketts will serve as an alternate captain, with forward Brayden Point of the Moose Jaw Warriors, the WHL’s leading scorer, wearing the captain’s ‘C’.
“It’s exciting,” said Hicketts, who signed as a free agent with the NHL’s Detroit Red Wings prior to the 2014-15 season. “It had it in the back of mind that I wanted to play (in this game in Kamloops).”
Speaking after a recent WHL game in Kamloops, Hicketts said it’s a tremendous feeling to “get the opportunity to play in your hometown, a place where I grew up playing in minor hockey games.”
It’s interesting to note that even though he grew up in Kamloops, the home of the Blazers, Hicketts didn’t go to a whole lot of WHL games as a youngster. Oh, he was a fan; he just didn’t have time, what with minor hockey and schoolwork he attended “only a few Blazers games,” he admitted.
But he really is looking forward to playing in the home of the Blazers on Tuesday night. Some of that has to do with playing at home, in front of family and friends, and some has to do with the opposition.
“Every time you play the Russians it means something,” Hicketts said. “It gets your juices going. You want to beat them. It’s going to be my first time since the gold medal game . . . the way we won that game, the way we kind of let them back, I really want to get back at them.”
Hicketts was referring to the 2015 WJC championship game in which Canada beat Russia, 5-4, in Toronto on Jan. 5.
Canada held a 5-1 second-period lead before the Russians came back to make a game of it.
Hicketts said he also is looking forward to Monday and Tuesday because the games provide him with the rare opportunity of playing with good friend Ryan Gropp, who is a forward with the Seattle Thunderbirds.
“We are great friends,” Hicketts said of Gropp, who also is from Kamloops. “I have talked to him quite a bit about it. It’s going to be nice to play with him again.”
Having said that, Hicketts added that he always enjoys playing with the best players, whether it’s at the WJC or in a situation like the Canada-Russia series.
“Anytime you bring the best players in the Western Hockey League together,” he said, “I think guys are going to build off each other. I’m looking forward to that happening.”
Hicketts’ Royals (14-5-1) went into this week riding high atop the WHL’s overall standings, having just completed a 6-0-0 run through the six-team East Division. Hicketts has 21 points, 20 of them assists, in 20 games.
Gropp, meanwhile, has 13 points, including eight goals, in 14 games. His Thunderbirds (10-6-1) are third in the 10-team Western Conference, eight points behind the Royals.
JUST NOTES: This series last stopped in Kamloops on Nov. 17, 2010. On that night, the Russians erased a 6-3 third-period deficit and went on to score a wild 7-6 shootout victory. . . . A year ago, the Russians won a pair of 3-2 games with the WHL. The first game, in Saskatoon, needed an 11-round shootout to settle it. The second game was played in Brandon.