Sunday, October 25, 2009

AHL: Player Update: Thomas Hickey (Manchester Monarchs)

                              (Photo: Steve Babineau/Manchester Monarchs)
Everett Silvertips and Seattle Thunderbirds fans undergo a bittersweet experience every season. Each year, they have to say good-bye to the 20-year-old players who are "graduating" out of the WHL. Some have to say goodbye to players who move into the pro ranks earlier than age 20, leaving fans bursting with pride... and heartbroken at the same time. No, we won't see them on the ice at Comcast Arena or ShoWare Center anymore, but we have watched them develop. And at the best of times, we can continue to watch them develop in the AHL and hopefully cheer them as they realize their NHL dreams.

One player who's left a gaping hole in the Seattle Thunderbirds lineup (not to mention its defense) is former Captain Thomas Hickey. He wrapped up his 20 year old season by helping the T-Birds reach the first round of the playoffs. He also Captained Canada's national team to its 5th consecutive gold medal at the World Junior Championships in Ottawa.

Over the summer, Thomas worked out and really had a great showing at Los Angeles Kings' training camp. He stayed with the Kings for all of the preseason, before General Manager Dean Lombardi sent him to the Kings' AHL affiliate Manchester Monarchs to fine-tune his skating and get plenty of ice time. Thomas just returned to Manchester and is living in a hotel while looking for his first apartment or house to rent. His roommate at the hotel is another name familiar to T-Birds fans: former star forward Bud Holloway, who also had a great showing during training camp and is in the Monarchs lineup with Thomas.

I caught up with Thomas the day after he and the Monarchs beat the Albany River Rats 6-3. Thomas figured prominently in the game- and he was taking a well-deserved rest. Read on to learn more about how he spent his summer, his thoughts about nearly cracking the Kings' lineup, and how he's still finding time to follow his old team here in Seattle.

SR: Nice game last night! I was listening online to try and prepare for the interview.
TH: It was a good way to start our season out.

SR: How does it feel to be back in Manchester?
TH: It's good. I think we have a really good team this year so it was nice to get the season started and get into it so I'm looking forward to it.

SR: It seems like you have strength everywhere and having Bud Holloway up there with you, too, is like having a familiar face, isn't it?
TH: Yeah, it's great. We're actually roommates now in our hotel so that's good, too, but I knew a lot of the guys from the end of last season and it's a young group so it's nice being familiar with all the guys.

SR: The last time we talked, you were preparing to hit Kings training camp as ready as you could be, and from everything I've seen and read about training camp and the preseason, you seem to have met or exceeded everyone's expectations. How was it from your end?
TH: I think going down (to camp), that was the goal to be in good physical shape and I think I was. The biggest part was going out and doing it on the ice and I felt it was really good and I got better as camp went on. I didn't leave anything in the tank, so from that end, I'm happy with what I put out.

SR: I read a quote from Dean Lombardi saying he was really happy with your camp, especially after the last couple of years. He seems to be a man who doesn't mince words and for him to have great confidence in you and say you're basically back in Manchester to work on just skating and getting a lot of ice time, it seems that you should hit the Kings' lineup before the season's over. How does that affect your mindset?
TH: That's encouraging. We had our meetings at the end before I headed out there and like you said, the things he had to say to me were positive. He said I'm going in the right direction so it's nice to get a vote of confidence from management so for me, I've gotta put in more work and show them I'm ready for the big leagues.

SR: After spending four years with the WHL, living with billets, going home for the summer, you did spend a little bit of time with Manchester at the end of last season, but this is your first full season outside juniors. How's the transition been for you? What's it like to finally be on your own?
TH: It's something that I'm gonna have to get used to because right now, I'm still in a hotel but sort of looking for apartments or house to live in this week. I've been doing some searching around with a few guys. That's something I've never done before, but it's fun and it's neat and it's gonna be a life experience, too, not just hockey. I'm looking forward to it. I had a great time living with billets and being in Seattle but at the same time, it's time to turn the page and start being a professional hockey player.

SR: What's Manchester like as a city?
TH: It's nice. It's pretty small. It's just below Boston. I've been to Boston before but I don't know how to compare the two. It's obviously much smaller but you get that feeling of being out east and there's a lot of old buildings and it feels cultured compared to most things out west.

SR: It seems like your number for the time being is 37, when you've worn 4 for most of your career. Do you have any thoughts about that or are you kind of ambivalent?
TH: It's something I don't really care about, to be honest. I was always a big fan of 4, but it's a pretty common number in hockey so you've gotta switch it around sometimes. 37's what I had at training camp and I'm not very picky. I'll go with it.

SR: Do you have any messages for fans back here in Seattle?
TH: It's an exciting time (for the T-Birds). The guys got off to a slow start. I watch online and after that win they had on Friday night, the shutout, I think that's a good sign and things are only going to get better. I miss it back there but I'm keeping tabs and I'm sure they'll do very good this year.

SR: Friday was a pretty interesting game. It seemed like the whole team worked together to keep Tri City from scoring, yet to let them get as shots is not good. Having Calvin block 57 shots is amazing, but you don't want to tire him out that soon.
TH: You don't want to rely on him that much but with the goalies they've got, with Jake and Calvin, you can occasionally get games out of them like that. It's not something you want to do that often but it's nice to have two guys that are capable of it.

It's always nice to catch up with players who have moved on and it's great to expand our knowledge of the AHL. The Monarchs are on my list of favorites, along with the Toronto Marlies (Greg Scott, former T-Bird), Manitoba Moose (Taylor Ellington, former Silvertip), Abbotsford Heat (Riley Armstrong, former 'Tip), Binghamton Senators (Jim O'Brien, former T-Bird), Wheeling Nailers/ECHL (Chris Cloud, former T-Bird), Peoria Rivermen (Mitch Love, former 'Tip), San Antonio Rampage (Shaun Heshka, former 'Tip; David Spina, former youth hockey player), Houston Aeros (John Lammers, former 'Tip), Norfolk Admirals (Riku Helenius, former T-Bird). If I'm leaving someone out, please let me know and I'll add him.

As for our friend Thomas Hickey, T-Birds fans aren't the only ones watching him and tracking his career. Los Angeles Kings fans are excited to have him in the system and cannot wait until the day he lines up on the ice at Staples Center. And you don't have to be a hockey expert to know that day is coming soon. Until then, listen to Monarchs games online at . Then let's compare notes.

WHL: Profile: Silvertips Goalie Thomas Heemskerk

                                                      (Photo: Frank Deines III/Everett Silvertips)

He's been a stalwart goaltender for theEverett Silvertips since they acquired him from the Kootenay Ice in December 2008. Spend time chatting with Thomas Heemskerk, though, and you'll notice that he's about as laid back in person as he is intense in net, and pretty mature for someone who doesn't turn 20 until April.

But get to know a little about Thomas, and you'll start to piece together what makes this young man tick. For one, he doesn't have a hockey background. He also had a bit of trouble skating when he was younger. But when a skating instructor stuck him in net out of frustration, not only did Thomas take it in stride, he found he actually liked it. What's more, he became quite GOOD at it.

He honed his talent with a couple of strong seasons for the Silvertips; and that talent was recognized by the 
San Jose Sharks, who invited Thomas to training camp over the summer. They were so impressed with his workouts and preseason play (he registered 2 wins against the Anaheim Ducks), they signed him to an entry-level contract.

Since returning to Everett, Thomas has helpd the 'Tips win two games (against the
Vancouver Giants) and lost one (against the Portland Winterhawks). Read on to learn more about his amazing summer, what he learned from San Jose Sharksgoaltender Evgeni Nabokov, his introduction to hockey, and the lessons he's learning from new Head Coach Craig Hartsburg, on and off the ice.

KING 5: How did the invitation from the Sharks come about?
TH: I was training and had contact with my agent all summer. We were kind of hoping on something and he kept saying to hang in there and wait and finally it did come.

KING 5: What did you think when you learned you were being invited down to San Jose?
TH: I was so excited. I didn't have any expectations; just to go there and see what it's like, more than anything - just to compare myself.

KING 5: When you got down there, what was the first thing you noticed about being at an NHL camp?
TH: The amount of employees there were. I was trying to learn everybody's name. Everybody was real nice an introduced themselves but it was hard to remember all the names.

KING 5: What do you think was the biggest success of your time at camp?
TH: I think, throughout, I just tried to work as hard as I could all the time, show them my work ethic and it seemed to really come in during the games. They went better than I probably could have hoped.

KING 5: How has spending this time at camp with so many quality guys helped you prepare for your season here in Everett?
TH: For sure, it's helped a lot. It was kind of nice going (to San Jose) and being the young one again and looking up towards the older guys and realizing just how much you do look up to them. I'm trying to take that back with me now and make sure that I do the same (for our younger guys) this year.

KING 5: Did you spend a lot of time with (San Jose goaltender) Evgeni Nabokov?
TH: We had a little bit of time together, stretching. For main camp, we were actually on the same team so we played together and we stretched together. We got to talk quite a bit. It was really nice.

KING 5: Did he offer you any good advice?
TH: We kind of kept it light - not so much about hockey. He's a pretty funny guy. He doesn't take it too seriously but still works hard. It was good to see how much fun he still has.

KING 5: Going back to your younger days, how did you decide you wanted to become a goalie?
TH: Nobody in my family played hockey or really skated. My parents own a flower nursery and one of the workers played hockey. I think that's kind of how I got into it. From there, it snowballed. He took me out skating and I went for skating lessons. That didn't go so well. I had a problem with being pigeon toed when I was younger and the skating instructor started to put me in net because he was getting a little frustrated that I was always at the back of the line and I couldn't do anything. It kind of just stuck from there on.

KING 5: When did you decide you really enjoyed it and that's what you wanted to do- and pursue it?
TH: I always liked it when I was young. During minor hockey, you got to switch in and out and I always wanted to be in the net, so it really started pretty young, from the start, I'd say.

KING 5: How old were you when you first started skating?
TH: I think I must have been 7 when I started skating and 8 when I first started playing hockey.

KING 5: Where did you play your bantams?
TH: I played Bantam in Chilliwack.

KING 5: Who were your favorite players growing up?
TH: Growing up, nobody really in my family watched a lot of hockey but I always liked Patrick Roy. I had every Don Cherry movie and I would memorize all the words. I actually just liked watching everyone. I didn't really have a favorite team. I just loved watching everything.

KING 5: Is there anybody that you particularly follow or look up to now?
TH: I like the way (Marc-Andre) Fleury (Pittsburgh Penguins) and (Cam) Ward(Carolina Hurricanes) play because I kind of like to think that they went the same way, especially Ward, who played in the WHL. I like the way he plays, too. (NOTE: Cam Ward played junior hockey with the Red Deer Rebels/WHL between 2000-2004)

KING 5: How would you describe your style?
TH: I like to think that technically, I'm pretty sound but I can definitely come out of the box and make some strange saves once in a while; definitely in practice and now I can kind of see it following into games. I wouldn't say it's completely butterfly. I like to make some different kinds of saves once in a while. This summer and last summer too, I worked with goalie coaches and I found that it wasn't just learning technique anymore. It was visual contact, reading shots and once I got the hang of it, some of the saves you make seem really easy. It's hard to explain but you don't even think about what you're doing and that's why sometimes it's not the perfect technique but you just stop it.

KING 5: It seems like once you get in tune to it, it's almost like a reflex.
TH: Yeah, you kind of forget everything you've learned and hope that it just comes naturally during the game, hope that you're making the reads right and save selection is close.

KING 5: What "away" arena do you enjoy playing at?
TH: I like going back to Moose Jaw. I know a lot of people don't like it, but it's kind of neat playing in such an old arena. It's a different feeling, for sure.
KING 5: Is that the place they call The Barn?
TH: Yes, that's The Barn, with the roof that dips down into the ice. It's pretty unique.

KING 5: Who's your favorite opponent? Who do you think you play your best against?
TH: I think I've done pretty well against Vancouver for the past year and a half. When I get a lot of shots, I enjoy that. I enjoy having busy nights. I kind of rise up to (the occasion) when there's a lot of shots.

KING 5: Do you have a pre-game ritual/meal?
TH: I always eat spaghetti before, nap for two hours, eat and then come to the rink the same time. I kind of stick to the same routine, tape my stick, stuff like that. I like to be early and take it easy and slow and work into it; get ready for the game mentally then warm up physically and then have warm ups. I don't think it's too strange.

KING 5: I've heard that some people have some pretty strange things that they have to do.
TH: I try not to let it get too crazy but sometimes I find myself trying to remember what I did ten days ago when we won, so (laughs). It's a mental thing.

KING 5: What kind of music do you listen to, to help you get pumped up for a game?
TH: I like the newer stuff. I don't put my iPod on the stereo. Usually, other players deal with that, as long as it's something upbeat. Sometimes, some guys in the room want to play some country but that doesn't do it for me before games.

KING 5: You've been with Everett for a year and a half. What do you like best about being a part of this organization?
TH: Every day I come and look forward to it. Even practice is a good time; it's a good atmosphere here. And when it comes to games it's just next to none. The fans are just incredible. The way everything's run, so smooth, you have no excuse but to play the best that you can.

KING 5: How is it adjusting to Coach Hartsburg and a new coaching style?
TH: It's been different, very high-paced. He doesn't back down to anything. He's not afraid to speak the truth, which I think is a good thing for this team. It's a lot different from last year and it's going to pay off. The guys are starting to see that he definitely knows what he's doing; from practice to days off. Everyone should appreciate where he's been and how much he's been through. He's coached the best players in the world and he even played against them.

KING 5: Do you think he's helped you guys become more focused as a team?
TH: Yes. He definitely wants us to be more professional. Even though some guys are 16, everyone's gotta act professional. If a 16 year old's gotta act 20, then that's what it's got to take. Everyone enjoys it, but to be treated professionally, you've gotta act it. That's what he's definitely trying to get across to us.

After I interviewed Thomas, I found an article in the 
Chilliwack Progressnewspaper that really opened my eyes to just how hard he has worked to make it in the WHL, much less secure an NHL tryout and contract. Reporter Eric Welshcaught up with Thomas as he worked out in his hometown, waiting for a camp invitation and our easygoing goalie opened up about the frustrations he faced with his first WHL team, the Kootenay Ice, the bold move he made to try to keep his career from bombing, and the hopes he has for this season with Everett. To read the article, click here.