Thomas Hickey picked up a new nickname while he was away from the Seattle Thunderbirds in late December. The golden boy. It fits. Hickey won his second...
KENT — Thomas Hickey picked up a new nickname while he was away from the Seattle Thunderbirds in late December.
The golden boy.
It fits. Hickey won his second gold medal for Team Canada at the World Junior Championships, a tournament that is a national obsession in the nation to the north.
It’s estimated that 9.3 million Canadians watched Hickey and Team Canada win the gold-medal game against Sweden, a whopping 30 percent of the country’s entire population. Another 100,000 followed the live stream on the Internet.
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Hickey grew up dreaming of someday representing his country in the World Junior tournament. Reality has been even better.
“I knew I wanted to be part of it,” said Hickey, a defenseman, “but never once did I think about being able to do it twice. I’m very fortunate.”
Hickey, who has a third gold medal collected from the World U-18 tournament, received his first World Junior gold in the Czech Republic.
The latest came in Ottawa, where the crowd was so loud Hickey said it was nearly impossible to hear the referee’s whistle.
Hickey admitted he felt the eyes of an entire nation upon him.
One pretournament newscast stated flatly that next to Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, no one in the nation had more weight on their shoulders than Thomas Hickey.
“I definitely felt more pressure playing in Canada, plus I was the captain this time,” Hickey said. “I saw the pressure more as support. All those people wanted us to do well. We all tried to look at it that way.”
Hickey said there was some frustration, especially when Canada fell behind Russia 5-4 late in the third period in the semifinals in front of 19,327 hoarse fans. Canada won 6-5 in a shootout.
“It was unbelievable,” Hickey said. “I’ve never heard anything so loud in my life. I’m still having dreams about that.”
Hickey led the celebration and solidified his spot as a national hero in his home country. Here in Kent, though, he is totally anonymous, able to wander around Kent Station without sunglasses.
“I do get recognized in Canada, but here no one at all knows me,” Hickey said. “That’s cool. At the end of the day, I’m just a hockey player and I’m thankful to have any fans.”
Hickey’s game-worn Seattle Thunderbird No. 4 jerseys sell for $349 and are so popular that team director of operations Rick Ronish makes sure Hickey has a new one for every game. Soon, Ronish said, Hickey might have to wear a new one every period just to keep up with demand from around the world.
“It’s kind of weird to look around during the anthem and see those jerseys with my name on the back,” Hickey said. “When I was younger I was the kind of guy who would buy team jerseys, so it’s humbling to see it.”
A graceful and quick skater with great vision and hockey instincts, the 5-foot-11, 198-pound Hickey was drafted by the Los Angeles Kings in the first round of the 2007 NHL draft, fourth overall. Many thought he might make the Kings roster this season, but offseason ankle surgery forced him to spend several weeks on crutches.
Hickey, 19, is eligible to return to the T-birds for one more season, but he’s more likely to be wearing a Kings jersey next season. Hickey has nine goals and 18 assists in 34 games this season with the T-birds, who are 21-24-1-3.
Articulate and exceedingly polite, Hickey lists playing hockey as his favorite activity and watching hockey as a close second. He has been known to stay up all night watching game after game, studying the moves of his favorite players.
It wasn’t always that way. Growing up in Calgary, the basement in the Hickey home was unfinished except for a hockey net. Father Denis, a commercial lawyer, would be in goal and older brother Daniel would fire shots at him for hours.
“Thomas, much to his dad’s disappointment, had no interest at all,” said his mother, Roberta. “He was happier riding his tricycle around being the Zamboni.”
At age 7, that all changed and both Hickey brothers were intent on getting their 100 shots a session in on their dad.
“He had a great opportunity to play and he used it,” Roberta said. “Thomas was talented, but as a mother I would never say that. I didn’t even know the Flames were in Calgary, but he never missed a game or a practice. His dad saw the potential there, and Thomas just loved everything about it.”
When he was 14, the Thunderbirds drafted Hickey in the first round of the 2004 Western Hockey League bantam draft, third overall.
“It’s rare that you have a guy like Hickey who has world-class talent and pairs it with world-class character,” Seattle coach Rob Sumner said. “Combine those two together, and what you have is an example for your team of someone who comes to play and win every night.”
Mike O’Connell, the former general manager of the Boston Bruins who now works for the Kings in pro development, was recently in Kent to film and scout.
“Every NHL team is always building, and Thomas is a big part of it for us,” O’Connell said. “He needs to work on his strength, because the NHL is a whole new level. His head is up most of the time and he usually makes good decisions with the puck, and that’s what you want.”
After his playing career, Hickey wants to move into hockey management and doesn’t completely rule out coaching.
“I’ve been so fortunate,” Hickey said. “I just love the game and always want to be around it.”