If we take Thomas Hickey at his word -- and we should because there may not be a more polite NHLer -- he felt strongly this would be a make-or-break season for his career.
The Calgary native had been buried in the Los Angeles Kings' system for three full seasons, even though the Kings selected him fourth overall in the 2007 NHL entry draft and he had been an important part of Canada's last two world junior championships in 2008 and 2009.
Hickey felt he could play for the Stanley Cup champions, but there was no room at the inn for him.
"There comes a point when you figure things out," said the 24-year-old defenceman, who battled ankle and shoulder ailments earlier in his pro career. "I was beginning to think it wasn't going to happen with Los Angeles.
"I was in limbo. They already had a good defence and good prospects. For whatever reason, I had fallen out of favour."
But while fans and most NHLers were disappointed to see the four-month lockout drag on, the labour dispute benefitted the 5-foot-11, 190-pound Hickey. With more NHL scouts and general managers than usual scouring the AHL for players, Hickey welcomed the opportunity to strut his stuff. He knew it would be imperative for him to play well with the Kings' farm team, the Manchester Monarchs, and hopefully catch someone's eye.
He performed well for the Monarchs and was an automatic invite to the Kings' abbreviated training camp. But Hickey was sent back to Manchester before the season. This time, however, he had to clear waivers.
"I was back in Manchester, preparing to play a game that night," Hickey said. "I was hoping at noon to find out that another team picked me up. But I didn't hear anything right away."
Then his phone rang. It was his agent, Kevin Epp, on the other end. Epp delivered the news: The New York Islanders, in desperate need for some depth on defence, had picked up Hickey off waivers.
Even though this was a team that had not made the playoffs since 2007, Hickey simply wanted a new situation in which he could prove himself.
"I was thankful for the opportunity," said Hickey, who played 194 AHL regular season and playoff games before his first NHL game.
But Hickey, at first, found himself in a similar situation with the Islanders. He sat on the sidelines for the first four games. Then, with the Islanders visiting the Winnipeg Jets on Jan. 27, Hickey's opportunity finally arrived.'Special' first goal
Hickey's older brother Daniel, mother Roberta and father Denis scrambled to book plane tickets on the day of the game. But there was bad news. There were only two seats available on the last flight they could take from Calgary to Winnipeg to make it to the game in time for Hickey's NHL debut.
His father was left behind. Instead, he booked a trip east to follow the Islanders to Ottawa and Montreal three weeks later. It was worth the wait because Denis witnessed, live and in person, Thomas scoring his first NHL goal to beat the Canadiens in overtime.
"It was special he was there to see it," Hickey said of Denis, who often played goal in the family basement when Thomas and Daniel took shots on him when they were younger.
There is another first Hickey may be about to experience. He could perform in his first Stanley Cup playoff game next week if the Islanders, who are on the verge, can clinch a post-season berth.
Hickey is ready. Last spring, he was one of 10 "Black Aces" who practiced and travelled with the Kings to stay ready in case of injuries. It was quite the learning experience.
"The biggest thing I learned was the importance of buying in to what the coach was saying and the system he wants to play," Hickey said. "That was a big reason why the Kings won."
This season, Hickey has continued to learn plenty of lessons, including that playing in the NHL was worth the wait.
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