Justin Hickman’s first couple of visits to Prospera Place as a member of the Seattle Thunderbirds were, to say the least, a little unnerving.
More than three years later, the butterflies are pretty much gone, but not the anticipation the 19-year-old forward experiences every time he steps on to the ice in his hometown.
“It was pretty nerve wracking my first few times here, but I’ve been there enough now that I just go out and play and don’t think about it too much,” said Hickman, a product of Kelowna Minor Hockey. “But it’s always pretty special to come home, especially with the family and friends I have there. I grew up a big Rockets fan, and always dreamed of playing there.
“Coming back as a Thunderbird is different, but it’s exciting. We have developed a really good rivalry with (the Rockets).”
A second-round bantam draft pick of the T’Birds in 2009, the 6-foot-3, 210-pound Hickman didn’t waste time busting on to the roster, making the team as a 16-year-old in 2010.
With each passing season, Hickman has become increasingly more valuable, on and off the ice.
In addition taking over the captaincy of the T’Birds this season, Hickman netted career highs for goals (22), points (46) and penalty minutes (154).
Still, Seattle head coach Steve Konowalchuk said there is far more substance to Hickman’s value than statistics.
“He’s a natural leader and the guys just gravitate to him,” Konowalchuk said. “He competes and works hard everyday, and puts the team first. The Thundebirds getting the win is most important. He plays a well-rounded game and, as captain, we look to him to be one of the guys to take charge and lead us through.”
It’s the second spring in a row Hickman and the Thunderbirds have battled his hometown Rockets in the playoffs.
Last season, an epic first-round struggle saw Seattle win the first three games, before Kelowna rallied to win the next four game and the series.
With an older, more experienced team than last year Hickman expects his team to put up a good fight—but at the same time knows toppling the Canadian Hockey League’s No. 1 team will be a formidable task.
“They’re very good and have a deep lineup that can put the puck in the net,” Hickman said. “It’ll be a tough task. I feel as a group we’re a better team. We’re coming in as underdogs, and I think it’s going to be a heated battle.”
Game 2 of the Western Conference semifinal series between Hickman’s Thunderbirds and the Rockets will be played Saturday night at Prospera Place. Face off is 7:05 p.m.