Joe Hicketts is no stranger to international duty. In fact, over the last five seasons, no one has spent more time in red and white than the Kamloops,
B.C., defenceman, who has racked up 35 games over six appearances.
Included in that total? Two trips to the IIHF World Junior Championship (2015, 2016), and one each to the IIHF U18 World Championship (2014), U18 Ivan
Hlinka Memorial Cup (2013), World Under-17 Hockey Challenge (2013), and Winter Youth Olympic Games (2012).
And with another Youth Olympic cycle complete, and a new generation of Team Canada starring on one of the biggest stages in sports, it has given Hicketts
an opportunity to look back on his own Olympic experience.
“[There are] the memories and the friendships you make, and the environment was something I had never experienced before,” says Hicketts, now in his fourth
season patrolling the blue-line for the WHL’s Victoria Royals. “When you get to be a part of not only a hockey team, but an Olympic team, representing your
country, it’s something that will stay with me.”
As far as national teams go, the Canadian contingent Hicketts captained at the inaugural Winter Youth Olympic Games could not have been more national; the
17 players in Innsbruck, Austria, included representatives from all 10 provinces, and 12 of the 13 Hockey Canada member branches.
And that, Hicketts says, brought about one of the biggest challenges – becoming a team, and doing it quickly.
“Coming together with 16 other guys, who all play at different levels and in different leagues, you didn’t really know what you were getting,” he says.
“But once you got past the language barrier, especially with the eastern Canada guys, we had a lot of fun.”
Fun led to success on the ice. After a tournament-opening setback against Russia, the Canadians ran off victories over the United States, Austria and
Finland, setting up a semifinal against the Finns.
The defensive struggle included only 36 combined shots and three goals; Finland netted the game-winner with less than five minutes to go for a 2-1 victory,
sending Canada to the bronze medal game, where Humboldt, Sask., native Reid Gardiner had five points in a 7-5 win over the Jack Eichel-led Americans.
“When you’re playing for a national team, pride kicks in. You want to go out there, and you want to win,” says Hicketts, who had five assists in six games.
“Obviously it was disappointing [to lose in the semifinal], but to be able to come back with a medal … to see it on the nightstand and remember it, it
brings back great memories.”
The Youth Olympics were unlike anything the players had participated in before, or have since. Hockey was just one piece of a much larger multi-sport
puzzle, with 1,059 athletes from 70 countries taking part in 63 events across 15 disciplines.
With so much to see and do, it provided plenty of opportunities for the players to expand their horizons.
“You’ve got all those other events going on, you wanted to see what it was about and meet people from other countries, and you just walk around the
Village, seeing other people, seeing how they live; it was exciting when you met someone you could relate with from halfway around the world,” Hicketts
says. “It didn’t necessarily take away from the game we played on the ice, but it gave us things to do in our spare time.”
And that’s where the Youth Olympics differed from Hicketts’ other five skates on the international stage.
At a world championship, there are few chances for players to get outside of the ‘Team Canada bubble’ and immerse themselves in the event, few chances in a
short-term competition to do anything except focus on the next game.
Not so in Innsbruck.
“It was two weeks of having the time of my life,” Hicketts says. “I had the opportunity to go with another kid from Kamloops, Ryan Gropp, who I played
minor hockey with, so to share that with him was something really special. From Opening Ceremony to Closing Ceremony, watching the flame go up, and
watching the flame go out, was something that still sends chills up my spine.”
Perhaps most of all, though, the Youth Olympics prepared Hicketts for his international hockey future, giving him an opportunity to get comfortable with
the Team Canada program, and with the nuances of the game.
Two gold medals and 23 points later, it looks like it helped.
“I think it gives you that understanding of the international game, international officials, international ice, and seeing how much it can vary from your
club team,” Hicketts says. “In short-term competition you’ve got to come together quickly as a team, and it’s important to learn at a younger age that you
have to be willing to sacrifice personal success for the greater good.”