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The Upper Concourse: The Hickey Buzz

by Pat Schroeder

July 6, 2007

It was twenty years ago when the Los Angeles Kings last selected a player with the fourth overall pick in the National Hockey League Entry Draft, and they used it to select defenseman Wayne McBean from the Medicine Hat Tigers of the Western Hockey League (Canadian junior league).

But that story did not have a happy ending, as McBean played in just sixty games for the Kings (1987-89), scoring no goals while adding just five assists for five points with 49 penalty minutes. Indeed, McBean was yet another draft bust in the Kings’ long history of draft busts.

Flash forward to 2007 and the Kings once again found themselves with the fourth overall pick, and they used it to select another defenseman from the WHL, Thomas Hickey of the Seattle Thunderbirds.

The selection of Hickey with the fourth overall pick was widely panned by both experts and fans alike, many crowning Kings President/General Manager Dean Lombardi with the proverbial dunce cap because Hickey was not a consensus top five or even a top ten pick. In fact, none of the major scouting sources had Hickey ranked in the top ten.

Indeed, one commentator was “shocked” by the pick. Media around the hockey world generally expressed surprise at the Kings’ choice. Season ticket holders at the Kings’ draft party in Hollywood on June 22 were stunned and even angered.

To be sure, more than just a few long-suffering Los Angeles hockey fans were questioning Lombardi, the man most recently charged with bringing a competitive hockey team to Los Angeles, and his scouting acumen and player evaluation talent.

Lombardi explained that he had tried to trade down a few spots to take Hickey, but he did not want to move too far down because other teams also had Hickey in their sights. He also reported “a buzz” around Hickey at the draft.

Was this “buzz” real or was this a figment of Lombardi’s imagination? Was this a case of an organization becoming enamored of a player to the point that some perspective was perhaps lost? Or was this a case of an organization being ahead of the conventional wisdom of the day?

Russ Farwell, General Manager, Governor and part-owner of the Seattle Thunderbirds, thinks it was the latter.

“Anyone who followed us a lot through playoffs would have really had Thomas climb on their lists, because he really took his game to another level right through the playoffs,” said Farwell. “Start to finish, he was our best guy. It didn’t matter how much attention or how much focus he got from other teams, he just played better and better, and he really, really advanced.”

“If you were following us or watching the playoffs a lot, you really couldn’t help but move him, because it wasn’t just one of two games, he consistently, right through the playoffs, the whole ten or eleven games, took his game to another level.”

But even the Thunderbirds were surprised that Hickey was selected so early in the draft.

“We didn’t know that they were going to step up and take him that early,” Farwell explained. “We thought Thomas, when I say we, the coach and I, based on the calls we’d had, thought he would go somewhere from eight to sixteen, which was higher than he was rated by [the NHL’s] Central [Scouting Bureau] and everyone else, but we didn’t know that LA had him that high.”

“We knew they were interested,” Farwell elaborated. “They had called a number of times, but it just seemed to be a little higher than what everyone was talking about. I’m not close with anyone there, really, so there was really no reason for them to tell us.”

Farwell said that what stands out most about Hickey, as Lombardi commented on draft day, is his skating.

“The first thing is how well he skates,” said Farwell. “He just skates out of trouble. Comes off a turn very, very well and accelerates, you know, going both ways. He just leaves people behind, skating it out of trouble.”

“His skating also lets him be very effective as a defender,” added Farwell. “He can get good body position, which allows him to be very effective. He’s not a giant. He doesn’t reach out and stop you with...which is a good thing now because of the game and the way it’s called. But he’s a good skater. He always keeps real good body position and so he is very effective both coming out of the corners or trying to gain our zone.”

And despite the fact that Hickey is no hulking behemoth on the blue line, he apparently is no slouch, either.

“He’s a good hitter, he’s a physical player,” said Farwell. “He doesn’t have any trouble with anyone he’s playing against regardless of their size, because he’s a strong, solid guy and he skates so well. But, that’s the biggest plus in his game.”

And he can dish the puck as well.

“He’s a great passer, he sees the ice, he passes the puck on his backhand as good as any defenseman I’ve ever had, so he can really make a play walking out, look both ways and really put people in,” Farwell explained. “He’s not a real end-to-end stick handler, although he can join the play and create offense.”

“I think those are things that he will really improve on and flesh out his game over the next couple years, his actual finish going to the net,” added Farwell. “He had a lot of chances and he has real good instincts, but the one thing about Thomas here on our team is he has never had a chance to be...I mean, we brought him in at 16, he played in our top two last year as a 17-year-old. He was our best defenseman, and consequently, that’s always put him up against the very best players on the other teams.”

Despite facing the opposition’s top players on most shifts, Hickey was apparently unfazed, although his offense may suffered slightly as a result.

“A lot of times when a look at Blum in Vancouver, and they talk about him—he had a chance to be the third and fourth guy, and that let him produce more offense and let him play a little more in his own class, if you want, from a size and strength standpoint,” Farwell explained. “Thomas has never been able to do that here, one because he’s played so well, and just where we were at in our cycle. So he’s always jumped in and played that role, and handled it very well.”

“But that limits a guy’s offense a little bit when he always is playing against the very best guys on the other team,” Farwell elaborated. “And his numbers are still very good, but he’s maybe not as prolific as I think he might be down the road.”

And if that glowing review is not enough, Farwell also praised Hickey’s leadership abilities.

“He definitely will be the leader on this team,” said Farwell. “He has just naturally kind of taken that spot. He has great potential. He’s in a class, you know, of guys I’ve had, he’s done it quicker than [San Jose Sharks star center Patrick] Marleau did here. He’s in a class with guys I’ve had before like [Vancouver Canucks forward] Trevor Linden or [Minnesota Wild winger] Mark Parrish when he was here.”

“This guy is going to be, you know, a captain and a leader down the road,” added Farwell. “He just has real depth and quality to his character, and he understands competing. He’s an old-time player. Nothing but the end result matters to him. He’s the kind of guy a coach loves.”

Hickey certainly sounds as if he indeed has all the potential that Lombardi gushed about on draft day.

“He’s an exceptional player, and there’s no limit to how much he’s going to grow in the game, because he thinks the game at a top level,” said Farwell. “He’s a very influential guy. He can travel in both circles. He was one of our older guys and one of our key guys, and yet he never left the group that he came in with—the young guys that he went to high school with and stuff who were just, you know, probably the mid-level guys on our team. He was very popular in both groups. He’s an exceptional kid all the way around and I think will make him a real leader down the road as a pro.”

* * *

Lombardi described increased interest in Hickey from several other clubs as the draft approached, and it would seem more plausible now that there were several teams, including the Kings, who saw Hickey regularly through the WHL playoffs and saw the same things Farwell described. If so, and if Hickey really climbed on those teams’ lists, perhaps the choice was not as “off the board” as most seem to think.

Farwell’s expansive and positive endorsement of Hickey’s skills and character was quite genuine. Of course, a general manager would be inclined to speak positively of a player developed under his tutelage, but my prior interactions with Farwell had left me with the impression that he was a thoughtful man who generally spoke economically. In that light, Farwell’s effusive praise of Hickey was certainly revealing.

In the final analysis, Farwell seems convinced that Hickey will succeed greatly in the NHL. Evidently, there was indeed a “buzz” that Lombardi referred to surrounding Hickey at the NHL draft, and that there was good reason for it. And apparently, Lombardi may be as good as advertised. Of course, it will take a few years before we can see how this all plays out.

In the late 1980's, Pat Schroeder worked with a group of businessmen, politicians and hockey people, including Thunderbirds General Manager Russ Farwell, in a failed effort to bring an NHL expansion franchise to Seattle, Washington.
Schroeder writes from Phoenix, Arizona.

Gann Matsuda contributed to this story.

The Upper Concourse, referring to the upper seating level at Staples Center where many say the “real fans” sit, is a column written by Kings fans exclusively for the Online Kingdom. The views expressed are those of the author, and are not necessarily those of the Online Kingdom.

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