Thomas Hickey wasn’t sure if he was ever going to have the opportunity to put on an Islanders jersey again and play in a game. Given what he’s been through over the last couple of seasons, the thought of walking from the locker room and down the tunnel to the ice with his teammates at Nassau Coliseum was something that just wasn’t imminent or perhaps even seemed unlikely.
“To get a chance,” said Hickey. “You just don’t know. There are so many factors that go into it. You just don’t know when your time is going to come and every day that goes by you feel like maybe it’s a bit further away. That’s not always reality…it’s just how you feel. That was the doubt but I believe in myself.”
That chance finally arrived for Hickey on Saturday night when he played for the Islanders for the first time since the 2018-19 season and he made a storybook return with two assists in the Islanders’ 6-1 win over the Flyers at Nassau Coliseum.
“It meant everything…really,” said an emotional Hickey after the game. “Just to be with the guys was big and to chip in was huge. A very emotional night. I’m really happy with the effort of the guys and it’s nice to come back and get a win. That’s the biggest thing. A lot of good feelings right now.”
Hickey spent the 2019-20 season playing for the Islanders’ AHL team in Bridgeport but he was limited to just 14 games because of multiple injuries. But that’s not even close to the pain he suffered last March when his older brother Dan lost his battle with cancer and passed away as a result of a brain tumor. To be able to get the chance to play after everything that he’s been through made it not just a special night for him, but also for everyone else in the Islanders’ locker room.
“I think it gave us a real emotional boost because everybody knows Thomas,” said Islanders Head Coach Barry Trotz during a Zoom meeting with reporters on Monday morning. “You’re not going to find a higher quality person and I think all the struggles that he’s had to go through. I think everybody felt really good for him. He brought something to the group emotionally that you can’t put a word on and a percentage of how much it affected our group.”
There’s never any shortage of sweat and water in a sports team’s locker room, but on Saturday night there were also some tears flowing because everyone in that room knew what kind of journey it has been for Hickey, now in his eighth season as part of the Islanders’ organization.
“It was great,” said Islanders forward Josh Bailey. “We were all just thrilled for him. He’s been through a lot personally the last couple of years not playing games for us, being a part of the bubble and not getting a shot. He’s a true pro and just a really good person and friend. I think every guy in that room was slightly emotional with how happy the room was for him. He deserves it.”
The 32 year old Hickey, acquired by the Islanders off of waivers from the Los Angeles Kings back in January of 2013, came into this season as the team’s career active leader in plus/minus with a +35. He also came into this season in 4th place on the Islanders’ all-time list with 689 blocks. His first career NHL goal was an overtime game-winner for the Islanders on February 21st, 2013 at Montreal. But before Saturday, Hickey had not played in an NHL game since May 3rd, 2019 when the Islanders’ season came to an end in Carolina after they were swept in four straight games by the Hurricanes in the second round of the playoffs. It was that season when Hickey suffered a concussion and that led to now former Islander Devon Toews assuming Hickey’s spot in the top six of the Isles’ blueline. Last season in Bridgeport, Hickey suffered another concussion and there were other injuries that kept him off the ice.
And then, Dan was gone.
“I’ve been thinking about my brother,” said Hickey. “I always wanted to just do good things while he was battling and fighting. I think that carries over even though he’s not with us…that’s in the back of your mind. Those are the things you’re thinking about. It’s been a tough road but I feel like it’s worth that wait.”
The road back brought Hickey back to the Islanders when the NHL season resumed last summer during the COVID-19 pandemic. Hickey was with the team in the bubble as the Islanders advanced all the way to the Eastern Conference Final, but the veteran defenseman didn’t get a chance to play. He was part of the taxi squad in the bubble and that’s where he was when the current season started. When Noah Dobson was played on the NHL’s COVID-19 list, Sebastian Aho was called on to fill in.
But Hickey continued to keep himself mentally and physically prepared just in case there was an opportunity to play. Over the last year and a half, the bigger challenge was keeping himself in a good frame of mind.
“It’s a lot more exhausting than trying to stay physically ready,” said Hickey. “Trying to keep your head in. You wonder when doubt creeps in. I’ve got a great support system and that helps…the support of my teammates. I’d definitely say that the mental side of it is much harder than the physical side of it and I think I’ve learned a lot from them.”
And it was his Islanders teammates and coaches that welcomed him back with open arms. Hickey has provided the Islanders with some big moments over the years including an overtime goal in game three of the 2016 playoffs against Florida. But more than anything that he did on the ice, it’s what he means to that group off the ice that made Saturday even that more special and meaningful.
“That had to be a little bit of healing for him,” said Trotz. “Sometimes you say fall off the mountain a little bit, you get banged up and then it takes a while to get up that mountain again. He’s getting up the mountain which is a really great personal story and a great example for that group in the room and they know exactly what he’s through so it has real personal meaning.”
Time will tell if Hickey gets more opportunities to play while Dobson is out or if he’ll get another chance down the road if there’s an injury or illness that comes up. But there’s no question that Calgary, Alberta native will always remember the emotions of Saturday night.
“It’s the best feeling I’ve had in a long time,” said Hickey. “Personally, and professionally, it’s been tough and there’s people that you want to do things for to make them happy because we’ve had a really rough go.”
Smiles filled the Islanders locker room on Saturday night and you can be sure of something else. Thomas Hickey’s brother Dan was all smiles as he looked down on what was happening at Nassau Coliseum.