Thomas Hickey’s 687-day trek through the proverbial desert finally ended on Saturday night when his name was penciled into the New York Islanders’ starting lineup against the Philadelphia Flyers.
And for good measure, he put up a pair of assists in the 6-1 victory. A well-deserved reward for all that the veteran blueliner had been through since his last appearance in an Islanders uniform.
“It meant everything, really. Just to be with the guys was big and to contribute was huge,” Hickey said. “It was a very emotional night. Really happy with the effort of the guys and it’s nice to come back and get the win, that’s the biggest thing. Just a lot of good feelings right now.”
It had been nearly two years since the now-31-year-old defenseman last suited up for in an NHL game with the team he debuted for in 2012. Nearly two years to play career game No. 450. A nearly two-year journey that took him from the Eastern Conference Semifinals to the minors, to the injured list, and through the agonizing encounter of insurmountable loss with the death of his brother that made hockey nothing more than the trivial form of entertainment it ultimately is.
Hickey had been a regular in the Islanders lineup for nearly six-straight seasons until he suffered a concussion in the 40th game of the 2018-19 season — Barry Trotz’s first year as head coach of the Islanders — because of a concussion. It opened the door for one of the franchise’s top blue-line talents, Devon Toews, to make the jump to the pros where he would stay until being traded just a few short months ago to the Colorado Avalanche.
For Hickey, it was his last regular-season game for the Islanders until Saturday night, 716 days apart.
He would return in relief for an injury-shortened defense in the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs in a sweep against the Carolina Hurricanes but was optioned to the Islanders’ minor-league affiliate, the Bridgeport Sound Tigers of the AHL, the following season to make room for another promising youngster, Noah Dobson.
When Adam Pelech suffered a regular-season-ending injury in January of 2020, the door was open for Hickey to make the jump back into the fold. But injuries kept him from getting back to NHL ice once more.
Staying ready for the grind of NHL play was one thing, but the mental anguish that came with the extended wait.
“It’s a lot more exhausting [staying mentally ready] than trying to stay physically ready,” Hickey said. “Trying to keep your head in and you wonder and doubt creeps in. I’m proud of myself. It’s every day. It’s a lot of work and I’m proud of the work I put in.
“To get a chance, 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. Every day that goes by, it feels like it’s a bit further away… That was the doubt.”
The injury issues were unfortunate timing, certainly, but it was nothing compared to what Hickey and his family had been privately going through for nearly two years.
His older brother, Dan, had been diagnosed with glioblastoma, a form of brain cancer, in September of 2018 that was incurable. While a losing battle was fought bravely, Hickey rushed home to his native Calgary to say goodbye to his brother just days before the NHL and sporting world was shut down due to COVID-19. He passed away shortly after at the age of 33.
Battling the loss of a loved one through a pandemic, Hickey still found the will to return to the ice — being named to the Islanders’ playoff roster in the NHL’s bubbles, though he didn’t see the ice as he was used more as an injury insurance policy should one of the six or seven defensemen in front of him went down.
He was sent to the AHL yet again for the 2021 season before being called to the team’s taxi squad — players who are on standby to fill a roster spot should COVID sweep through the locker room — in January.
Sebastian Aho got the first call-up after the young Dobson was forced to the sidelines due to league COVID protocols, playing two games and struggling mightily in the Islanders’ 3-1 loss to the Washington Capitals before Hickey got the long-awaited call to return.
And so he returned to Nassau Coliseum with approximately 1,400 fans in attendance, providing a pair of first-period helpers for goals from Jordan Eberle and Casey Cizikas.
“Our locker room is very tight and there’s probably not a person that wasn’t wishing Thomas a really good night here and he played really well,” Trotz said. “There was no question that they were going to come out and play. Thomas is an outstanding person and he played outstanding for not playing for a long time and going through the issues with his own family and sort of battling. You talk about a character pro, I don’t think there are too many people higher than Thomas Hickey.”
And in the process, his triumphant return helped the people in his corner — whether in Calgary or amongst the cosmos — smile after a tough few years.
“It’s the best feeling I’ve had in a long time,” Hickey said. “Personally and professionally, it’s been tough. There are people that you want to do things for to make them happy because we’ve really had a rough go.
“I’ve been thinking about my brother and always just wanted to do good things while he was battling and fighting and just show him you can play for him and I think that just carries over even though he’s not with us… Those are the things you’re thinking about.”