Regardless of what a player displays consistently on the ice; respect can be hard to earn. Just ask Thomas Hickey, star defenceman for the Western Hockey League's Seattle Thunderbirds. Selected fourth overall by the Los Angeles Kings in the 2007 NHL Entry Draft, pundits still questioned his abilities.
While his Thunderbirds head coach Rob Sumner agrees he lacks the attention that conventionally accompanies being identified as a burgeoning NHL star, it has had a positive affect on his game without having to deal with the distractions.
"I think (Thomas) has handled it fine," said Sumner. "He has had a huge role here ever since he came in here at 15, and was prominent in most games. At 16, he played in all situations, and it is no different now."
Scott Jackson, Hickey's defence partner during his rookie season in Seattle, agrees.
"He has played the same as he did when he first came into the league," he said. "He is really solid every game, and he is the kind of guy you know he will give it his all."
One of the reasons he received such little consideration in his draft year two seasons ago was the geographical location of his team. Playing in the Pacific Northwest, his name rarely entered the mainstream media and attracted little exposure - at least compared to more hockey-saturated markets. What fans are missing is an old-time hockey player reminiscent of defencemen from decades passed.
Another reason could be that Hickey is not the prototypical 6-foot-3 and 215 pound defenceman that every team covets - he's not the offensively gifted power play quarterback that causes hype.
But the aspects about Hickey's game that are noticeable are his smooth skating abilities and knack for making the right play under duress. Sumner believes he was one of those guys that brings a highly competitive game and you may need to see him a few times to really appreciates what he brings to a team.
"He can really skate and he is so strong on his feet and he is not the tallest guy," he explained. "But he rarely gets knocked off the puck where he loses battles down low and he is an effective guy at moving the puck."
Even Jackson clearly sees what makes Hickey an elite player.
"The one thing is he is really dedicated to the game of hockey," he said. "He sits on the bus and will read anything on hockey and try to learn something and he always has his nose in some book."
One attribute that goes unnoticed is Hickey's combative nature - he is willing to drop the gloves and is a respectable pugilist. In one such instance, he squared off toe-to-toe with tough guy Garet Hunt of the Vancouver Giants. He surprised many in attendance during that bout because he never gave an inch. That's no surprise to Sumner, who shrugged his shoulders with the assertion that it's just his nature.
"It was in response to one of their guys hitting one of ours," he explained. "He did not like it so he stood up to him and that is the type of player he is. Although he is a young player, he has a real leadership role with us."
When asked about the tussle, Hickey laughed about it and had that you gotta do what you gotta do expression.
"Well that all started as I thought it was a unfair hit," he said. So I went over to stand up for my teammate and it led to a fight with Hunt, who is a pretty tough guy around the league. I just tried to stand in there and get some punches in and not take too many."
While Hickey is never worried about what others think, he always makes sure to acknowledge his opponent with a manner of respect and to not make a circus out of the situation.
"I am not trying say I am the toughest guy," he explained. "But you have to send a message that you will stand up for yourself and your teammates regardless of the opponent and play a hard gritty style of game plus those wounds always heal."
The opportunity to play at the World Juniors at the Czech Republic last year in Ottawa in 2009 was not lost on Hickey, who said it all started earlier with Team Canada at the Under-18 tournament.
"I cannot begin to even explain how much fun and the experience I had in the Under 18 program with Team Canada," he said. "First of all, it is great to go over there and see all the best players in the world in your peer group and see how you match up against them, and at the same time you meet so many new friends and I learned a lot from the Under 18 team and that allowed me to move on to the Under-20 team the past two years."
Now that he is the captain of Team Canada, he understands the pressure that the role entails and fortunate for the opportunity.
"I fully appreciate the pressure from not only myself but the entire country," he said. "And I embrace the honor and the challenge."
Canada's alternate captains Zach Boychuk and PK Subban have equal admiration for their leader, but also have a unique perspective on his leadership ability.
"It's hard for people to see," said Subban. "But the way he communicates and builds relationships with each player on the team brings us all closer together like a family."
And while the hockey world gets to see Hickey in this brief tournament, don't forget about him after it is all over. If you're wondering where Hickey disappeared to, he's in Seattle patiently waiting for his time to play in the NHL.
And it will come soon enough.
"I have worked out with him in the summers and have played with and against him," said Boychuk. "And his dedication and work ethic earn your respect."
And for Hickey, it's not just about respect. It's about results.
Shane Malloy provides hockey prospect insight and analysis on his Prospect Insider feature on TSN.ca, Canada's leading sports website. Many sports networks, hockey magazines and major newspapers have drawn upon his expertise and knowledge. His passion for the game and involvement in grass roots hockey from the junior hockey to the National Hockey League is evident. He is currently a host and hockey event reporter on XM Sirius Satellite Radio (Home Ice 204) where he co-hosts a hockey radio show on Hockey Prospects and the Business of Hockey.
Prior to joining TSN, Malloy was the columnist-covering prospects for NHL.com for two years and a NHL and prospect columnist Fox Sports.com for six years.
This document is the intellectual property of Shane Malloy and cannot be used or duplicated in anyway without expressed written consent. Any use of this document without the expressed written consent of Shane Malloy will result in public exposure and legal prosecution.