Denis Hickey sat perched on the bleachers at IceWorks, studiously tracking his son Thomas as he zipped around the rink. He watched all of the Islanders, really, because he knows the reason they’ve gotten this far is because of how well they work together, how Thomas knows where John Tavares is going to be before he even gets there, and how important strong relationships are during the playoffs.
“The way John Tavares had eyes on the back of his head and passed that puck,” Denis said of his son’s overtime game-winner against the Capitals two weeks ago, “I might’ve been able to score the goal myself.”
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Denis, an attorney, watched that game from his home in Calgary, Alberta, but he was in Brooklyn Sunday night, when Thomas collected a behind-the-net feed from Brock Nelson and poked in the game-winning goal in overtime to give the Islanders a 2-1 series advantage over the Florida Panthers. It was pandemonium at Barclays Center that night, but perhaps the happiest man in the building wasn’t even on the ice.
“He just smiles a lot,” Thomas said of his dad. “It’s tough to wipe it off his face. I think he’s still smiling . . . I’d say [he was] more [excited than I was]. I’d say a step more. And I sure get excited . . . It’s special.”
Relationships are important in hockey — Denis Hickey will tell you that — but it’s not just the relationships among teammates or coaches, or the ties players have to their fans. There’s also the relationship that Denis has with his son, one that grew when Thomas would watch his dad play in a beer league in Calgary (“a poor beer league,” Thomas joked). They wore the Montreal Canadiens colors, and for a while, Thomas and his brother, Daniel, thought that their dad played for the actual NHL team.
“They’d watch the games on TV and they’d always wonder on Saturday night why I wasn’t out with the team,” Denis said. “I tried to explain to them that I was just in an older adult league and I just wasn’t that good.”
Soon, that translated to evening shooting sessions in the family’s unfinished basement — “I’d come home with my suit and tie on and he wouldn’t even let me change,” Denis said. “I had to go down and stop a number of shots and if I let too many in, he’d say I was letting them in too easily and make me stay there” — and these days, Denis is the one who sits back and watches.
Tuesday, he was in Syosset for practice and will be at Barclays Center Wednesday night for Game 4, soaking up every bit of hockey before he has to go home Thursday morning. He’s proud of his son, but defers praise. Ask about Thomas’ game-winning goals, and Denis will point out his teammates, the strong bond the Islanders have, and the coaching staff that has helped his son mature. Ask Thomas about his game-winning goals, and he’ll do the same.
“When you’re watching games like that at the Barclays with the fans so into it and the game so intense, you really wanted anybody to put the puck in,” Denis said of Sunday’s game. “But for Thomas to score that was just a wonderful feeling. It was just super.”
It’s more than 2,000 miles from Calgary to New York, and Denis can’t get to too many games, but that hardly means he isn’t paying attention. Thomas said he heard from his father after every game, phone abuzz with analysis. “Usually, I’ll get to my phone and have a little write-up or review of the game,” he said. The Capitals game even called for a phone call the next day. “He was super-excited,” Thomas said.
Still, responsibilities don’t stop just because it’s the playoffs. Denis will be able to watch his son play Wednesday but he has to leave after that. “Trust me, he’d tell you, he wishes he could stay,” Thomas said, before adding that having him there for Sunday’s result was the absolute best timing.
“I need to get him back,” he said. “We need to advance so he’ll be back for sure.”
That’s certainly one relationship worth winning for.