How Thomas Hickey went from last-chance NHL hopeful to ‘passionate’ Islanders TV rookie

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NHLI via Getty Images; MSG Networks

The plan, Thomas Hickey says, was to play this season. The former Islanders defenseman talked with MSG Networks over the summer about a potential role on TV and thought it might be interesting, but he fully intended to play.

Even after a professional tryout contract with the Devils ended without New Jersey signing him, there were still options for Hickey in Europe. It was only then, faced with the prospect of playing overseas, that Hickey decided to explore the option of working with MSG.

“As I was going through my options trying to figure it out, they offered me an audition and I thought, ‘OK, I still do intend to play, but I’ll try this on and see if I like it,’” Hickey told The Post recently over the phone. “I really enjoyed it, and over the next week or 10 days, things started to pick up and I realized it could be a fit because it’s something I was interested in. But not really as a hobby. More so as a career.”

Things came together quickly, and Hickey officially joined the Islanders broadcast team in late October as a studio analyst. There isn’t an exact number of games he’s scheduled to work this season, he said, but it should be between 40 and 50 as Hickey and A.J. Mleczko split the role alongside Shannon Hogan.

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Thomas Hickey is set to work between 40-50 games this season as an analyst alongside host Shannon Hogan on MSG Networks.

MSG Networks

The 33-year-old Hickey has quickly shown himself adept at the medium, looking comfortable on camera and giving fresh insight on a team for which he played as recently as last season. He says a future in broadcasting never crossed his mind as a player — he thought about an eventual role in coaching or hockey operations, but eventually he decided the strain of those jobs would be too much. Still, he wanted to stay close to the game. This ended up being a good solution.

“I want to be passionate about what I’m doing,” said Hickey, a former No. 4 overall pick who recorded 117 points in parts of nine seasons with the Islanders. “I love the game, and I still love doing it. I felt like going overseas [to play] would have been a cool one-year experience, but I don’t think I had a desire to go to a new team every year. With my wife and I wanting some sense of normalcy after traveling around so many years, for me just to have something I could potentially do for a while or a long time was the big thing.”

About a month into the role, Hickey says he’s still learning, though the feedback has been largely positive.

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Thomas Hickey (right) spent the preseason with the Devils before deciding to pursue TV opportunities over continuing to play professionally in Europe.

Getty Images

“Interacting with a team, there’s so much that needs to take place, so that’s what really caught me off guard the most,” Hickey said. “For me, I’m enjoying it, but I’ve got stuff to work on and I think it’s exciting for me. I love talking about hockey and watching the game. I’d always have those conversations with teammates. And maybe it’d fall on deaf ears. One or two other guys just want to sit around and talk about hockey in depth.

“So for me just to have that opportunity was really cool. And now learning how it all comes together, the things that I can improve on to get better because it’s challenging, it’s difficult. It’s not easy to bring those thoughts to life and articulate it. I think it’ll be a growing point for me to continue to get better at that.”

5 hits from Islanders 3, Oilers 0

1. Given that the Islanders have regularly generated shorthanded rushes, it’s a little surprising J-G Pageau’s shorthanded goal at 4:33 of the second period was only the second of the season for the team. It wouldn’t be at all surprising to see that number climb at some point — it hasn’t stayed low for lack of chances.

2. Oliver Wahlstrom’s physicality was a talking point off the Toronto game, during which he helped galvanize the Islanders’ comeback by fighting Rasmus Sandin. The way he stayed on the puck leading to his assist on Sebastian Aho’s goal to put the Islanders up 3-0 late in the second on Wednesday should not go unnoticed, and Lane Lambert pointed out postgame that Wahlstrom made a similar play against Dallas. Wahlstrom did not make plays like that a season ago — it’s now a part of his toolkit.

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Oliver Wahlstrom and the Islanders took it to the Oilers during a 3-0 win on Wednesday night, their 13th victory in 21 games.

NHLI via Getty Images

3. After the game Lambert cleared up the situation surrounding Kyle Palmieri’s upper-body injury, saying he hadn’t talked to the trainers before telling reporters he expected Palmieri to play and that it was merely an equipment issue that caused Palmieri to leave the ice early during morning skate. Still, it was a needless mess that threatened the credibility of the head coach just 21 games into his first season, and it is hard not to see it as a product of the Islanders’ draconian policy regarding lineup and injury disclosure.

4. Ilya Sorokin probably has not gotten enough credit for his role in the team’s start. His teammates rightfully note his play after nearly every game, but it deserves the kind of attention that Igor Shesterkin last season with the Rangers, because the way he’s elevating the Islanders is not that far off from how Shesterkin elevated the Rangers. Nineteen of his 49 saves against Edmonton were classified as high-danger chances by Natural Stat Trick — an excellent performance on every level. Semyon Varlamov, who has a .914 save percentage as the backup, deserves plaudits as well.

5. Even on a night where he did not score, watching the Oilers’ Connor McDavid live is an electrifying experience. His speed and dynamism on the puck is unmatched by any player in the league, and every time he touches it you get the feeling you might see something special.

Thoughts at the quarter-mark

As the Islanders (13-8-0) head into Thanksgiving, their record is not all that surprising. The expectation coming into this season was to get back into the playoffs, and the Islanders are on track to do that. Whether they will do so easily isn’t yet clear, especially with the Rangers and Devils both playing well in the Metropolitan. The possibility of a cross-river first-round playoff series beckons.

What is surprising is how the Islanders have orchestrated their start. This is not a grind-you-down team anymore, and it’s not one that tries to win, 2-1. Yes, the Identity Line is still a factor and the Islanders are happy to play physical hockey, but the Islanders went into Wednesday’s game against Edmonton ranked 10th in expected goals for and 31st in expected goals against. That they are allowing just 2.62 goals per game is largely a testament to Ilya Sorokin’s .934 save percentage, which is deserving of Vezina Trophy consideration should it continue.

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Ilya Sorokin’s play in nets has helped the Islanders to a better record than their expected-goals stats would indicate.

USA TODAY Sports

“We’ve been on our toes and generating some chances,” coach Lane Lambert said. “We have some areas in the D-zone at times that we would like to clean up. Certainly we want to have better starts to the games.”

The Isles have played more entertaining hockey under Lambert, and the scoring has followed his system. There have been signs that, if they can put it all together, they can be a serious threat in the Eastern Conference. But the lack of consistent 60-minute efforts — mostly via slow first periods — and the streakiness of both special-teams units have helped stop that from happening.

The defensive zone structure at times has been concerning as well, but Sorokin is the sort of player who can erase a lot of those mistakes. The Islanders always were going to ask a lot of him this season. It is not surprising that he’s delivered. Still, you would like to see more games in which he is not asked to do so much, as well as more games in which the Islanders are in control throughout rather than eking out wins at the end.

That said, we’re engaging in some nitpicking here. Everyone involved would have signed up for 26 points at Thanksgiving, and unlike last season, there is no disaster looming on the horizon.

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