By GREGG DRINNAN
Daily News Sports Editor
You just know that the butterflies will be flocking to Joe Hicketts today.
The 15-year-old from Kamloops is to make his WHL debut tonight and he’ll do it right in his hometown. Only he’ll be wearing the uniform of the Victoria Royals — he’ll be No. 27 — and not the Kamloops Blazers.
The two teams open their WHL exhibition schedules tonight at McArthur Island Sport and Event Centre. Game time is 7 o’clock.
The Royals, who played the last five seasons in Chilliwack as the Bruins, are to embark on their first road trip at 9:45 a.m. They will stop for a pregame meal in — of course! — Chilliwack and then venture on to Kamloops.
The Royals took Hicketts, who captained the bantam Tier 1 Jardine’s Blazers, with the 12th overall pick of the 2011 bantam draft. That was eight selections after the Blazers grabbed defenceman Jordan Thomson of Wawanesa, Man., who also is expected to play tonight. At 15, both players are too young to be full-time WHL players.
Hicketts, the only 1996-born player still with the Royals, took another step to becoming a WHLer on Thursday when he signed a contract.
Asked what was more exciting, signing the contract or playing tonight, Hicketts chuckled and replied: “I’m not sure.”
However, he definitely is excited about playing tonight.
“It should be great . . . it’ll be great fun,” he said. “Hopefully, I can get a bunch of friends and family out.”
The 5-foot-6, 170-pound Hicketts has survived rookie and main camps with the Royals, something he dubbed “a great learning experience.”
“Learning from all the vets about the ways of the WHL has been great,” he said.
He also has learned a lot about the speed and strength of WHL players.
“Some of the forwards are pretty shifty and speedy,” he admitted, “but I think I’ve done very well considering I’m five years, maybe even six years, younger than some of them.”
That age disparity also means there oftentimes has been a difference in strength, but that is something Hicketts plans on working on.
“It’s something I’m going to have to deal with,” he said. “Hopefully, I can get a lot stronger next year (when I’m) playing as a 16-year-old.”
Hicketts put up 57 points in 50 regular-season games with the Jardine’s Blazers last season. He has been short-listed by Hockey BC for the team that will play at the U-16 Western Branch Challenge in Moose Jaw, Oct. 27-30.
Hicketts also attended the NHLPA-sanctioned five-day Allstate All-Canadians Mentorship Camp last month in Mississauga, Ont.
“That was a great experience,” he said, “learning from all the pros and experiencing the way they live. There was financial seminars, psychology . . . it was more based on life rather than just hockey.”
Hicketts, who helped the Jardine’s Blazers to OMAHA regular-season and playoff titles last season, will spend this season at the Okanagan Hockey Academy in Penticton.
There are 18 players in the Royals’ camp who played last season with the Bruins; however, forwards Ryan Howse and Roman Horek and defenceman Brandon Manning, who combined for 214 points, including 98 goals, aren’t among them as they have moved on to the pro ranks.
The Royals will be led by centre Kevin Sundher who, at 19, is preparing for his fourth WHL season. He put up 76 points in 70 games last season. A third-round selection by the Buffalo Sabres in the 2010 NHL draft, Sundher, who is from Surrey, is one of the smoothest and most under-publicized players in the WHL.
They also will be counting on Czech forward Robin Soudek should they choose to keep him on the roster. As a 20-year-old import, he would be a two-spotter, but he did come up with 57 points, including 25 goals, in 61 games last season.