The Rise of Justin Faulk
It was a summer Saturday morning in southern California, the second day of the 2010 NHL Entry Draft being held at Staples Center in Los Angeles.
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The Carolina Hurricanes would be making the seventh pick of the day, the 37th overall, and they had their eye on someone, someone they didn’t even think would be available for the taking in the second round: American-born defenseman Justin Faulk.
“He was in our first round, and I’m going to guess somewhere in and around 20,” Hurricanes President and General Manager Jim Rutherford recalled.
Needless to say, the Canes were downright giddy to have a shot at picking the U.S. National Team Development Program stand-out.
“Especially our scouts because they go to see the guy all the time and get excited about certain players, but once we got into the second round, they were keeping their fingers crossed,” Rutherford said.
The second round began with five forwards going off the board.
“As it got closer and closer, it was like, ah, he’s probably going to go to this team or the next,” Rutherford said. “But he fell to us.”
Florida had the 36th overall pick and selected a defenseman – but not Faulk.
“It’s like, ‘Oh boy, is someone going to take our guy?’” Rutherford said. “Sometimes the player falls to you, and sometimes they don’t. In this case, we lucked out.”
When the Canes were on the clock in the second round of that summer Saturday morning in southern California, they had an easy decision, if you could even call it that.
“As soon as [Florida] announced their pick, there was no hesitation to get his name on the slip and up to the front,” Rutherford said.
“It was a big accomplishment to get drafted, but at the same time, I wasn’t looking ahead too much. I had seen and heard plenty of experiences. There are quite a few hockey players in Minnesota, guys that had been drafted and things didn’t work out,” said Faulk, who was in LA for the draft. “It was the next step, and there was a lot more work to be done to get me to the point I am now.”
“I was just talking to my old buddy Martin Madden (a former scout with the Hurricanes and now the Director of Amateur Scouting with Anaheim), and he told me that I spoiled his day today (the Ducks chose five picks later),” said Tony MacDonald, the Canes director of amateur scouting, on June 26, 2010. “We were concerned we might miss out on him at seven, but we caught a break and were able to take him.”
In Faulk, the Hurricanes got a then-18-year-old blueliner who was mature beyond his years. In the next three years alone, Faulk would win a college national championship, compete in the AHL playoffs, participate in an NHL All-Star Skills Competition and have a shot at winning a gold medal with the U.S. Olympic squad.
“He was and is so mature,” Rutherford said. “He’s just one of those people who is well-prepared for his job and life. A very impressive character.”
Today, Faulk is one of the youngest U.S. Olympians to play on the men’s hockey team since the NHL began sending its players to the tournament in 1998.
The 21-year-old also comprises one half of the Canes’ top defensive pairing, regularly matching up against opponents’ top lines and skating in all situations. To date this season, Faulk has posted 22 points (3g, 19a) in 57 games, and he leads the team in average ice time per game with 23:50.
“He’s been asked to take on a lot of responsibilities, and we expect a lot from the two of them, but they’ve performed,” head coach Kirk Muller said. “He’s got a lot of room for growth in there, and he wants to get better. That’s great.”
“I expect a lot from him. I don’t look at his age as much as I do his ability. He’s still learning the game in this league, and there are still areas of improvement. He’s at his best when he plays with a bit of an edge. He can be consistent at strings of time, and I’d like to see him continue to do that,” assistant coach Dave Lewis said. “He plays against the other team’s best players all the time, and he is rewarded by the U.S. Olympic team in being selected. So that’s a great honor for such a young guy.”
Faulk hails from South St. Paul, Minn., and began playing organized hockey at the age of six. He was on ice skates three years earlier.
“It’s kind of a big thing. There are a lot of kids growing up that are playing hockey in Minnesota,” Faulk said. “It’s good. You’ve got good numbers and a lot of kids doing it.”
As prevalent as youth hockey has been and continues to be in Minnesota, it’s no cheaper to play than it was years ago. Faulk is involved with the BH23 Foundation, a charity in memoriam of a late brother of one of Faulk’s hockey buddies that seeks to make the game of hockey possible for all children regardless of financial situation.
“We try to raise money for kids who can’t afford to play hockey. Lucky enough, in my first year doing it, some of the money went to kids from South St. Paul, where I grew up,” Faulk said. “It’s definitely nice to be able to help support people who can’t afford to buy hockey gear. It’s not as cheap as just picking up a basketball or a football or something like that. It’s an expensive sport. To help families participate and get kids involved is huge.”
Faulk said his mother has been the biggest influence on his career, as his dad passed away when was just seven years old.
“I think it just kind of caused me to grow up pretty fast. It was definitely a tough experience dealing with that,” he said. “I have an older brother, too, and I know it was pretty hard on him. When you don’t have that figure around when you’re young, there are certain things you have to take into your own hands. Your mom can only do so much for you, and she definitely did as much as she could for me and my brother. It got pretty tough on her at times. There were times when me and my brother had to do things on our own and just grow up in an expedited fashion.”
High school hockey in Minnesota is essentially Friday Night Lights on ice. The near-18,000 seat Xcel Energy Center is an annually packed barn for high school tournaments. Additionally, high schools have recently followed in the footsteps of the successes of the NHL’s Winter Classic and Stadium Series to now host outdoor games.
Faulk played for South St. Paul High School in 2007-08, earning honorable mention all-conference honors after notching six goals and 15 assists (21 points) in 26 games as a sophomore.
“It was a lot of fun playing high school hockey,” Faulk said. “That’s the big thing there in Minnesota. You had some schools trying to say that football was the sport, but we all know hockey was the sport in Minnesota.”
Though Faulk would leave after his sophomore season to pursue an opportunity with the U.S. National Team Development Program, he had teammates and friends who didn’t want to leave behind the atmosphere.
“I had some buddies that wouldn’t leave because they wanted to play high school hockey. It’s a big deal,” he said. “Some schools draw better than others, but it’s a big deal. You’d get a good amount of fans, so it was fun.”
A 10-hour, 643-mile drive east of South St. Paul is Ann Arbor, Mich., the home of the residential U.S. National Team Development Program. Faulk would spend the next two seasons there, attending a local public high school and living with a billet family.
Faulk had already planned on playing in the United States Hockey League (USHL) but felt that the USNTDP would be better for his development since it wasn’t as business-focused.
“I always wanted to kind of leave for some reason. That was just my thing. To go to play junior hockey was something I wanted to do. When that opportunity came, I was set on leaving,” Faulk said. “In the U.S. program, I know they’re not too worried about pulling in the big dollars. We got about 100 people at each game, and 50 of them are scouts, so they probably walk in for free. I’m pretty happy with my decision.”
Like leaving Minnesota to play hockey as a teenager elsewhere, attending college was always part of Faulk’s plan, as well. The popularity of college hockey in Minnesota follows in the path of the prevalence of youth and high school hockey, and Faulk wanted to be a part of that.
“Growing up in Minnesota, the big thing is college hockey. I was a big fan of Minnesota-Duluth, and I ended up committing to go to college at the same time that I decided to go to the U.S. program,” Faulk said. “Why I think it was right for me is because it’s a whole other experience. I had two years at the U.S. program living with a billet family and playing games like that. It’s a whole other aspect of life at college.
“No one is around parents, it’s all young guys and young girls hanging out and you get that social aspect in life that’s also needed at times. I definitely am extremely happy with that decision,” Faulk continued. “We won the National Championship, so obviously the hockey part was good, but meeting those guys and getting in that lifestyle of reaching out and meeting new people [was also good]. In junior, you’re around your college buddies all the time. I have friends from Duluth that didn’t play hockey; girls or guys, you become friends with all these people that come from anywhere. … That experience was huge for me, and it’s something I wouldn’t trade for anything.”
On the ice, Faulk experienced tremendous success in his first and ultimately only year at Minnesota-Duluth. En route to the Bulldogs capturing the national championship, Faulk led team defensemen in goals (8), assists (25) and points (33). He also led all NCAA rookie defensemen in scoring and set a school record for scoring by a UMD rookie blueliner.
Weeks later, Faulk would make his professional hockey debut with the Charlotte Checkers in the American Hockey League (AHL) postseason. He skated in 13 Calder Cup playoff games, posting two assists.
“It was definitely different. It’s a different style of play. I didn’t get hit as much. In college, you had a bunch of work out freaks that practice with each other for a week, and then they get to Friday and Saturday, and they’re sick of killing their teammates, so they finally get to hit someone else,” Faulk said of the transition. “It was a different experience, and it was definitely fun to jump right in. I think I made a pretty smooth transition. There were definitely some games that were better than others.”
Months later, Faulk would make the final cut in training camp and begin the season with the Hurricanes, completing his journey from college hockey to the highest level of professional hockey in just a year.
“I talked to Rod Brind’Amour during the playoff run, and he even said that for my game, he thought the NHL would be easier. The players are better here and things are faster,” Faulk said of the transition from the AHL to the NHL. “I like to play at a good speed like that. Playing with good players definitely made it easier. I always knew they’d be in the right spots, so it made for a very easy transition.”
Though just 21 years old, Faulk already has a wealth of international experience under his belt, as he began competing internationally for the United States when he was 16 years old.
In 2010, he scored the gold medal-winning goal against Sweden in the IIHF World U-18 Championship in Belarus. In 2011, he finished second among team defensemen in scoring (4 points) and helped Team USA capture the bronze medal at the World Junior Championship in Buffalo, NY. Most recently, Faulk participated in the 2012 and 2013 World Championships, leading American defenseman in points in both tournaments and winning a bronze medal in 2013.
“I understand how teams play on the big ice. I understand the style of play on the big ice and how it may vary from NHL-size because of the opportunities I had earlier in life,” Faulk said. “It’s definitely something I’m looking forward to being able to put to use, hopefully.”
Having already played on an international-sized rink, Faulk knows what to expect, which may work in his advantage.
“I think it’s easier to go from smaller ice to bigger ice because you have a little bit more time with the puck; when you go from big ice to small ice, you don’t realize how tight the boards are and you get cramped a little bit,” Faulk said.
“He has that big ice experience and that big ice pressure. I’m sure he’ll adapt and play fine and play well,” Lewis said. “The one thing you hope is that he has a good tournament and comes back healthy.”
Though he's faced extensive international competition, the 2014 Winter Olympic games will mark the biggest stage yet for Faulk.
“It will be such a great experience with such high competition,” Muller said. “It will be a major playoff-like experience.”
“I’m excited for them. It’s a great experience to be able to represent your country, and you’ll be playing against the best players in the world on the biggest stage that there is,” Lewis said of his top defensive pairing. “I’m excited for them. The thing I wish is that they come back healthy.”
Faulk’s career – as many other athletes’ journeys – has been about progressively taking the next step, though he’s done it arguably more expedited than others.
As a 21-year-old, Faulk will now have a chance to capture a gold medal with Team USA on the world’s biggest stage.
And then, perhaps his next step is a Stanley Cup with the Carolina Hurricanes.
“Yes, and yes,” Faulk said with a smile.