After a couple hours playing hockey as youths, Justin Crandall and Adam Wilcox would head inside Wilcox’s house to watch a movie or turn on the Xbox. Meanwhile, Justin Faulk would remain outside on Wilcox’s backyard until nightfall.
“We would go in and play video games and he would be out there another three or four hours,” said Wilcox, the Minnesota Gophers’ starting goaltender, who grew up blocks away from Faulk in South St. Paul, Minn.
“He was a huge rink rat,” recalled Crandall, another South St. Paul product and now a winger on UMD’s hockey team. “It seemed like he’d be practicing seven days a week.”
Faulk kiddingly jibes his friends for not being able to stay outdoors with him.
“They’re pretty soft; they would be too cold or too tired or needed something to eat,” he said, before leaving for Sochi, Russia over the phone. “There were definitely times when they would go hang out in the basement and I would stay outside and keep messing around on the rink.”
All that extra ice time no doubt aided Faulk’s development. And now, after two years with the U.S. National Team Development Program, one season at UMD and in his third season with the NHL’s Carolina Hurricanes, the defenseman is set to join the country;s top players in at the Winter Olympics.
The United States faced Slovakia in its first round-robin, and after that, achieved a huge win over Russia, winning with a shoot-out. Catch up on Team Usa men’s hockey and see who will be playing who in the upcoming quarterfinals.
“It’s an opportunity of a lifetime and I’m extremely honored to be able to put on the Team USA jersey,” Faulk said.
Faulk learned of the honor along with everybody else, when it was announced on New Year’s Day. At 21, he’d one of the youngest selections since the NHL began sending players to the Olympics in 1998 and is part of a 25-player roster hoping to bring back a gold medal for the first time since the “Miracle on Ice” team in 1980.
NEVER TIRED OF HOCKEY
The long road to hockey stardom began on those South St. Paul outdoor rink, including the one behind Wilcox’s house.
Wilcox claims during Faulk’s extended outdoor stays that he did damage to the house.
“He still sowed me parents about three windows,” said Wilcox, who played on the same Mites teams as Faulk soon after learning to skate.
Faulk even occasionally donned goalie pads during times when Crandall’s brother, UMD senior goalie Aaron, couldn’t make it.
“The level of confidence that guy had is ridiculous,” Aaron Crandall recalled. “He knew how good of a player he was and nobody was ever able to shake him. He should have been a goalie — he was as mentally strong as anyone I’ve ever seen.” (Catch up UMD men’s Bulldog hockey news.)
Faulk says his talent didn’t come naturally and he needed all those hours on the ice to improve. To him, it was a non-stop source of fun.
“I liked to play hockey as a kid, and I still do, and it was something I never got bored with when I was younger,” he said. “I never viewed it as hard work, just something I liked to do.”
At age 16 he was offered a chance to play with the U-17 development team in Ann Arbor, Mich. He packed up and joined the team for the 2008-09 season, leading all defenseman in scoring with 12 goals and 21 assists. He had 21 goals for the U-18 team the following year.
“I didn’t know what I was getting myself into when I went out there — I was the only guy from Minnesota,” he said. “But I enjoyed every minute f it, and I think it definitely helped prepare me for the next level and even helped develop me into the player that I am today.”
Participating for the U.S. junior national team allowed Faulk to gain international experience and play on the larger Olympic ice sheets used in Sochi. He scored the game-winning goal against Sweden at the 2010 U-18 World Championships and helped the U.S. win bronze at the 2011 World Junior Championships.
“I understand the style of play on the big ice and how it may vary from NHL-size beacause of the opportunities I had earlier in life,” he told the Hurricane’s website.
UMD STAY INCLUDED NCAA TITLE
Faulk’s college preference was no secret.
When he was around 10, he attended several UMD games and visited the team locker room at the DECC courtesy of his cousin, Bulldogs winger Marco Peluso.
His desire to attend UMD was further enhanced when South St. Paulite Alex Stalock played here, so it didn’t take long to commit when the Bulldogs offered a scholarship.
“I was a Bulldog fan from the get-go and always will be,” he said.
Faulk scored eight goals, set a UMD rookie defenseman scoring mark and led all NCAA Division I defenseman with 33 points in 2010-11. Even more impressive, the Bulldogs captured their first national championships at Xcel Energy Center in Faulk’s hometown.
“The one year of college and winning the national championship is something that I’ll never forget,” he said.
Faulk is quick to credit players such as Hobey Baker Memorial Award winner Jack Connelly and current Minnesota Wild player Justin Fontaine for the team’s success, but believes team unity might have been the biggest catalyst.
“We were a pretty deep team from the top down,” he said. “one thing that helped us was that, as a group of guys, we were able to have fun on the rink and away from the rink. We enjoyed being around each other and that played a part in the success that we had.”
UMD coach Scott Sandelin had an idea he wouldn’t retain Faulk’s services very long.
“I’ve been around the league long enough and I hadn’t seen a freshman defenseman come in and play like he did the first half o the year since (Jordan) Leopold (of Minnesota),” said Sandelin. “He couldn’t control a game physically and was farther along than a lot of kids his age. He was ready when he came here and was prepared from the two years he spend in Ann Arbor. He was very explosive and very strong for his age, and had good offensive instincts.”
That’s why the Hurricanes didn’t hesitate in offering FAulk a three-year contract within days after he celebrated winning the national title.
For Justin Crandall, it spoiled a chance to renew acquaintances with a player he had grown up with.
“Once I committed, I was hoping to get the chance to play on the same team,” Crandall said.”Obviously, he made big strides quicly and moved on. It’s crazy to think six, seven years ago we were screwing around playing knee-hockey in our buddy’s basement and now he’s on the Olympic team. He’s very deserving.”
ALREADY AN NHL STANDOUT
Faulk excelled soon after making Carolina’s roster in teh fall of 2011. He had eight goals and 14 assists in his first season and was named to teh NHL-All Rookie Team. The 6-foot, 215-pounder followed that up with a five-goal, 10-assist season shortened to 38 games due to the NHL lockout.
He’s tallied three times this season and added 19 assists for a team with a 26-22-6 record that is on the outside looking in as fasr as the NHL playoffs go.
“My buddies let me know once in a while that hings are going well for me,” he said. “I’ve been lucky enough to have quite a bit of success so far and, obviously, am hoping that things will keep getting better and better.”
Faulk planned to return to Duluth and train for a week had he not bee selected to the Olympic team.
“He loves ccoming back to Duluth — that’s one of the thing I like about him,” Sandelin said. “He had a long future ahead of him. He hasn’t even hit his prime yet.”
Instead of sleeping on a former teammate’s couch, he’s housed in the Olympic Village. That’s a pretty good trade off.
“I love Duluth, but at the same time, I’m pretty happy to be headed to Russia,” Faulk said.
Story written by Rick Weegman, and printed in the Duluth News Tribune.