Wild veterans OK with being ‘road warriors’

by Tom Witosky | AHL On The Beat

Justin Falk wondered who could be pounding on his apartment door at this hour.
Falk looked at his watch after waking up following a long day at the rink and helping his wife, Karissa, take care of their six-month-old daughter, Pressley. It read 11:45 p.m.
Falk had gone to bed early and made sure he had turned off his cell phone to get a good night sleep.
“We go to bed early when we can,” Falk said.
Falk opened the door to find Iowa Wild teammate Stu Bickel, who is also a neighbor, standing there.
Bickel told Falk that he had just received a telephone call from the Minnesota Wild and that he and Falk had been just called up to the NHL team. Not only that, but the two of them had to catch a flight to Boston early the next morning where they would join the team. Of course, that meant the two defensemen immediately had to go down to Wells Fargo Arena to pick up their gear, and get back home for a few hours of sleep before going to the airport.
If there are two members of the Iowa Wild who deserve the “Road Warrior” title, it’s Bickel and Falk. The two veteran hockey players have spent considerable time this season driving up and down I-35 to play in the NHL as well as the AHL. Combined, the two players have been called up and sent down a total of nine times (Falk, 5 times, Bickel, 4, mostly recently recalled on Tuesday).
Both acknowledged that the experience of driving Interstate 35 has been different from most of their seasons in professional hockey.
“I have never done the amount that I have done this year,” said Falk, who has played 218 American Hockey League games and 143 NHL games over the last six seasons either for Minnesota or the New York Rangers. “It’s a nice easy trip with the teams so close to each other. It makes it a lot easier.”
Bickel, like Falk, has spent his six seasons split among various minor league teams, including 21 games with the Iowa Chops his first professional season, and 105 games in the NHL with the Wild and the Rangers since then.
“I haven’t done a lot of up and down kind of stuff because usually I am either up or down,” Bickel said. “So this is a bit different. But, I have changed teams a lot over the years so I am used to that part of it.”
Both players signed one-year, two-way contracts with Minnesota prior to the 2014-15 season as part of the club’s rebuilding of the Iowa roster. But injuries and illness in Minnesota have also meant they had to spend a lot of time with the NHL club.
Falk said that the uncertainty has played a bit of havoc with his family life. His wife and daughter have traveled with him at times, but there are times when the family just can’t be together.
“It’s unfortunate that we haven’t been together as much as I like,” he said. “My daughter can ease the pain of a minus-2 night pretty quickly.”
Falk said that he has become used to the travel up and down I-35 and when he is with the family returning to Des Moines will stop along the way.
“We’ve stopped at the Perkins’ a few times in Mason City,” he said. “We don’t always hurry.”
Bickel, on the other hand, makes the trip as quickly as he can no matter which way he is going.
“Straight through is really the only way I do it,” he said.
As veteran hockey players, Falk and Bickel said they understand their roles as players who go up to fill in a spot on the NHL roster or down to fill a spot on the AHL roster.
“The reason we are here is because we are competitive,” Falk said. “We have passed a lot of players to get to this level because we have that competitive edge and are going to use it no matter where we are.”
Bickel agreed, saying that the Iowa Wild’s difficulties winning early in the season has forced him to focus more, and less on those things that he knows can get him back to Minnesota. At the same time, Bickel said that his success as a team member in Iowa can only help in achieving his ultimate goal.
“Getting back to the NHL is the lone goal,” Bickel said. “Success goes hand in hand, so if I can help the team here and continue to play positively down here, that will just help me get back up there.”
Falk said that frustration over the team’s winning woes early in the season are different than the frustration they are feeling now as the team’s performance each game is so markedly better.
“Now, we give ourselves a chance every night,” the 26-year-old native of Snowflake, Manitoba said. “It took us a while to learn how to be competitive and to be involved in the game every night. Now we are learning how to finish off the games we are in.”
Falk acknowledged that the frustration is high in the locker room, but also said that is sign of a team still fighting to get into the playoffs.
“You want [frustration] to be high because you don’t want it to turn into ‘oh, here we go again,’” Falk said. “We care and we all understand it is our career – our job. If we are going to roll over, then you aren’t going to last too long.”
As veterans on one-year contracts, both men also know that time is becoming a consideration in their career.
“When you are young and come into the league, you figure there is going to be lots of time no matter what,” Falk said. “But losing doesn’t help anybody and the older guys feel it more. You need to have team success as well as individual success if you want to move up.”
Bickel put it simply.
“You don’t sit around and hope to make it back up,” Bickel said. “You have to put the work in and stay with it.”