Early life tragedy steeled Justin Faulk for rise to NHL stardom
PHILADELPHIA — The stories make perfect sense now, all these years later, but Gail King felt they were a little bizarre at the time. Other than her son, she wondered, what other two-year-old would sit quietly at the local rink in South St. Paul, Minn., and watch his brother’s entire game, refusing to leave until the Zamboni cleaned the sheet while his peers played with mini-sticks in the hall? What other three-year-old, she thought, would wheel a toy lawnmower beside his father’s and spend entire afternoons pretending to cut the lawn, without giving up halfway through? Or what teenager would seem content chopping wood for hours at the family’s lakeside property? The kind of kid, she learned, who would become an NCAA national champion, an Olympian, and an alternate captain in the NHL before his 24th birthday.
“Looking back on them, it’s like, well, he had focus since he was very young,” King says.
There’s another tale King tells about her son, Carolina Hurricanes defenseman Justin Faulk: when she first took him skating. It was near the start of summer and Justin was around three years old. He hated the experience so much that King gave up and carried him around the ice instead. When summer ended, King tried once more. This time, Justin suddenly knew how to skate. He didn’t even need the metal skating trainer like all the other kids. For this one, King at least has an explanation. “He used to watch The Mighty Ducks over and over and over, like I don't know how many times a day,” she says. “We laughed and said he learned from watching Mighty Ducks how to skate.”
So thanks, Charlie Conway and Adam Banks, for helping to teach the blueliner who is now tracking toward history during his fifth NHL season. With a dozen power play goals scored by the regular schedule’s midway mark—actually, all of them came before Dec. 12, but Faulk hasn’t scored since—he could become the first defenseman ever to eclipse 20 in a single NHL season. The rest of the Hurricanes, for reference, have 10 power play goals combined; Faulk’s 54.5% share of the team-wide total would rank first all-time by a whopping margin.
Hockey had always commanded Faulk’s full attention. He played football and baseball growing up, but broke his arm on the gridiron in seventh grade and ditched what already felt like a secondary pursuit. He spent nights checking out local high school hockey games and memorized the statistics of players on the Minnesota Wild, the new NHL team that debuted in 2000 when Faulk was eight. By 13, as he made weekly treks to play for a year-round team in Wisconsin, he was giving his mother one more example of that laser-like concentration: At the first chance he had to leave, he told her, either for the U.S. National Development Team program in Michigan or some USHL squad in juniors, he was out the door.
“She was like, ‘Okay, whatever, haha, funny,’” Faulk recalls. “Then it came and I was like, ‘See ya.’ She said, ‘You weren’t lying to me, huh?’ I said, ‘Nope. Told ya.’”
Sitting in the lobby restaurant of the Philadelphia Ritz-Carlton, after practice with the Hurricanes on a road trip in mid-December, Faulk smiles. There’s a brightness about him, casual and mature at the same time. A second round pick (37th) by Carolina in 2010, Faulk is a leader on the league’s third youngest team, both in the locker room and in points (31) and even-strength assists (14). He is serious in his aims but relaxed in his disposition, able to brush aside bad games with sleep or a shower, able to have his four front teeth chipped in half by a best friend’s stick during open hockey and brush it off by saying, “If it wasn’t you, I would’ve punched you in the face.”
Together, these traits make Carolina head coach Bill Peters laugh when he says this:
“To me, he’s a little bit of an old soul for a 23-year-old.”
And make his mother drop her voice when she says this:
“Disappointments to a normal kid weren’t really a disappointment to him, because he had a true tragedy. It changes your level. When he was younger and a kid would be crying after they lost, he didn’t understand that. It’s just a game. Why are these little kids crying? Well, he was the same age as them, but he had been through something much worse in life.”
The family property was located along the water in Turtle Lake, Wis., a little over an hour from home in St. Paul. King’s parents used to own the land, but sold to King and Justin’s father and then moved a mile down the lake. Every summer weekend, relatives would pitch tents, park campers and party. It was the spot to be. Dirt bikes. Four-wheelers. Walleyes and muskies. King and Dale Faulk divorced when Justin was young, but the best memories of his father always took place there.
That’s all they are, though—memories, grainy like old film footage. One day, when Justin was seven years old, his mother and brother, David, picked him up early from school. “I’ve got to tell you something,” King told her son.
That day, David was supposed to have gone fishing at the lake with their dad. It was opening weekend and they wanted a head start. But the trip got canceled when Dale started feeling ill. And when Justin’s grandfather went to check on Dale, they found him unresponsive. At 37 years old, he had suffered a heart attack and died. David, five years older than his brother, took it the hardest, but Justin was still young. “It’s not fully clear,” Faulk says. “I remember the day I was told. But from then on … I mean, I couldn’t tell you how I reacted when I was seven years old.”
This part, he knows: The death of his father strengthened the bond with his mother. “We might’ve been forced because of the situation that was happening,” Faulk says, “but I couldn’t ask her for one thing and she says no and I could just run to my dad. She says no, it’s no. That’s the way it is. I’m honoring her answer. I’m sure there’s plenty of people who have grown up with one parent who have dealt with that situation. When you only have one person to lean on, you need them for things.”
In his mother, Faulk saw a hard-working woman who sometimes held two jobs and felt inspired to make her efforts count. If he was going to ask for new skates, he would research the best models and explain why buying bulk was more cost-effective. If he had free time, he would shoot pucks in the backyard, knowing that missing the nets meant chasing the pucks into the nearby ravine. “If I played terrible, whatever, didn’t do well in something, that was fine too,” Faulk says. “It was never like you need to play well, you need to do this. As long as we were having fun, that’s what mattered.
“Not everything’s perfect, not everything’s the way you want it to be. If things don’t go well, there’s another day to move on, get better. That’s hockey, life, whatever. Learn from things, grow from things. Can’t have what you want, can’t always get what you want. Tough s---, you know?”
The next night at Wells Fargo Center, teammate Jeff Skinner poured a hat trick on the Flyers, including the tying goal in the third period, on which Faulk had a secondary assist. But Philly’s Shayne Gostisbehere scored in overtime, giving the Flyers a 4–3 win and interrupting a hot streak that had seen the Hurricanes win four of their past five games. After eight wins in October and November combined, Carolina finished the calendar year with an 8-4-1 record in December and is still only six points out of second place in the clogged middle of the Metropolitan Division. The team is a work in progress, Faulk included. His skating and offensive skills are his strengths, and he’s a workhorse (logging 24-plus minutes per game) with a still untapped defensive upside.
“We want him to round out his game and become a guy who’s going to be in the Norris conversation for years to come,” Peters says. “He’s scratching on the surface, a little bit, for sure. He should be a guy who’s talked about. I would think he’ll have a shot to play in the World Cup for the U.S. He’s already been part of the 2014 Olympic team, so if we’re back in the Olympics, I’d think that’s back in his wheelhouse at that stage in his career.”
Indeed, Faulk has already accomplished plenty. He won gold at the Under-18 world championships in 2010, led all NCAA freshmen defensemen in scoring while winning a national title, and appeared with the United States during the Sochi Olympics, though not much. He has become a fixture in the community, partnering with a youth hockey program and launching an initiative to give tickets to the national guard, and was recently selected to his second straight NHL All-Star Game, the only representative of Carolina each time.
That type of rapid success, though, might not happen with the Hurricanes, but Faulk believes it eventually will. “Do you want to win now or do you want to win in two years, for 10 years?” he says. “You want to make sure you do it the right way. There’s always urgency to win. But at the same time you want to make sure you’re building something for the future and not sticking with winning today. Put in the work the right way, it’ll get rewarded.”
For proof of hope, Faulk points to a statistic he had recently heard, now updated through Carolina's overtime win over Columbus on Jan. 9, the team’s second straight: So far this season, the 11 Hurricanes players aged 23 or younger have accounted for 56.9% of Carolina’s goals, 53.2% of its points, and 61.9% of its first assists.
“On D, it’s 23 (Faulk), 18 (Noah Hanifin), 21 (Brett Pesce), 21 (Jacob Slavin), then we’ve got two dinosaurs at 34 (Ron Hainsey), 35 (John-Michael Liles),” Faulk says. "Friends with both of them so I can say it,” he clarifies, then continues. "We’re young and hopefully these players, these young guys can develop. I said this early in the year, someone asked me, ‘Do you think you’ll have a better season than last season?’ I hope, maybe not necessarily right away, but I hope I didn’t reach my peak at 23. If so, hopefully it’s long. If you plateau, hopefully it doesn’t fall down soon. Hopefully you stay there, at a minimum.”
He is focused on this. It’s the way he’s always been.