Justin Faulk has been waiting for this.
Waiting for nearly 550 games. Waiting for eight seasons, since he broke into the NHL as a 19-year-old defenseman out of South St. Paul, Minnesota. Waiting as he watched players from his draft class in 2010 and the U.S. national teams on which he competed all get their moment in the Stanley Cup playoffs, while his Carolina Hurricanes finished outside the postseason every season of his career.
Finally, the wait could be over for Faulk. The Hurricanes are in the first wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference, and Money Puck has them at 92.37 percent to make the playoffs.
We spoke with Faulk this week about that drought, about the new owner and coach of the Hurricanes, and about the elaborate celebration he took part in recently that referenced a classic video game.
ESPN: You haven’t been to the playoffs in your career, which has to be one of the longest streaks in the NHL. How difficult has that been for you?
Justin Faulk: It’s definitely been tough. It’s actually easier earlier in your career. You’re naïve, and you’re just playing the game. You don’t necessarily understand what’s going on around you, and you’re just trying to get your feet wet and make a name for yourself. As it goes on, you’re thinking about it more and more, right? You want success. It’s not fun being on a team that’s not winning. I could tell you that personally. Doing worlds [the IIHF world championship, where Faulk has played three times for Team USA] isn’t a replacement. It doesn’t make it better.
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ESPN: Do you watch the playoffs when you’re not in them?
Faulk: They only time I’m not is if I’m out on the boat fishing. And then it would be at a little bar afterward, as I’m getting off the water. [Laughs] It doesn’t ruin my day. I’m not necessarily a jealous person who wants to sit and sulk. I like hockey for what it is, and that’s the intensity and the physicality and the grind of it. That’s what the playoffs are. No one’s going to feel sorry for me, and I’m not going to sit there and be mad at the game of hockey because I didn’t make the playoffs.
ESPN: Games like you had recently against Pittsburgh, when you rallied for a win in front of a loud crowd, have been few and far between late in the season for Carolina. What’s the atmosphere like these days? Games aren’t selling out, but it seems like the intensity is there.
Faulk: They’re loud. Obviously, it’s better than what it’s been for the last few years. We haven’t played the playoffs since I’ve been here, but in that lockout-shortened season, we averaged over 17,000, I think. Traded for Jordan Staal, signed [Alex] Semin and came out of the gate strong. And then fell off a cliff, obviously. But every night was pretty much sold out. The building can be loud, which is a testament to the fans, because even when it’s not sold out, it can be really loud in there.
ESPN: You’ve been there for a bit. If you could diagnose how to increase the fan base, what does the team need?
Faulk: People can see that this year we’re doing things that are a little bit different than the norm for hockey. But what it comes down to is winning. Being in a playoff spot will bring more fans in, but we’re in a playoff spot right now, and we’re not selling out. With the many years of not succeeding, that’s driven some fans away. And you could be in the best market, and if you don’t win, fans won’t show up. It’s going to take a while to build that back up. Hopefully if we’re in a playoff spot at the end of the regular season, they’ll come out and support us. But we understand there’s a lot of work to be done.
ESPN: How did life change for you when Rod Brind’Amour took over as coach?
Faulk: Not too much. Roddy’s been here since I’ve been here. He was here part time when I started, and so I’ve been around him as he’s evolved and become a head coach. I think Roddy and I have a good relationship. We can talk to each other, say what we think. I think he knows how to get me going, knows how to handle me pretty well. Him taking over hasn’t been too much different for me.
ESPN: I spoke to [owner] Tom Dundon before the season, and he felt that the roster you guys had was good enough but just needed someone like Rod Brind’Amour to motivate it. Is that how things played out? Just having a different voice after Bill Peters?
Faulk: Coaches end up taking the blame for the players in a lot of cases. Coaches get fired if players aren’t performing, and if players are playing up to expectations, coaches don’t get fired. But firing someone is usually the easiest option, because you can’t trade the entire team overnight.
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All Roddy’s asked is for us to work hard, and he respects that. Everyone thinks Roddy’s a tough guy that’ll give you a kick in the ass and get you going, but it’s not like that exactly. It’s more so the opposite: He expects you to work hard, and if you do, then he has your back. You can make some bad plays out there, but if you’re working your nuts off, he’s completely on board with you. It wasn’t hard to get guys to buy into that. If a mistake happens, and you’re working hard, he’ll bring it up, but he’s not trying to punish you for it. It’s not that hard-ass mentality. It’s a game of mistakes. The other team makes them too. Roddy understands that. So that makes it easy to come in every day and put in the hard work.
To be honest, that comes naturally to most players. We had to work to get here. It’s about doing that on a consistent basis.
ESPN: Tell me why you and Brett Pesce work so well together as a defensive pairing.
Faulk: No idea.
ESPN: [Laughs] None? No clue?
Faulk: Nope … but I’m happy he took the left side. I haven’t played the left side since college, and I don’t think he has either. But it’s pretty easy: If we just get switched out there, we stay, with one of us on our natural side and one of us not on it. I don’t know, I think he plays a simple game. He’s steady and consistent, and that’s what you want out of a “D” partner. Just someone that you know what you’re getting out of him every night in certain situations. I just try to offer the same thing. That’s the key with “D” pairings: You have to find a way to make it simple out there for him. Now, once in a while I get a little crazy and join the rush. But he’s cool with that.
ESPN: With you, Brett, Jaccob Slavin, Dougie Hamilton, Calvin de Haan and others, you’re so loaded on the blue line. Is there ever any talk about the idea that one of you is going to be moved eventually for help up front? That’s the perception from the outside, but do you guys talk about it internally?
Faulk: You’d have to ask each guy. It’s a business. I understand. Dougie’s been on a few teams, so he understands that side of things. Brett’s smart enough to know about it too. We’re just here to do our thing. That stuff’s not up to us. Basic cliché answer: It is what it is.
My thing is always that there are plenty of the best players ever that didn’t just play for one team. Wayne Gretzky got traded. None of us are sitting here thinking we’re better than that.
ESPN: Finally, I’m blessed to speak to you after you participated in one of the most elaborate Storm Surge celebrations in Hurricanes history, in which you and Micheal Ferland played “Duck Hunt” on the Jumbotron after the win over the Penguins.
Duck Hunt Storm Surge! �� pic.twitter.com/K07Ctjdjs6 – Carolina Hurricanes (@NHLCanes) March 20, 2019
Faulk: Oh, yeah [laughs].
ESPN: That was pretty elaborate. What’s the backstory there?
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Faulk: They wanted me to get involved in one somehow. So I suggested we do a duck hunt, with me and Ferls between the benches. I don’t come up with any of these ideas. I’m usually just told what to do in these situations. I brought it up the day of the Penguins game, brought up a video of the old NES game “Duck Hunt.” We were laughing about it. Someone said we should put it on the Jumbotron, and it just took off from there.
It looks like there’s always a ton of planning that [goes] into [the celebrations], but there really isn’t. It’s like, the morning of. In the pregame meal, someone will ask what we should do that night, and we just pick an idea in about five minutes. It gets thrown together. The production team got involved in this one a little bit. It’s just a fun thing to do after games … even if, obviously, there’s some controversy with it. But we don’t care too much about that.
ESPN: C’mon. Don Cherry going after you has to be a career achievement for you guys.
Faulk: I guess all we need is for him to come out with those old VHS tapes and we’ll be a part of them.