MINNEAPOLIS -- The crowd was still roaring as New York Rangers defenseman Stu Bickel searched, briefly, for his helmet and gloves on the ice of Madison Square Garden early in the afternoon of Super Bowl Sunday, 2012. Bickel, a few years removed from his lone season with the Minnesota Gophers, had just finished a brief scrap with Wayne Simmonds of the Philadelphia Flyers, and the sellout crowd at the world’s most famous arena was loving it.
As Bickel took a seat in the penalty box for five minutes of solitude, the video screens high above the ice flashed a scene from the 1976 classic Martin Scorsese movie “Taxi Driver,” where Robert De Niro played a New Yorker prone to fits of violence named Travis Bickle (no relation). On the big screen, De Niro sneered into a mirror in an iconic scene, practicing his tough guy lines. “You talkin’ to me?” he asked. “You talkin’ to ME?” And the crowd roared its approval again and again.
Less than a decade later, things are much quieter in Stu Bickel’s hockey world. On a Thursday afternoon in the spring, he talked of his recently completed degree in communications, which technically took a dozen years, but was finished with just three full years of school work. Like many recent college grads in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic that has turned so much of normal life upside down, Bickel is looking for a coaching job remotely, and those who know him well like his prospects.
“He wants to be a coach and he’s going to be a hell of a coach. He has that presence with the players and loves the one-on-one instruction. He had their respect, and he’s a tiger on the ice with the guys,” said Gophers head coach Bob Motzko, who had Bickel on his staff as a student assistant for the past two seasons. “He’s willing to go wherever he needs to go to get a foot in the door in coaching, and once he gets in, he will rise quickly.”
Rising quickly, and those plays with the gloves off, were hallmarks of Bickel’s on-ice days. He was a forward at Eden Prairie High School and for half a season in the United States Hockey League, where college offers were few. After another half-season in the North American Hockey League and a switch to defense, Bickel went to an open tryout for the USHL’s Sioux Falls Stampede, and decided to try a new, more aggressive use of his 6-4 frame to find a roster spot. The first chance he had to fight, he took it, and made the team.
“That ended up kind of being a role I carved out for myself,” Bickel recalled of the season he was among the penalty minutes leaders in the USHL. “It definitely wasn’t all I was doing because I knew that I wanted to play college hockey and obviously you can’t fight in college. But to find my role on a junior team, that was part of it. I don’t regret doing it at all. I think it helped me when I did get into pro hockey to have a little bit of that experience.”
The Gophers were coming off a few seasons where they had seen talented players like Erik Johnson, Phil Kessel and Kyle Okposo bolt for pro hockey after one full season. Then-coach Don Lucia liked the idea of bringing in an older freshman like Bickel for his on-ice presence, and expecting he would stick around for four years.
“We liked the fact that he brought some toughness, he was older, he could play wing or defense and had some versatility to him,” Lucia said. “He certainly added an element of toughness to that team. Stu wasn’t afraid to say ‘f-you’ plus he was a good student. Stu was always soft-spoken, but he got on the rink and his personality would change. My only disappointment was that we only had him for one year.”
Indeed, after that solid 2007-08 season with the Gophers during which he carried a 4.0 GPA, an offer to play for a paycheck in the Anaheim Ducks system presented itself, and Bickel saw it as a natural next step in his career.
“I kind of had the attitude that I wanted to keep climbing as much as I could, challenge myself, push myself to take it to the next level always,” he said. “When the opportunity arose to sign, I was already a 21-year-old. I played two years after high school in the USHL, so I really wasn’t that young compared to the other rookies that were going to be going to the AHL. It was a combination of things, but I felt it was my time to move forward.”
He spent the next three seasons bouncing between the AHL and ECHL before getting in 51 games and playing in the Winter Classic in 2011-12 with the Rangers. Later Bickel signed as a free agent with the hometown Minnesota Wild, and got in nine more games at the NHL level before finishing his career with San Diego in the AHL. With injuries and concussions mounting, and facing the prospect of back surgery, Bickel listened to his body and hung up the pads two years ago, when he was 31.
“I’d been cut apart and put back together a couple times already. For me it wasn’t going to be worth doing another surgery,” he said. “I started thinking about life going forward, and without the surgery I didn’t feel like I was going to be able to get back to skating at 100 percent. So it kind of forced me into the decision a little bit.”
So he came back to Minnesota, signed on to be a student assistant with Motzko, and jumped headfirst into getting his degree, and a permanent coaching job. Outside the classroom, Bickel has learned that there are nuances to coaching that players don’t always see, and shared his newfound knowledge with his former Rangers coach.
“You realize pretty quickly when you get into coaching that you didn’t learn as a player, that maybe you thought you knew when you were playing,” Bickel said. “I had a talk with John Tortorella recently, after I got into coaching and explained that it kind of opens your eyes to some things.”
For now, Bickel is working the phones, getting his name out to teams that have openings on their coaching staff, and looking forward to rinks re-opening so he can get back on the ice. During all of the down time, he hasn’t yet watched “Taxi Driver” but has vowed to do so before too long.
“I still haven’t seen the movie,” Bickel said with a smile. “I’ve got to get it in.”