NEWARK, N.J. – For just a moment, Stu Bickel soaked it all in.
Scars on his body, cuts on his hands and sweat dripping down his face, the 25-year-old defenseman was taking in the scene in the visiting locker room at the Prudential Center in Newark. They were the markings of a man who’d taken the hard road to the National Hockey League, and the sight of someone perhaps slightly in awe of his surroundings.
Bickel, having played in the ECHL just last season with the Elmira Jackals, is slated to make his NHL debut tonight with the New York Rangers.
And while he’s had to wait a while to make that debut, he even had to wait a little longer to get to his locker at the morning skate, as he drew the unfortunate position of having a stall close to media darling Henrik Lundqvist, who was predictably surrounded by local scribes.
It’s safe to say the locker room at the XL Center in Hartford is a little less congested.
Once the media presence around his All-Star teammate died down, the rugged Blueshirts blueliner was asked to describe the emotions he was feeling heading into tonight’s contest against the New Jersey Devils.
"Excited, that’s probably the best way to describe it," said Bickel, who also played with the Bakersfield Condors in 2009-10.
"I’m going to try not to overthink it and try to just go out and play my game."
With the Rangers defensive core ravaged by injuries — Steve Eminger is the latest casualty, while Jeff Woywitka will be a game-time decision — both Bickel and rookie Tim Erixon were summoned from AHL Connecticut yesterday.
"That’s a position that we’re in a little bit of flux, with all the injuries," said Rangers head coach John Tortorella.
"We’re going to watch him, but it goes with all our team, as far as when you get into the middle part of a game and what situations we’re going to put him in. With Bick, it’s his first game. He had a really good camp. That position is the toughest position and we’re certainly going to try to help him to just to calm himself down if he’s in a situation and just make simple plays until he gets his feet underneath him."
According to Tortorella, the system that Ken Gernander runs in Hartford is "basically the same" as what he runs, so Bickel should have a smooth transition in his first game. For some of his veteran teammates, like gritty winger Brandon Prust, they’ll be in charge of making sure the butterflies don’t last long.
"We’ll always just be talking to him and making sure he feels loose and that he knows it’s the same game out there, just a little bigger stage," Prust said. "I’m sure he’ll be fine."
Tortorella added: "We don’t want to fill his mind with a bunch of thoughts, we want him to go for it. Then we’ll help him along the way."
Bickel was impressive during an extended look in the pre-season, and was among the last defensemen cut, even traveling with the Rangers to Europe for their season-opening "World Premiere" trip.
"I think he’s going to add a good, physical presence out there," Prust said. "He’s a big body, and he plays really hard. He’ll be a good addition to our back-end."
After one collegiate season at the University of Minnesota, Bickel went undrafted, but signed a three-year deal with the Anaheim Ducks prior to the start of the 2008-09 season. He played in 21 games that year, all for the AHL’s Iowa Chops, so it was a bit of a surprise when he found himself playing with the Condors the following season.
"It was tough, but that was kind of a weird situation because Anaheim didn’t have an AHL affiliate (that year)," he said.
"Most of their prospects started up there and the got picked up by other AHL teams along the way, so that’s what ended up happening for me."
Bickel, who described his time with Bakersfield as "brief, but enjoyable" — he played in 24 regular season games and nine Kelly Cup Playoff games — was languishing a bit in the Ducks system, however.
He played in six games with AHL Syracuse and was even sent down for a game to the Jackals before ultimately being dealt to the New York Rangers on Nov. 23, 2010 in exchange for Nigel Williams.
"It was great to just get a change of scenery and start fresh with a new organization," he said. "Obviously, I feel like I’ve been given more of an opportunity with these guys, and I feel like I’ve taken advantage of that."
Bickel came out strong this pre-season, and left a lasting impression on his teammates and coaching staff. But despite all that, the Rangers had previously claimed Woywitka on waivers and called up Erixon and veteran Brendan Bell.
The Chanhassen, Minn. native insists, however, that he never let himself think this moment might not happen for him.
"You’ve got to stay patient when you’re playing in the American League, and I knew that if I just kept bringing my game every night, that it would end well, and that’s what happened."
Bickel is expected to become the 478th player to graduate from the ECHL to the NHL when the puck drops at the Prudential Center at 7:05 p.m. tonight.