Stu Bickel’s interactions with younger teammates late in his playing career brought him to the realization that he wanted to pursue coaching in his future.
After officially retiring as a player during the 2017-18 season, Bickel has since made large strides in his young coaching career. After serving two years as an assistant at the University of Minnesota, Bickel was introduced as head coach of the Minnesota Magicians of the North American Hockey League on June 16, 2020.
“I was in San Diego [with the AHL Gulls] and I started to really enjoy being around the young players that were coming into the American League, developing and trying to move on to the NHL,” Bickel said. “That was somewhere I had already been for a little bit. Helping pass along as much as I could to those guys was something I really enjoyed.
“It was something I started to feel really passionate about and, right at the end of my playing career, I knew that was something I wanted to move into.”
Bickel, a 33-year-old from Chanhassen, Minnesota, played 76 games in three seasons in the National Hockey League with the New York Rangers and Minnesota Wild. He played 51 of those games as a rookie with the Rangers in 2011-12 when he also appeared in 18 of the team’s 20 Stanley Cup playoff games in a season that ended in the conference finals.
Prior to his 10-year professional career, Bickell played high school hockey at Eden Prairie High School. He made the jump to junior hockey in 2005-06, splitting the season between the Southern Minnesota Express (NAHL) and Green Bay Gamblers (USHL). After winning a USHL Clark Cup championship in 2007, Bickel played college hockey at the University of Minnesota for one season.
Bickel not only was able to begin his coaching career at his alma mater as graduate assistant coach under veteran head coach Bob Motzko, but was also able to complete his degree in Communications with the Gophers.
“His charisma and his competitiveness as a person, his desire to be a leader, was very attractive to our ownership and our organization,” Magicians general manager A.J. Bucchino said.
Bickel hopes to take an area in which he gained experience with the Gophers and make sure it is a prominent part of the coaching staff the Magicians put together.
“At the University of Minnesota, a lot of my focus was on the player development aspect of coaching — the individual development, the video, the before and after practice skill work that guys are doing,” said Bickel, who also played 310 games for eight teams during 10 seasons in the AHL, the NHL’s top minor league, and 25 games in two seasons in the lower-level ECHL. “Doing that sort of thing is something that I have done a lot with our guys at the U of M in the past and it’s something that I want to make sure that these guys here have an opportunity to do.
“We’re going to be hiring a coach, adding to our staff, somebody that can add to that part of individual player development. That’s a big part of my coaching philosophy: We’ve got to coach individuals, rather than just focusing on team drills and systems.”
As far as how the team will look, Bickel does have a style in mind.
“We’re going to be very up-tempo,” Bickel said. “The game has gotten quicker and, with that, I think you have to have players that not only can move quickly, but can react to things quickly and make decisions quickly.
“That’s something that we will be putting a lot of emphasis on. Can this player skate and can he play with tempo? We want to play north. I’m not huge on east-west hockey. I want to get that puck moving north and get it moving toward the opposing net.”
Bucchino remains as general manager, but instead of a dual role that includes head coach, he has been named president of the team that he guided to a 21-23-6-3 record in the shortened 2019-20 season.
“The organization knew that we’re growing and we’re moving in the right direction,” Bucchino said. “The organization is in the best position it has been in the going on eight years of its existence.
“In order to consistently be a winning program and produce college athletes, we need to grow as an army. Part of my strength in the organization is generating hockey programming and revenue, attracting talent on the junior level all the way down to our U15 level.
“I feel that my strengths would be more in a managerial role. Ownership agreed. Then, being able to put someone in place like Stu, who could focus on the coaching and pinpoint that, we feel we have more people on board and the organization is ready to invest and grow.”
Bucchino sees Bickel maintaining the passion of a player and sees himself taking a coaching mindset to his more wide-ranging role.
“The coach is definitely still in me,” he said, “but, I’m going to do everything in my power to help the organization collectively. If that means, being a GM and president and managing the operations, that’s what I will do.”
The changes come with one goal, to make the team in the suburb of Richfield into a force in the hockey-mad environment in and around the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul.
“One thing about us is that is we do try to dominate in our market,” Bucchino said. “Stu being a Minnesota-born player, having played in our league and having coached for two years at the University of Minnesota, where there are a lot of players aspiring to be, we thought his playing experience, his coaching experience and his strong character would be a great fit for our brand and our culture.”
After a decade of bouncing around the United States with various professional teams, Bickel feels fortunate to have launched his coaching career close to home.
“Being here in the Twin Cities where I have a lot of hockey connections, it has helped to make that transition go smoothly,” he said. “I wanted to get the best opportunity. It just happens to be here, so I’m very fortunate to be able to stay here and be around my family.”
The Magicians made an additional front office move as Gaven Bickford was promoted to director of player personnel.
“As long as I’ve been a part of the organization, Gaven has been there,” Bucchino said. “He’s earned everything he has gotten in our organization.
“He’s truly proved to be the director of player personnel, based on his execution of recruiting strong talent, being loyal, being reliable and just showing passion in areas of the organization that we need.”
Bickford, who will also continue in the role of assistant coach that he held the previous two seasons, will be responsible for recruiting and roster-building.
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.