The NHL All-Star Game will be played in Raleigh this weekend. The event includes the NHL Wide Open festival in downtown tomorrow, a Rookie Skills Challenge, and the game itself on Sunday.
Three Hurricane players will be playing… Eric Staal and Cam Ward are well-established stars in the league… but beside them will be a newcomer… rookie Jeff Skinner, who leads all first-year players in scoring and has now become the youngest player in league history to make an all-star team.
The roar from 20,000 fans can still be heard, reverberating through the underground cement canyons of the RBC center, as Jeff Skinner comes around the corner of the ‘Canes locker room.
His appearance is striking, but not because he’s a hulking professional athlete. He’s not. He stands less than six feet tall, and is generously listed as weighing 193 pounds.
At 18, Skinner is the youngest player in the NHL. He looks about 15 - even younger when he’s eating an orange slice, which he is now.
But as everyone around him will tell you, Jeff Skinner is not your average 18-year old.
John Forslund: Here’s a chance, Skinner’s alone. SKINNER! SCORES! Jeff Skinner! With a beautiful move and the Canes are up by one. Tripp Tracy: You want to talk about moves! This was anything but teenager.
You would think Skinner has been preparing for these moments all his short life, but his Dad Andrew says he wasn’t a kid who was groomed from birth to do this.
"He wasn’t one of these kids who actively dreamt about being in the NHL and I think part of it was he was so busy with other sports."
One of those other sports was figure skating. Skinner was good enough to win a bronze medal at the 2004 Skate Canada Junior Nationals. But he decided to focus on hockey shortly after that, and at age 16 had a decision to make – play in Canada’s top junior league or go a route that would take him to college.
His parents are both attorneys and two of his sisters played at Cornell and Harvard, but he chose the route that would take him to the NHL the fastest.
So he became a Kitchener Ranger, and in two years, became a junior-league legend…
Announcer: SKINNER ON A PARTIAL BREAK!! SKINNER!! SCORES!! We called him the sophomore sensation, from now on you can call him Golden Boy!!
The Carolina Hurricanes took Skinner with the seventh pick in the amateur draft. Despite his reputation, many felt Skinner was too small and, ironically, not a good enough skater, to make the Canes roster this year.
Skinner responded by spending the summer with renowned NHL fitness guru Gary Roberts. He not only made the Canes’ roster, but he scored a shootout goal in his second game.
Announcer: And the first penalty shot in what could be a very long NHL career for young Jeff Skinner. Who walks in and makes no mistake. Carolina gets the early advantage.
A professional sports franchise doesn’t do anything without a plan. And the Canes plan for Jeff Skinner became clear when they put his locker right next to the team’s franchise player, Eric Staal.
"I mean I was the same when I came in as an 18-year old I sat right there, I’ve just moved over one, I’ve been sitting there my whole career, I sat right beside Rod Brind A’Mor and Ron Francis, so now I’m the old guy, I guess, and I moved over one and the new guy got to sit beside me. It’s fun to have his energy. I try to give him little tips as he goes, but he seems to be doing all right by himself."
It’s eight hours before the Hurricanes play the Toronto Maple Leafs… Jeff Skinner’s favorite team as a kid. He’s racing around the rink during the morning skate, a mischievous smile on his face most of the time. Skinner and Paul Maurice, his coach, laugh often in between drills.
A few minutes later, in the locker room, Maurice has nothing but praise for his 18-year old prodigy.
"He’s just brought up exceptionally well. And then I think he just loves playing. He spends most of the time doing everything with a smile on his face, this is a big thrill for him to be in the NHL, but he’s also got a pretty mean competitive streak in him, he wants to score. He barks at himself when he’s not going, he’ll protect himself a little but on the ice. So, we’re really excited about the whole package, not just the fact he puts the puck in the net or that he creates some offense for his linemates, this guy seems like the right kind of guy you hang onto for a long time."
The word “mature” come up a lot when people describe Skinner… He may look like an adolescent, but when he opens his mouth, he sounds like he’s been in this league forever.
Jeff Skinner: I think the best thing you can do is come in as prepared as you can and keep an open mind. Obviously, There’s a bunch of great players in here that I can sort of lean for experiences that they’ve been through and learn a lot about them. DeWitt: when you go about thinking on a day to day basis all the things you have to do to play professional hockey, are you able to sort of sit back and think, man this is pretty fun. You seem to smile a lot out there… are you having fun? Skinner: Yeah, definitely, any time you get to wake up in the morning and play hockey as your job, it’s a pretty cool experience.
When he first moved to Raleigh to begin the season, Jeff Skinner’s parents came with him to help him get settled. But they went back home after a few days, leaving Jeff to navigate his way through 6-4 defensemen on the ice and the pitfalls of being a professional athlete off it.
For the past few months, his Dad Andrew has settled in front of the TV on game nights and, from almost a thousand miles away, watched his teenage son play against grown men… some of whom have been in the league longer than Jeff has been alive.
"I don’t like to use the word surreal, but it is… it’s odd.. it’s difficult to describe what goes through your mind as a parent. We have a lot of confidence that Jeff’s going to do well, and do well by being an honest, hard worker, and continuing to want to improve."
Andrew Skinner is coming to Raleigh to watch his son Jeff play in his first All-Star Game this weekend. It likely won’t be his last.