From the early 1990s well into the 2000s, not much hockey happened in Markham without a Skinner involved.
Today, Jeff Skinner is a 25-year-old already in his eighth NHL season who’s desperately trying to help his Carolina Hurricanes make their first playoff appearance of his career. A relatively short time ago, though, he was one of six Skinner kids who logged all kinds of time at the local arena either playing actual hockey on the ice or some modified version of the game around the rink.
Skinner has three older sisters — Erica and twins Jennifer and Andrea — and an older brother, Ben. He also has a younger sister, Jillian, and the entire six-pack figure skated and played hockey growing up.
“I got to go to the rink and play mini-sticks and watch them play,” says Skinner, who still cherishes those early memories of getting into a little trouble around the rink.
Ben actually played hockey with another Markham product, Steven Stamkos, and when Skinner was quite young — he’s two years the junior of Ben and Stamkos — all three played soccer together around the town Skinner continues to be connected to.
“My parents still live there, I’m back there all the time in the summer,” he says of Markham, where Rogers Hometown Hockey makes a stop this weekend.
Of course, when you excel at hockey the way Skinner did, you find new, adopted homes at a young age. The left winger was only 18 years old when he made the Hurricanes just a few months after Carolina drafted him seventh overall in the summer of 2010.
Skinner acknowledged he was a little intimidated upon arriving in camp, but he soon settled in and earned the trust of coach Paul Maurice through the exhibition schedule. He cracked the opening night roster and spent most of the season playing beside Finns Jussi Jokinen and Tuomo Ruutu.
The result was a rookie-of-the-year showing in which Skinner bagged 31 goals and 32 assists. In fact, the only player aged 20 or younger who popped more goals than Skinner that season was his old Markham pal, Stamkos, who had 45.
“There was just a good fit with who the team had and who I got to play with,” he says.
Carolina narrowly missed the playoffs that spring, but 25 games into the next campaign, Maurice was canned and Skinner — perhaps for the first time in his young career — faced some personal adversity when he was sidelined for two months with a concussion. Head injuries hampered him over the next couple years, occasionally forcing him to the sidelines.
The team, meanwhile, continued to flounder, with or without Skinner in the lineup. The adversity was not fun in the moment, but did serve a purpose.
“Those things, when you look back, are often when you learn the most,” says Skinner, who hasn’t missed time for concussion-related reasons since October 2014.
Last season, Skinner scored a career-high 37 goals and, if he can get hot during the final six weeks of this year, will end up right around the 30-goal barrier again this year. Carolina has also shown signs of improvement as young players like left winger Sebastian Aho and defenceman Noah Hanifin have helped the club sniff a playoff spot this year, while offering hope for better things down the line.
Though still a couple months shy of his 26th birthday, Skinner admits he now sometimes feels like an old young guy on the club.
“It wasn’t that long ago — or, at least, it doesn’t seem like that long ago — where I was the youngest on the team,” he laughs, adding he’s tried to provide guidance to young players the way veterans of a previous generation did when he joined the team. “It’s cool to take on that new role.”
Another change Skinner would welcome: That first taste of playoff hockey.
“That’s why you play the game, really,” he says.
And wouldn’t it be something to, one day, bring a certain shiny trophy back with him on one of those summer trips home to Markham.