The attendant checking tickets in their section at the hockey game wondered why the little boy was wearing a surgical mask.
A rare blood cancer, his mother said. Langerhans cell histiocytosis is an autoimmune disorder that sends the production of white blood cells into overdrive and tumors spreading across the body.
But Chase Bass, then 7, wanted to go to a Carolina Hurricanes game. And, here, he made this card out of green construction paper for his favorite player, Jeff Skinner.
“I don’t know what you’re going to do with it,” Tonya Bass said, handing the card to the attendant, assuming it might end up in the trash.
But the woman handed it to someone else, who gave it to someone else, and while this was happening, the ’Canes sent a representative into the stands to give Chase a puck and move the family to better seats. After the game, as the family captured on video, Skinner emerged from the locker room with the green construction paper card in his hand.
He found Chase and offered a signed photograph in return.
“Jeff really made an impact on us that day when he had that card and told Chase, ‘Thank you,’ ” Tonya said. “Because who thinks a construction paper card is going to go anywhere? You really don’t.”
'You want to play where you're wanted'
Skinner spent his first eight seasons with Carolina after being drafted seventh overall in 2010. He became the youngest All-Star in NHL history at 18. But the ’Canes never made the playoffs during his tenure, and with one season remaining on his contract and no long-term extension on the horizon, the forward waived his no-move clause in August, approving a trade to the Buffalo Sabres for prospect Cliff Pu and draft picks.
“Buffalo was the only trade that was brought to me,” Skinner told The Buffalo News last week, after skating with his new teammates for the first time, “so I waived it specifically to come here, because you just look at the young core, and it was clear that Buffalo wanted me, and that’s something that weighs into the situation pretty heavily because you want to play where you’re wanted.”
Sabres players report to camp Thursday, and the first practice is Friday.
The deal gives Skinner, a native of Markham, Ont., just north of Toronto, a fresh start and brings him closer to home. And while the 26-year-old is scheduled to hit free agency next offseason, barring a new contract, he’s looking to put down roots. Skinner’s father has accompanied him house-hunting, and it won’t be the last time his family visits town.
Skinner, the second-youngest of six children, was raised alongside four sisters and an older brother. All played hockey. He started skating at 2. He started playing when he was 3. He said his earliest hockey memory, when he was 4 or 5, not much younger than Chase Bass, is getting tangled in the net while playing goalie.
“I didn’t really like playing goalie,” Skinner said. “I used to skate around because I got bored, and my helmet got stuck in the net a couple of times. As a little kid, I guess you kind of freak out, so that’s actually a traumatic experience. I guess that’s why I remember it.”
When he wasn’t figure skating, earning a bronze medal at the 2004 Skate Canada Junior Nationals, he played offense from that point forward.
A fan for life
Chase, the second-youngest of six children, lives in the small town of Richlands, N.C., not far from the beach and Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune.
“Little hillbilly country,” Tonya called it.
The Basses were not a hockey family.
But her husband Leon’s sister, Lisa, lives in Raleigh, and she always talked about taking the kids to a Hurricanes game. One day in 2016, she finally bought tickets and ’Canes T-shirts for the group.
Chase happened to receive a Skinner shirt, and the family sat in the stands, taking in a new sport, enthralled by the energy in the building.
“We didn’t want to be those people that just came to a hockey game and had no clue what we were doing, which we were,” Tonya said. “We were those people. We were Googling the rules during the hockey game.”
Later, the family attended the “Caniac Carnival,” a free fan event before the start of each season. Skinner signed Chase’s shirt, and the little boy was a fan for life.
No one knew how long that might be.
Chase received his diagnosis on Sept. 15, 2016. Aside from all the tests and treatment, the Bass family’s focus turned toward ensuring his comfort and happiness.
Hockey provided a joyful distraction. Skinner became his hero.
Photos show Chase clutching a stuffed Jeff Skinner doll at the hospital.
“I think we were all in a position before when we were younger kids and fans of the game,” Skinner said, “and you remember looking up to certain players and dreaming about being in their shoes one day, and as you get a chance to play in the NHL, you realize sort of the tables turned and you’re able to provide some of that excitement or be a role model for younger kids, and that’s always a cool feeling.”
Taking it to the street
With Chase’s tumors spreading, his doctor at Duke University Hospital reached out to the Make-A-Wish Foundation, a nonprofit organization that arranges once-in-a-lifetime experiences for children with life-threatening diseases.
But Chase wasn’t interested.
“Chase was like, ‘I don’t want a wish,’ ” Tonya said. “His words were, ‘Wishes are something that don’t come true. Dreams are something that you make happen. But you have to work for them.’ Those are Chase’s words. He didn’t want to make a wish.
“And it’s like, ‘Buddy, are you sure?’ And he’s like, ‘I don’t want it, I don’t want it.’ "
“And the lady reached out to us again and was like, ‘Look, let me explain this to him. He can get anything he wants to do. He can go to Disneyworld. He can do anything.’ ”
Eventually, Tonya recounts, Chase relented. Though he couldn’t skate, he had an idea.
“Chase looks at her and goes, ‘I want to play street hockey with Jeff Skinner.’
“And she goes, ‘Huh?’ ”
The Hurricanes made it happen.
Skinner and several teammates joined Chase for a game of street hockey in the arena parking lot in January 2017.
“Jeff Skinner and the ’Canes brought us together and gave us something to look forward to,” Tonya said. “It wasn’t about a hospital anymore or being stuck getting labs or IVs or anything like that. At that time, it was just about making Chase happy and seeing Jeff play, and seeing these guys give up their time – I don’t know too many people that will give up their time to play street hockey with a little kid. It was Jeff Skinner, Jordan Stahl, Sebatian Aho, Jaccob Slavin, Cam Ward. All five of them gave up their time, and Jeff made sure Chase felt like he was important that day, and it was tremendous.”
Skinner talked to Chase in the locker room about hockey and monster trucks, played on the little boy’s team and helped set him up for goals.
Nine of them.
“It definitely puts things in perspective,” Skinner said. “You realize how fortunate you are to be able to play hockey and come to the rink every day as a job, and when you get a chance to impact someone in a positive way like that, especially someone that’s going through a tough time, and provide a little positive energy or inspiration for someone, it’s always something that you have to be grateful for and something that you just have to remember how fortunate you are to be in that position. For me, that’s the thing that stands out the most, is just sort of being grateful to be in a position where you can take on that role.
“Every kid that plays hockey, and then every player that gets to play at a higher level or gets to continue playing past a certain point, they all have the same sort of roots in playing outside or playing in basements or playing street hockey, and in their spare time, sort of stick handling pucks and all that stuff, so it’s always fun to go back to that. And when you add in the situation, I think it made for a fun day.”
Tonya was overjoyed.
“That,” she said, “was the most amazing day ever.”
A new opportunity
Skinner counted Rod Brind’Amour as a mentor.
The fellow Canadian played 20 seasons in the NHL, leading the Hurricanes to their first Stanley Cup in 2006, and the franchise retired his number during Skinner’s rookie season.
“That was pretty cool to be able to witness that and experience that,” Skinner said. “He’s a pretty big legend in Carolina, as he is throughout the league, but I also admire what he’s done in that community and organization there, and to be able to have that quality of a person and player, it’s cool to be around. He was an assistant coach the last few years for me, so any time you’re around people like that, who have had that type of success and for a reason, it’s fun to draw off that.”
But the relationship appears to have soured. Brind’Amour was named the team’s coach in May and offered somewhat critical comments about Skinner when addressing his trade to Buffalo during the team’s recent media day.
“It sends a message of what kind of Hurricane we’re looking for, what kind of player we want,” Brind’Amour said. “Everybody's available. You’ve got to produce. You’ve got to do the things we’re asking you to do; otherwise, you’re not safe. So it was the right move.
“I think the guys understand you’ve got to come ready to play and do what we’re asking. Otherwise you’re not a Hurricane. We can’t have you.”
Skinner, who won the Calder Trophy as the NHL’s top rookie in 2010-11 but now leads the league with 579 career games without a playoff appearance, took those comments in stride.
Pro hockey is a business. And heroes are real people, not abstract ideals.
“It became clear in the beginning of the summer that my relationship with the organization was just coming to a point where both parties saw it as the best thing to do was to move on,” Skinner said, “and that happens in a lot of situations, where the best thing to do is for both parties to separate and both get a fresh start. That’s the way I view it. I’m looking forward to starting off here in Buffalo and getting off on the right foot.”
Brind’Amour, who was drafted by the St. Louis Blues and rose to stardom with the Philadelphia Flyers, was traded twice before finally winning the Stanley Cup.
“Exactly,” Skinner said. “Sometimes a change of scenery is good. Hopefully that’s the case for me.”
Making it work
Chase, now 9, didn’t handle Skinner’s trade particularly well at first.
“I was sad,” Chase said, “because he’s my favorite player. But it’s OK.”
He and his family remain fans of the Hurricanes. They’re still rooting for Skinner’s success. And they have much to celebrate.
They received amazing news in February, and it became official in April.
The disease is in remission.
“Chase is doing great,” Tonya said. “He ended up going into ‘NAD’ — which is 'no active disease' — so right now we’ll just keep an eye on everything and keep scanning and hopefully everything will stay clear.”
They were planning a big party for Saturday, the two-year anniversary of his initial diagnosis, but Hurricane Florence has put a damper on the occasion. The North Carolina coastline is under a mandatory evacuation. Tonya this week is with the kids and driving toward Atlanta, hoping to find a hotel, praying they have a home to go back to, she said. Leon, a firefighter/EMT, has remained in the area in case his help is needed.
Chase last saw Skinner at the ’Canes’ season finale, where he had the chance to say goodbye.
“He’ll tell people Jeff Skinner is his best friend,” Tonya said.
Now, Chase wants to attend a Sabres game in Buffalo, to cheer for his hero in person once again.
The family told him they’d work it out.
In the meantime, Chase is pursuing a bigger dream.
He wants to play professional ice hockey.
And he’s already learned to skate.