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Jeff Skinner using lessons from family, figure skating to succeed with Sabres

Skinner's competitiveness, work ethic and skating ability all began at home.

MARKHAM, Ont. — Jeff Skinner had a split second to collect the puck and make a decision with a 10-game win streak on the line. He started with it on his left-handed stick blade near the right face-off circle, went to his backhand and shot over San Jose's Martin Jones for the overtime-winning goal in front of a sold-out KeyBank Center on Nov. 27.

All while gliding on the inside edges of his skate blades.

"He’s really good on his edges,” Buffalo Sabres center Jack Eichel said. “It helps him get to pucks around the net. I think it helps him evade opposing players, too.”

Skinner has used his background as a competitive figure skater to make plays others would not dare to try. He will occasionally do a single axel in the neutral zone to avoid defenders and is one of few players capable of the mohawk, a maneuver during which he opens both hips, turns both feet outward and glides along either the inside or outside edges of his blades.

“We noticed the skating right away,” Steve Spott, an assistant coach for the Sharks who was Skinner's coach with the Kitchener Rangers of the Ontario Hockey League, told The Buffalo News while San Jose was in Buffalo. “He had a God-given ability to score and took it personally when he didn’t. ... He scored goals other players couldn’t score.”

Skinner has helped change the way hockey players train and that skill has been a remarkable fit in Buffalo. The 26-year-old winger has 22 goals in 32 games, on pace to shatter his previous career-high of 37 goals set in 2016-17.

Skinner's competitiveness, work ethic and skating ability all began at home.

Family ties

Andy Skinner and Chuffy Campin, both lawyers, have six children, beginning with twins Jennifer and Andrea. Then came Erica, Ben, Jeffrey and Jillian. Nine years separate the oldest from the youngest. And the children were involved in everything from acting classes to gymnastics around Markham, a city within the greater Toronto area.

There was hockey, figure skating, soccer, swimming and singing lessons — Chuffy thought the latter would make the children more comfortable with public speaking. Jeff even took acting classes as a pre-teen. The children still marvel at how their parents managed to juggle the schedules while ensuring at least one was at every game or event.

“I don’t know how they did it,” Erica said in a phone interview.

At the onset of each day, the family gathered in the kitchen to run through the schedule, which Chuffy organized each week with seven 8.5 x 11-inch pieces of paper, one for each day. Chuffy still carries around a large planner, though now it is used to track Sabres games and Jillian’s law-school exams. The two parents would decide who would take who where and that often included multiple stops. Chuffy recalled Andy having to take Jeff from a figure-skating challenge in Toronto to a hockey game in Waterloo, Ont., roughly 70 miles down Queen Elizabeth Way in rush-hour traffic.

“It was a six-ring circus,” Andy said with a laugh.

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Clockwise from top left, Ben, Jennifer, Andrea, Erica, Jillian and Jeff Skinner at Christmas. The Skinner children were always competitive and pushed each other to be better. (Photo courtesy of Skinner family)

Neither Chuffy nor Andy forced activities upon the children. Instead, they wanted each one to take lessons in certain sports or disciplines to see which they would like to pursue. Education was always the priority.

The twins set the bar and the children that followed seemed to want to join the same sports. That was the case with Jeff, who followed in their footsteps at 3 years old when he played with Ben’s hockey team despite being two years younger.

“I don’t know if it’s a genetic thing or what it is, but they have an abundance of energy,” his mother explained. “If Jeffrey wasn’t kept busy, he would be bouncing off the walls. … If they wanted to do it, we were up for it. They all did.”

It was a shared family trait. Ben would push Jeff when they worked out together. Jeff did the same for Jillian, who recalled her older brother running alongside her during a cross country race.

“Whenever I was doing things, he was pushing me,” Jillian said. “He’s always sort of had it himself, unlikely anyone I’ve ever known. He motivates himself. I don’t know where it comes from.”

The Skinner family always was in a rush. Many times, the twins would help get Ben and Jeff dressed for games while Chuffy parked the car, which Andy estimated logged about 100,000 miles a year. When Jillian took her first steps, Jeff asked his mother if he could begin teaching his younger sister how to play hockey.

When Jennifer and Andrea played college hockey at Harvard and Cornell, respectively, the siblings did what they could to watch in person. When Ben and Jeff left to play junior hockey in Kitchener, Jillian would go with her parents to deliver groceries and tried to attend every game within driving distance.

“It’s something you don’t realize, the sacrifice your parents make with their time and financially to put you in all those activities,” Jeff said. “You do it to have fun. You’re not looking at it as, “Oh, I’m figure skating to get better at hockey.’”

Andy and Chuffy did not want their children to compete against each other, but they helped push each other. Erica played defense at Carleton University in Ottawa; Ben plays professionally in Germany; and Jillian was a four-year letter-winner at Mercyhurst University in Erie, Pa. Jeff was at a different level, according to his siblings.

When Erica’s team in ringette, a sport resembling hockey that is played with a straight stick and rubber ring, was down a player, Jeff, then 3, was brought in as a replacement. In ringette, players aren’t allowed to cross the blue line with the ring. Jeff refused to comply. When his father told him the rule, Jeff hopped over the blue line to skate up ice with the ring.

“I think Jeffrey probably takes the cake in competitiveness,” Erica, his older sister, said.

Jeff Skinner and Jason Pominville have a laugh during the pregame warmup before the Sabres' game against the Colorado Avalanche at KeyBank Center on Thursday, Oct. 11, 2018. (Sharon Cantillon/News file photo)

Natural performer

Ed Sackfield Arena is nestled between a public park and elementary school in a residential community called Richmond Hill. It looked more like a construction zone at noon two weeks ago. A plywood wall closed off much of the lobby as construction workers milled around the parking lot, taking a lunch break from working on a $16.5 million renovation of the building.

The wall leading from the lobby to Tracey Wainman’s office is lined with glass display cases showing past and current students of York Region Skating Academy, a competitive figure skating club that’s a training ground for some of Canada's best.

The only sign of their noteworthy former student sits on a windowsill behind Wainman’s desk, a signed picture hand-delivered by Skinner a few summers ago.

His figure skating career began in the lobby. A trophy case caught 6-year-old Jeff’s eye while he visited the rink with his mother.

Chuffy soon signed him up.

Though he began working with the program’s former director, he was on figure skates for only a few months when he began learning under Wainman, a former international champion and two-time Canadian national champion who is now the club’s director. She remembers Jeff’s first competitive performance — he skated to the Muppets theme song — and beamed when recalling his gregarious personality.

To me, he was very animated,” Wainman said. “I do have kids like that. I have top ones right now and when they were younger, they were the same way. He showed a lot of potential. He had all sides of it. He was talented with maneuvers on the blade. He had a good edge flow. It was natural. He had a lot of natural ability.”

Some parents have their child take learn-to-skate lessons at YRSA to build a solid foundation before playing hockey. Most don’t think to try what Jeff did for seven years.

Typically, the academy’s students train six days a week, including off-ice sessions with pilates and ballet. It’s a rigorous regimen used to train elite athletes beginning as young as 6 years old. Though Jeff’s other activities prevented him from skating as often as his competitors, he caught the eye of Skate Canada, the nation’s governing body for figure skating. At 11, he won a bronze medal in the juvenile division of the Canadian Figure Skating Championships in Edmonton.

“He was just a phenom,” Erica said. “He was so, so good. He would do theater on ice, so basically what you would have to do is this kind of interpretive dance to whatever music was playing and you had to be creative. … Jeffrey was always the star of the session.”

The time came for Jeff to make a decision. Hockey, a sport in which he also was a phenom, was becoming more demanding as he approached high school. His dream was to play in the NHL. That prevented him from figure skating as often as others at YRSA.

Wainman recalled one of Jeff's final competitions when he realized how skilled his competitors were. He was 13, working on a double axel while progressing into triples. An injury accelerated his decision as a bone bruise prevented him from getting on figure skates for weeks. With his freshman year of high school looming, he chose to focus on hockey. It’s a story Wainman shares with her students.

“I’m thrilled he could benefit and use the skills,” she said. “I loved teaching Jeffrey. I’m just so glad he could use it and have it benefit him. It’s a great story. I tell people even if I’m doing my CanSkate, I tell them about him. I’m so happy for him.”

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Jeff Skinner shows off his bronze medal after competing in the junior division of the 2004 Canadian Junior Figure Skating Championships. (Photo courtesy of Skinner family)

First impressions

Spott had seen the move before. Skinner gathered the puck from behind the net, used the edges of his skate blades to evade a defender and managed to skate around the right post for one of his three goals in a 5-1 win over Los Angeles on Oct. 20 this season.

It reminded Spott of the first time he saw Skinner skate. Jeff was playing for the Toronto Young Nationals, a top AAA midget team in the Greater Toronto Hockey League.

Then an assistant coach with Kitchener, Spott was sitting next to Pete DeBoer at a game in Toronto.

DeBoer, now coach of the Sharks, was considering Skinner for the upcoming OHL entry draft. As general manager and coach for Kitchener at the time, he held the 20th and final pick of the first round. Though he was in love with Skinner’s ability, choosing him could be a risk. There were concerns within the organization that the Skinner family would not want Jeff to leave high school early.

DeBoer chose Skinner anyway.

"It's incredible when you see his edges and what he's able to do with those 10-and-2 moves," Spott said. "He scored against L.A. using that same move. That's not something you see every day. He worked on that as a young figure skater."

Jeff graduated with his friends at Markham District High School and at age 16, he left Markham with Ben, two years his senior, to join Kitchener. With Spott elevated to coach, Skinner scored 27 goals as a rookie and followed with 50, becoming the first Rangers player in 23 years to reach the milestone. In search of a dynamic scorer to pair with center Eric Staal, the Carolina Hurricanes drafted Jeff seventh overall in the 2010 draft.

“The skating and his compete level immediately stood out to us when we did our homework,” Jim Rutherford, then-general manager of the Hurricanes and now the general manager for the Pittsburgh Penguins, said in a phone interview. “He’s a hockey guy. He works at every aspect. I knew he’d excel right away. He would do whatever it took to be successful.”

Jeff Skinner, drafted seventh overall by the Carolina Hurricanes in 2010, poses for a portrait (Harry How/Getty Images)

'Pioneer'

Skinner scored his first NHL goal in his sixth game, an Oct. 20 meeting against Los Angeles, and was named an All-Star as an injury replacement for the Penguins’ Sidney Crosby to become the first 18-year-old selected since Detroit's Steve Yzerman in 1983-84.

Skinner finished his rookie year with 31 goals among 63 points. On June 22, 2011, with his family sitting in the crowd at Las Vegas’ Pearl Theater, Skinner became the youngest player to win the Calder Trophy, given to the league's rookie of the year. He apologized for his acceptance speech running long and capped the moment by thanking his family.

“It’s fitting that they're all here to share this with me because they’re the biggest part of why I’m here,” he said.

Skinner played eight seasons with Carolina, scoring 204 goals. He did so with tenacity in front of the net and an ability to elude opponents with his skating.

Others took notice. Jeremy Bracco, Toronto's second-round draft pick in 2015, credited Skinner with his decision to take figure skating lessons to help with his hockey skills. While there are no documented instances of athletes doing both to Skinner's extent, many NHL players have hired figure skating coaches to try to accomplish similar results.

Barbara Underhill, a former World Champion in Canada, began training hockey players in 2008 and has since worked with the Anaheim Ducks, New York Rangers, Tampa Bay Lightning and Toronto Maple Leafs. She gives individual lessons to many players across the league, Skinner included.

“Players are trying to mimic that,’ Spott said. “I see it all the time now. It’s paid huge dividends for him. He makes plays that can’t be taught in hockey. He’s a pioneer with it.”

Jeff Skinner skates against the Toronto Maple Leafs during the first period of a game at KeyBank Center on Saturday, Sept. 22, 2018. (Harry Scull Jr./News file photo)

'Limitless ability to work'

To his mother, the story that best illustrates Jeff’s work ethic has nothing to do with hockey or figure skating. She recalled that when Jeff was nearly 3 years old, he stood in front of the family’s Little Tikes basketball hoop for 25 minutes trying to make a basket. He didn’t stop until he made one. 

Those closest to Jeff — they all refer to him as Jeffrey — shared similar stories.

“He’s got a limitless ability to work at something,” his father said.

Jeff continues to push himself to another level. Despite his success, Jeff typically takes only one week off following the season. Off the ice, he channels his creativity into learning the piano and guitar.

During the offseason, Jeff works with various skills and strength coaches, including Underhill, Jari Byrski, Andy O’Brien and Bill Bowler, who coached Jeff in minor hockey and is now Vice President of Business and Hockey Operations for Windsor of the OHL.

"He has always had the talent but I can't stress enough his eagerness to score," Bowler said. "Back in minor hockey, there wasn't a shift where he wasn't trying to score, which was refreshing. You also have to have the ability to do that. He always had the mindset that he wanted to make a difference."

Sabres winger Kyle Okposo, who is in Skinner’s workout group with O’Brien, was excited when he heard the two would be teammates in Buffalo.

“His work ethic is off the charts,” Okposo said. “He takes like one week off after the season and gets back in the gym. He really hits it hard all summer. He takes care of himself. In the work ethic department, second to none.”

Sabres acquire Jeff Skinner from Carolina Hurricanes

High standard

In December 2012, the Skinner children gathered at Angus Glen Community Centre, a massive structure on the outskirts of town that holds two NHL-size rinks, each with 225 seats, as well as a swimming pool and gymnasium. With the NHL amid a work stoppage, Jeff was home for the holidays. It was time for the first and only 3-on-3 game between the siblings.

It was the rare occasion when Jeff put a lid on his competitiveness. He kept passing to Erica and encouraged her to rush up the ice to score.

The siblings no longer live under the same roof, but they remain close. Life news is shared in a family-wide email. Texts and FaceTime make it easier to keep in touch.

Early in Jeff’s career, Andy would plan a weeklong trip to Raleigh, N.C., to help with the transition to NHL life. The family only saw a handful of Hurricanes games each season. The latest chapter in Jeff's career has helped. 

Jeff was traded to the Sabres on Aug. 2 in exchange for three draft picks and prospect Cliff Pu. Now, they're a two-hour drive away.

“It’s fun,” Jeff said. “It’s exciting for them. It’s exciting for me that they get to watch me play live a little bit more. I’m able to see them a little bit more, too, which is nice. We’re a pretty close family. ... Now they can just drive down.”

It’s unclear how long they’ll be able to enjoy the proximity, though. Jeff is in the final year of a six-year, $34.35 million extension given to him by Rutherford in 2012.

Sabres general manager Jason Botterill repeatedly has said he maintains contact with Jeff's agent, Don Meehan, but does not plan to have formal talks until after the holidays. The fan base has made its wishes known. Zoom Copy on Main Street in downtown Buffalo created a sign that reads “Jeff Skinner for Mayor of Buffalo.”

Skinner’s teammates have joked with him about the contract situation. The media circles back to the issue. For now, he’s just trying to play hockey and enjoy living closer to his family.

He had 10 goals during the Sabres' 10-game win streak and could represent the team at the NHL All-Star Game in San Jose on Jan. 26.

He knows it wouldn't be possible with everyone at home.

“My parents and older siblings set the tone with work ethic,” Jeff said. “Having my older sisters as role models was helpful. My brother, too. I didn’t necessarily compete against them, but sort of watching how they carried themselves in everything -- school, sports. They were always trying to be the best they can be. They set a pretty high standard.”

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