TORONTO — The puck careened off the blade of Jeff Skinner’s stick and wide of the empty net, banging off the glass near a group of unsuspecting spectators on a Friday night in late July.
Skinner slightly shook his head and clenched his lips, yet he quickly took his place in front of the net to try to tip the next shot from his skills coach, Bill Bowler.
Skinner scored on the next shot and almost every other attempt that followed. The two then gathered the loose pucks and continued the hourlong workout in Paramount Ice Complex, a bleacherless rink with three ice surfaces in North York.
These workouts with Bowler prepare Skinner for a number of situations he’ll face when trying to score goals for the Buffalo Sabres — from attempting a quick wraparound after gathering the puck off the end boards to batting a puck out of the air backhanded — but they are only one piece of an offseason regimen that sparked a career year and earned the 27-year-old All-Star winger an eight-year, $72 million contract in June.
"We feel very comfortable in how Jeff handles himself off the ice, how he's dedicated to conditioning and training," Sabres General Manager Jason Botterill said shortly after the contract was signed. "We think that attitude, along with our sports science department, will hopefully allow him to be healthy and help the Buffalo Sabres for the next eight years."
Skinner's offseason workouts have evolved during his nine-year NHL career and now includes a renowned figure-skating coach, a mixed martial arts trainer, two hockey skills coaches, a pilates instructor, a tennis professional and one of hockey's top strength and conditioning coaches.
“I feel better when — I don’t even know how to describe it; almost like when you’re tired, I feel better,” Skinner told The Buffalo News following his workout with Bowler. “The offseason, a lot of things are fun for me. I’m very fortunate to be able to play a sport for a living and the sport allows opportunities to meet people who are sort of at the top of their game. … It’s not a grind. You’re always learning and growing as a person.”
Earlier in the late July workout, as Bowler gathered 12 pucks along the right side of the net, Skinner circled back to talk strategy. They’ve been having similar conversations for more than a decade.
When the two finished exchanging thoughts, Skinner skated to the top of the face-off dot.
Bowler zipped a pass to Skinner, who dished the puck back to his coach. Bowler then banked the puck off the half boards, forcing Skinner to corral it on his stick and quickly fire a backhanded pass back to Bowler. Skinner then skated through the right circle and one-timed a shot into the empty net.
“Woo!” Bowler bellowed when Skinner executed the drill flawlessly.
These one-on-one, on-ice sessions begin Skinner’s ever-growing offseason program. Bowler, now general manager of the Ontario Hockey League’s Windsor Spitfires, has been working with Skinner since the latter was a 15-year-old playing minor-midget hockey for the Toronto Nationals.
According to Skinner, aside from his father, Andy, no one knows his game better than Bowler.
“In the season, he’ll watch games and he’ll see the ways guys score, in particular he’ll see ways that I score, and we’ll try to implement [during training sessions]," Skinner said. "All those drills, there’s a little bit of randomness to them. There’s an element of reaction and that’s by design, by him. It’s worked for me. It’s continued to work and it’s something that I think has really impacted my game.”
One-timers on a pass from the blue line to the right side of the net. One-timers from the top of the left face-off circle. Wraparounds after gathering a loose puck off the end boards.
Almost every drill is run within a few feet of the net, where Skinner scored most of his career-high 40 goals with Buffalo last season. His first of two goals against Montreal on Nov. 23 — the eighth of 10 consecutive wins for the Sabres — was scored by tracking the puck in the air and having the hand-eye coordination to quickly shoot, a skill developed in these sessions.
“His potential is unlimited,” Bowler said. “Fifty [goals] is not out of the question and, obviously, with good health, this young man could be a Rocket Richard winner. He’s that special with his work ethic and he’s in the prime of his career. He’s healthy. Nothing would surprise me.”
Skinner doesn't like to sit idle. He typically only takes about a week off at the start of each offseason. Skinner simply isn't used to having down time. During parts of his childhood in Markham, Ont., he was involved in hockey, figure skating, soccer, swimming and even singing.
When he took a trip to Southern California early this offseason, Skinner turned the getaway into a three-week workout retreat, spending time with a tennis pro and a trainer who works with NBA players.
“As a whole, [hockey] has this sorta constantly improving mentality,” Skinner said. “Being in Toronto, you sort of have access to the new and up-and-coming training methods, whether it be coaches or training techniques. As you go along, you can tweak things by taking things out and trying new things. … There are benefits from everything. You kind of try to take what works for you and that’s how it’s kind of evolved.”
In the air
The sight still surprises Barbara Underhill. Skinner, amid an on-ice training session last month, launched himself in the air while wearing his hockey equipment and landed perfectly on one foot.
Skinner’s edge work is regarded as some of, if not the best in the National Hockey League. Over the past decade, many players have begun working with figure skating coaches in the offseason. However, Skinner was an accomplished figure skater as a child.
Following in his siblings’ footsteps, Skinner began figure skating at 6 years old under the instruction of Tracey Wainman, a two-time Canadian national champion. Though Jeff’s other activities prevented him from skating as often as his competitors, he was talented enough to catch the attention 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 stopped figure skating at 13 to focus on hockey.
Skinner was one of Underhill’s first clients when the two began working together several years ago, and, in their early days together, the student often taught the coach how figure skating skills can be applied to hockey.
“I can sort of speak to him in a different language than other players because he gets it,” said Underhill, a former World Champion figure skater. “He understands because he has that foundation. I can say something and know that he gets it because he began learning at a very young age. He has an innate sense of balance and the ability to get over one leg. He can do things that a lot of players might have difficulty with because they don’t understand maybe where their body is in space.”
That skill was on powerful display Oct. 20, on the first of Skinner’s three goals. He used his edge work to corral a loose puck with his stick in his left hand, skated backward behind the net and turned to the opposite post to score with a wrist shot. His edge work also resulted in the game-winning goal on Nov. 27 to give the Sabres’ their 10th consecutive win.
Skinner is such an advanced skater that each summer, Underhill wonders if he’ll continue working with her. He has no plans to stop.
“Staying on top of things,” Skinner said. “There are always ways you can improve. She’s one of the best at what she does. If you’re going to pick one skill in hockey, and pick skating, she spends her time thinking about that and how it relates to the game. As a hockey player, you spend time thinking about that, too, but she has a different perspective and dedicates more time and has more expertise in the topic because she’s skated her whole life. Every year I go back, I learn something new.”
There are no pucks on the ice when Skinner works with Underhill. He doesn’t use a stick, either. That allows Skinner to focus on his stride and execute whichever technique she is teaching. Underhill is constantly searching for ways to challenge Skinner. After all, his figure skating background makes him unlike most players she works with. Underhill declined to divulge specifics about their on-ice drills, however, she said she has been working with Skinner on a few “new skills.”
“Some things are so natural for him,” Underhill said. “I like to try things that are unnatural to get him thinking about different ways of moving. I like to get him out of his comfort zone because I know that eventually, it will be something that will be very comfortable for him. … That’s the only way to get better. I throw things at him that maybe are a little tricky for him to get at first, but because he moves in a certain way and I like to get him to move outside of that.”
Jorge Blanco often has to scold Skinner. Blanco, who counts UFC fighter George St. Pierre among his clients and works with a number of NHL players, breaks up his mixed martial arts training sessions by rounds.
Between each round of sparring, every athlete takes a mandatory break to sit down, breathe and relax. Skinner doesn’t.
“Many times I’ve caught him going over to the wall-mounted punching bag to work on the technique,” Blanco, who works with Skinner as much as twice a week, recalled in a recent phone conversation. “I always have to call him on it and say, ‘Hey, no. It’s time to rest.’ He’s a workhorse. He always wants to improve, and he’s extremely focused. Not only with his training but hockey for this kid is absolutely everything.
“A lot of these kids, they’re young, successful and they’re well-known. On the weekends during the offseason, some of them want to party and be seen. Jeff wants to do his job, be the best athlete he can be and then go home to rest. It’s unbelievable.”
Blanco competed on Spain's national boxing team and was the country’s national kickboxing champion. His other clients include UFC heavyweight fighters and, yes, some of the NHL’s toughest players. However, most NHL players, Skinner included, seek Blanco’s services to achieve a better understanding of their body moves. There also are benefits to breathing, which can be used on the ice.
In mixed martial arts or boxing, failing to breathe between punches can wear down fighters, leaving them susceptible to being struck by an opponent.
“The number one thing is the breathing and fluidity of it,” Skinner said. “Anytime you pick up something new, you think it through. I tend to do that as an instinct. Maybe more than most people. I think boxing helps because if you’re thinking too much, that’s when things go wrong. It allows you to work on that specific skill and be fluid through your movements.
“It’s definitely not just physical. It has to do with the mental part of the game. When you follow through on a punch or you’re reacting to sort of his cues, it’s not dissimilar to reacting on the ice.”
The intensity and focus of Skinner's workouts depend on his weekly workload and the facets of his game he intends to hone. The one-on-one sessions with Blanco complement Skinner's work with Andy O’Brien, one of hockey's top strength and conditioning coaches who typically works with Skinner five days a week during the offseason.
Each workout with Blanco begins with a dynamic warmup, including footwork drills and stretching. Then, Skinner typically performs head movement drills and shadowboxing with an emphasis on efficiency. He also focuses on a specific technique. The skills have prepared Skinner to react to different situations on the ice.
“Whenever he doesn’t get it right, he will not stop,” Blanco said. “It’s a competition for him. He won’t stop until he gets it right. Not only once, but several times. I knew he was very dialed in when I met him, but every year it seems like he turns it up a little bit. Obviously, as you grow as a human being or an athlete, you find a sport you want to work on the most and that’s what Jeff does every year. He finds whatever he could have done better the previous season and he works on it.”
An open-mindedness is needed to work with Jari Byrski.
The skills development coach uses methods that are viewed as unorthodox by some. He places sticks, cones and stationary figures that look like crash-test dummies on the ice to work with players on stickhandling, skating, shooting and being prepared for the unexpected.
Those drills have become second nature to Skinner. He began taking lessons from Byrski at 8 years old and is now among a group of NHLers that work out together, including Steven Stamkos, Jason Spezza, Matthew and Brady Tkachuk, John Tavares, Brent Burns and Alex Pietrangelo.
“He was a shy boy with a tiger heart,” Byrski recalled of Skinner.
According to Byrski, his drills require a certain level of confidence on the ice. To foster that open-mindedness, he chooses a student to sing in front of the group, including songs by the Swedish pop group, "Abba."
Even that exercise didn't scare Skinner off.
“What was kind of telling about all the guys that I’ve dealt with, including Jeffrey, was their willingness to try different things,” Byrski said. “Obviously, some people from the outside or some other players thought there was no real benefit of doing that because I won’t be doing that during a hockey game. … Jeffrey was one of the guys in that group that kept challenging himself and getting better to the point he’s quite a wizard with it.”
There is some randomness to the drills, yet there is a method behind Byrski’s process. Like Bowler, he watches how goals are scored in the NHL, especially by his clients.
Each player in the group inspires Byrski to plot different on-ice drills, whether it’s tight turns while stickhandling after watching Spezza or incorporating some of Skinner’s edge work. The workouts are designed to prepare players for the unexpected during a game.
“If you look at it from the big picture, there are skills he’s trying to pick up on and strengthen," Skinner explained. “It’s tough to pinpoint it sometimes. He’s kind of a genius in a way. … For me, I think the biggest positive impact [the workouts] have on my game is the comfort with the puck. Comfort with it in your feet. Comfort with it on different parts of your stick. Comfort with it balancing. Comfort with it when you’re turning.
"I think the more situations you can put yourself in, the better you can react when in a game and the puck is bouncing, or when you’re in a game and you get a pass that’s maybe not where you were expecting.”
Appetite for learning
When Skinner is on the road during the season, he researches training methods and nutrition by reading books such as "The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals," or through listening to podcasts, most notably, "The Tim Ferriss Show."
Skinner focuses on eating "healthy, whole foods," though he said he has learned that being "super strict" with meal planning can lead to stress.
Skinner discovered the Extreme Performance Training program, which was created by former pro surfer Laird Hamilton and his wife, former volleyball star Gabrielle Reece. The program focuses on the facets of an athlete's performance: breathe, move and recover.
Skinner attended one of the XPT Life events in Miami this offseason, when he went through a weekend full of challenges that included crawling under water using 30-pound dumbbells, intense beach and gym workouts and various breathing exercises.
"Gradually, as my years have gone by in the league, I've noticed guys are more and more informed," Skinner said. "Guys are more prepared. ... Andy [O'Brien] is one of those guys that's always on the cutting edge of anything to do with training and nutrition. Being around him and the guys he trains, they all sort of have the same mindset and are always trying to improve themselves. ... You're always trying to stay on top of it and learn new things."
Conversations with various people around hockey led Skinner to work with a tennis professional and Lisa, a core movement specialist. He treasures her availability, so much so that he asked that his instructor's last name not be used in this story.
Lisa, who has worked with Skinner for six years, puts the two-time All-Star through a variety of workouts that are designed to help any client, no matter their age or degree of athleticism, to better understand how their body moves. Some are hesitant to try workouts they deem unusual.
Skinner's curiosity and open-mindedness have led Lisa to challenge him with different methods, including barre, which incorporates music, coordination, flexibility, strength and isometric movements.
"He really does have an appetite to learn and he’s a thinker, for sure," Lisa said in a phone interview. "He's quick at learning. When I first met him, he could have been any athlete. ... He’s very unique in that way and he adapts really well to movement changes and mobility drills. He’s quick at learning. There's never a 'no' from him. There’s never, 'I don’t want to do that.' There’s maybe a discussion about why, but his ability to want to cross-train in everything shows he has a real love for working out, for sure."
Skinner's workouts, specifically those on the ice, have increased in intensity since the calendar turned to August. His work ethic has helped him miss only three of a possible 328 regular-season games over the past four years. He is also tied for the third-most even-strength goals in the league during that span.
The new contract isn't the source of Skinner's motivation this summer. He wants to help the Sabres regain the success they had during the 10-game win streak last November.
However, Skinner is aware that a new contract brings expectations. He embraces the challenge and his offseason support team expressed confidence that his best is yet to come.
"What's most important to me about Jeff is his passion that he has and the level of competitiveness," Byrski said. "With his work ethic, I still think he's going to keep developing his individual skills. ... I think, for him, there is so much potential to keep growing and keep getting better. Yes, because of how he trains and feels the passion. I think there is still many years for him to be able to be productive and to be able to score goals."