By Kyle Kujawa -
You could say that Brett Skinner’s journey to his current place on the Grand Rapids Griffins’ blueline has been longer than most. He’s in the eighth year of his professional career. He’s suited up for 15 different teams, spanning six countries, 10 states (and one province) and three trades between seven different NHL organizations.
“I could write a book if you wanted me to,” said Skinner, who joined state No. 10 and organization No. 7 when he signed with the Griffins in February.
At 29, Skinner is in the same boat as a lot of AHL veterans. He’s a few years past “prospect” status, but his long resume shows that he’s been useful at every level, and that he’s an asset for a young team hoping to make a long playoff drive, like the Griffins. But how does one player find two or three different addresses nearly every season?
“It’s just one of those things where I moved a couple of times early, so it’s not as daunting, I guess,” he explained. “With some of the moves, I made a decision through either free agency in the summer; other times it’s just been part of the game.”
A third-round choice (68th overall) by Vancouver in the 2002 NHL Entry Draft, Skinner was considered a top prospect at a young age. He was a member of a University of Denver program that won the NCAA National Championship in his sophomore and junior seasons, paving the way for him to skip his senior season for an AHL job with the Manitoba Moose.
“I was probably a little anxious when I was younger to get to the next level,” said Skinner. “I probably should have let the process play out and be a little more patient.”
After five AHL stops, and one stint in the ECHL, Skinner worked his way up to the big leagues with the New York Islanders – his fourth NHL organization – during the 2008-09 season. It was a quick experience for Skinner, playing 11 games on Long Island, but one that left an everlasting memory.
“I thought I made the team out of camp, but then they picked one of my buddies from Providence off waivers, so I got sent down,” said Skinner, who played with his replacement, current Tampa Bay Lightning winger Nate Thompson, in Providence during the 2007-08 season.
“I got called up a few weeks later. You always remember making your NHL debut. Beyond that, my parents were able to fly out and see a couple games. I played in some cool places, like Madison Square Garden. You cherish every day you spend there. Especially because I had spent a few years in the minors, I really enjoyed my time up there.”
Following a season and a half with no more NHL action, Skinner decided to take his game overseas. His experience there was as mixed as the cities he’s played in. He spent the entire 2010-11 season with Amur in the KHL, a team that plays out of Khaborovsk, which is about 20 miles from China. Last season saw three stops – Iserlohn (Germany), Tappara (Finland) and MODO (Sweden).
“Each one was a different scenario,” said Skinner, who battled injuries in both of his seasons in Europe. “Germany was okay, but I had the chance to go to Finland. I thought the opportunity was really good, at the time, so I took it and ended up getting injured.”
For veteran North American players like Skinner, playing in Europe isn’t quite as easy as flying over and finding a team. Similar to the AHL with its limit of veteran players, European teams have caps on the amount of North Americans teams can have to promote the development of the country’s own players. That can range from just one or two (Sweden) to nearly half of a roster (Germany).
“I don’t know the reason, but in Sweden, [MODO] had their import defenseman get hurt,” said Skinner. “We weren’t going to make the playoffs in Finland, so I ended up getting loaned to Sweden. It was a good league, but I was injured most of the time so it affected the amount I could contribute. I enjoyed all three leagues. All three organizations treated me well. It was a fun way to see the world.”
And as Skinner learned, the import limits can have a major effect on how easily it is to adapt to a new country.
“In Germany, you have 10 other imports on the team,” said Skinner. “The coach spoke English most of the time. Finland was interesting because I was the only North American import on the team, the other import was Swedish. The coach spoke Finnish the whole time, so did most of the guys in the dressing room. That was a little more isolated – I was going out for a lot of meals by myself.”
With Markus Naslund as the general manager, Peter Forsberg as his assistant, and former Red Wing Ulf Samulesson as the head coach, he found that his club in Sweden was run more like a typical North American team.
“Everything was done in English in the dressing room,” he said. “Most of them had been over to North America to play, so they were familiar with English. We had a really good group of guys, we went out to eat together a lot. I really enjoyed the country, too.”
However, Skinner admitted that playing for three different teams “didn’t set [himself] up well for this year,” as many potential European jobs were taken by NHLers looking for work during the lockout. So he started the season in Texas, joining the Allen Americans in the Central Hockey League.
“I got lucky to go to a great spot,” he said of Allen, which is managed by an ownership group that includes Mike Modano, Ed Belfour, Steve Duchesne and Craig Ludwig. “They have a really good coaching staff and really good owners. It was a lower level than I was used to, but I felt like I was getting better. It gave me the opportunity to be patient and find [an AHL] job that I got to pick a little more.”
So when Brendan Smith and Brian Lashoff found long-term NHL employment, the Griffins needed a veteran who could log minutes in all situations, like Skinner.
“You want to have the opportunity to go somewhere where they have a good team,” said Skinner. “I feel like it’s a good atmosphere. I heard a lot of good things about how they run things here, so it seemed like a good situation for me.”