KOSICE, Slovakia – Jeff Skinner has come to the IIHF World Hockey Championship with a birthday wish.
The youngest player in the entire tournament will turn 19 on May 16 – the day after the gold medal game – and is hoping there will be more than one reason to celebrate. Like all of his Canadian teammates, Skinner envisions himself flying home with one of those medals around his neck.
“I'm going to be on the plane in the morning and because of the time difference I guess it'll be six more hours of my birthday,” Skinner said after Thursday's practice at Steel Arena. “Hopefully, it'll be fun trip if we do well here.”
The discussion around Skinner throughout his rookie NHL season tended to centre on his age – and his ability to perform well beyond it while scoring 31 goals for the Carolina Hurricanes and getting nominated for the Calder Trophy. It's followed him here to Slovakia, where the teenager has been a curiosity for both foreign journalists and new teammates.
Canadian defenceman Marc Methot says the majority of email and text messages he's received from friends and family have involved a question about Skinner.
At first he didn't have much information to share. That's started to change.
“He's extremely quiet, but he's got a really dry sense of humour and I think he's really starting to come out of his shell right now,” said Methot. “We all love the kid and he's really impressed a lot of people so far.”
While there appears to be very little Skinner can't do – he once finished third at the Canadian junior figure skating championship – this world tournament should come with some learning experiences as well.
He's off to a fine start with a team-leading three goals and five points, but saw his ice time scaled back considerably late in Tuesday's tight 4-3 overtime victory over Switzerland.
“That's really the first time we've done that and I'm not sure if it worked or didn't work,” said Canadian coach Ken Hitchcock. “You want to give the older players a chance to shut the game down. We've tried to play very much on our toes, but when it was time to try to protect something we wanted to get the veteran guys out there.”
Away from the arena, Jason Spezza has taken Skinner under his wing.
No stranger to the pressure that can be placed on a young player, Spezza is rooming with Skinner and has made a point of ensuring he feels part of the team.
“He's played great,” said Spezza. “He's been opportunistic on his chances, he's scored some really nice goals for us and just has a nose for the net. The guys have tried to do as good a job as possible to make him feel comfortable.
“He had such a great season we just want to keep him rolling.”
It's a common theme around a Canadian team that will take a 3-0 record into Friday's game with the U.S. (TSN, 10:15 a.m. ET).
Both countries have brought extremely young lineups to this event – although the Americans have less experience and are being led in scoring by University of Wisconsin forward Craig Smith. Brian Burke, part of the U.S. management team, believes the key for his 2-1 squad against Canada is believing in itself.
“I think the main thing is you can't be intimidated,” said Burke. “These are guys you might have watched play, you might have idolized, but now you've got to take the puck off them and hit him. The No. 1 thing is not to get mesmerized or hypnotized or paralyzed by the presence of players that you've admired and that have played in the NHL.”
In making the jump from the OHL's Kitchener Rangers to the Hurricanes and now to a Canadian national team over the last year, Skinner has looked anything but intimidated.
The truest sign for teammates that he's getting comfortable is his sudden willingness to get involved in dressing room banter.
“He gives it to me and (Dion Phaneuf),” said Methot. “We're the two guys that kind of tease him a little bit – but in a good way – and he gives it right back to us. We try to rile him up as much as we can but he's pretty strong mentally so that's been impressive.”
Just as impressive has been his ability to skip right to the senior level of international hockey. Skinner is actually available for the next world junior championship, but he'll be playing too important of a role with the Hurricanes to represent the country there.
After spending the past two weeks around Skinner, Hitchcock can see beyond the player's baby face.
“He's young but he's a throwback,” said Hitchcock. “The respect he has for the game, the respect he has for the hierarchy of leadership, his body language, his mannerisms at team meals, the respect he has for the veteran players – that's maturity.
“That's a really well brought up kid.”