Skinner savors All-Star experience

'When such a big event is going on, it's fun. ... The energy sort of gets transferred to you.'

Staff writerJanuary 30, 2011 

— An hour before Jeff Skinner's autograph signing Saturday, the line stretched a full city block on Fayetteville Street. Almost an hour into it, still a block long.

An appearance for a radio show at the Backyard Bistro on Thursday night required security guards to handle an overflow crowd.

At the NHL All-Star Fantasy Draft on Friday night, fans were screaming his name at the Raleigh Convention Center as the picks were made.

Said Skinner, "It's a little overwhelming."

You think? He's 18. The Carolina Hurricanes forward is the youngest player in the National Hockey League, and he's already playing in an All-Star Game. As if that isn't enough, he also seems to be the biggest attraction in town.

At the draft, Skinner was picked just ahead of Brad Richards of the Dallas Stars, a man who won the Conn Smythe Trophy when the Tampa Bay Lightning won the Stanley Cup in 2004. Who would have ever believed that just a few months ago? Not Skinner.

"It's crazy," he said.

But there appears to be something bigger at play here. A couple of years ago, John Wall was a local sensation, wowing everyone on the basketball court. Many years go, Pete Maravich did the same. Josh Hamilton could always crush a baseball.

But Skinner appears to have a different appeal. Sure, he looks like the kid next door. He looks 15. But how do you explain what's being called "Skinnerpalooza."

"I think you can see his love for the game, his passion," said Travis Quinn, 26, of Goldsboro. "You see so many stone-faced hockey players. He's smiling all the time, so excited to have this opportunity."

Quinn and Amanda Thompson, 25, were in the line waiting outside the RBC Bank. Young and old, they moved to a tent - the "Autograph Stage" - in front of the bank where Skinner signed and signed. Skinner smiled. So did most of the people who got his autograph.

Photos, posters, tickets, jerseys, pucks, magazines, hockey sticks, Skinner signed and signed. Even a few Raleigh police officers wanted his autograph.

N.C.State football coach Tom O'Brien had a signing at the same stage before Skinner's. So did Steven Stamkos of the Tampa Bay Lightning. They hardly compared.

Even Hurricanes owner Peter Karmanos Jr. said, "My 8-year-old granddaughter is absolutely starstruck by him."

All of which begs the question: Is it too much, too soon?

"He has achieved a lot at a young age," said Andrew Skinner, Jeff's father. "As parents, I think what gives us the most satisfaction is that Jeffrey has it in perspective. He was the same way in junior hockey.

"There's not a bit of arrogance or anything like that in him. He's well-grounded and pretty humble."

Jeff Skinner likes to say his sisters and older brother keep him that way. There are six siblings, quite a brood, and his mother did not come to Raleigh from Markham, Ontario, for the All-Star Weekend.

"We have a daughter who had some games this weekend," Andrew Skinner said, adding perspective.

Father has been with son much of the past two days, keeping an eye on him, enjoying all the moments. The Hurricanes have 32 games left in the regular season, and the events of All-Star Weekend can be draining.

"You try to take advantage of your down time," Jeff Skinner said. "When such a big event is going on, it's fun to be around. The energy sort of gets transferred to you."

There was a lot of energy and electricity Friday at the draft as Canes fans at the convention center demanded Eric Staal make Skinner a member of Team Staal for today's All-Star Game. Skinner finally went in the 11th round, but not before some chit-chat between Nicklas Lidstrom, the Detroit Red Wings star and captain of Team Lidstrom, and alternate captain Martin St. Louis of the Tampa Bay Lightning.

"He looks young. He is young," St. Louis said to Lidstrom. "He's young enough to be your kid."

"Almost," said a smiling Lidstrom, who is 40.

Veteran Patrik Elias of the New Jersey Devils said he remembered another conversation. In the Devils' game this season against Carolina, Elias said he was next to the Canes' Erik Cole before a faceoff and nodded toward Skinner.

"He's pretty good, isn't he?" Elias said.

Elias said Cole replied, "Just wait."

Only time will tell where all this is headed. Canes coach Paul Maurice said Skinner will play in other All-Star Games, that he's a special player.

And for now?

"He'll just soak it all in," Andrew Skinner said. "This will make for an incredible memory."

chip.alexander@newsobserver.com or 919-829-8945

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