RALEIGH — The Carolina Hurricanes unveiled a new ticket plan this week, just in time for the start of a new season.
The package includes tickets to five home games, plus a personalized and autographed photo of a certain star player. There's even the chance to have dinner at the RBC Center with that star player.
And that player would be ...
Jeff Skinner, of course.
Not Eric Staal. Not Cam Ward. It's the "Jeff Skinner Five-Game Plan."
Want to sell tickets? Skinner is your man.
Want to sell merchandise? Go with Skinner.
Want a new media star, someone who appeals to fans of all ages? Jeff Skinner, come on down.
"He's a very marketable guy," Hurricanes general manager Jim Rutherford said. "There's always that fine line when you're dealing with a young player of how far you take that, but we don't really have to do a lot of the marketing. He's such a success story.
"From his ability on the ice, to his smile, to his personality with the fans, he's a guy who really has attracted new fans for us. There's another whole niche out there of fans that come just because of Jeff Skinner."
Such talk can make Skinner a bit uneasy. He's just 19 and about to begin his second year in the NHL.
Staal, the team captain, has won a Stanley Cup. Ward, the Canes' star goaltender, won the Cup with Staal in 2006 and was the Conn Smythe Trophy winner as the playoffs MVP.
Then along came Skinner.
The Canes' first-round draft pick in 2010, when he was the seventh overall selection, Skinner made the jump from the Kitchener Rangers of the Ontario Hockey League to the NHL last season. He scored 31 goals and led all rookies in points with 63. He made moves on the ice that had Canes fans roaring and opposing players groaning and wondering how to best handle this determined, 5-11, 193-pound dynamo of a player.
Skinner was selected to play in the 2011 NHL All-Star Game in Raleigh and was the youngest All-Star ever. He had fans stretched out for blocks waiting to get his autograph. There was much nonsense about him being the "Justin Bieber of hockey" but he went along with it.
After the season, Skinner went to Las Vegas. Though too young to hit the casinos, he still scored big - receiving the Calder Trophy as NHL rookie of the year.
And, of course, he smiled. A lot.
When teammates teased him, he smiled. When Canes coach Paul Maurice barked at him, he'd smile. Score a goal? Smile. Win a game? An even bigger smile.
Many had to wonder how all the attention and adulation didn't make his head, well, explode.
"I don't know," Skinner says. "You have to have a solid support group, your siblings and family and everyone around you."
A firm foundation
Skinner's parents are attorneys and he has four sisters and a brother. That's support in a big way.
"And you look at Eric Staal and Cam Ward and how they carry themselves, how down-to-earth they are," Skinner says. "It's pretty hard to be sort of cocky and get ahead of yourself when you're sitting beside Stanley Cup winners who go about their business so professionally."
Staal is the Canes' highest-paid player and Ward is next. Neither seems to mind the mass appeal Skinner has developed in such a short time.
"You knew he wasn't going to change," Ward says. "That's just the way he is. He clearly had a great upbringing and comes from a great family that has taught him well to be humble and appreciate what he's got."
Skinner isn't your typical 19-year-old NHL player. Many burn out their iPhone batteries or spend long hours on their Xboxes, surf the internet or tweet nonstop.
Skinner doesn't have a Twitter account. He does things like read "The Talent Code," a book he was given this summer.
The book delves into the need for the exceptional athlete to combine passion and commitment and the willingness to accept "deep practice" to enhance his talent. Among those quoted in the book is former UCLA basketball coach John Wooden.
"I thought it was cool," Skinner says. "I don't usually like to read nonfiction but that was pretty cool information. Pretty interesting."
Skinner may need to employ some of the ideas found in that book this season. Ward, as much as anyone, knows about the difficulty of following up a sensational rookie performance. He was a rookie in '06 when he won the Conn Smythe.
"He's only going to get better and better, and I'm excited I'm going to be on his team when he shows that," Ward says. "Obviously it's going to be harder on him, having those expectations. But there's no question he can exceed those expectations and give even more."
Last month, Skinner was in New York, again. Before the NHL Awards show in July, he agreed to be a part of a promotion by Seventeen magazine to let voters pick out his wardrobe for the big night, which took him to New York for a photo shoot.
No surprise, really. It was catered to teenage girls, was good publicity for the league and the Hurricanes, and Skinner fit the part.
In September, many of the NHL's biggest stars were in New York for the annual player media tour. Steven Stamkos of the Lightning was there, and Corey Perry of the Anaheim Ducks, the league's 2011 Hart Trophy winner as NHL player of the year.
And Jeff Skinner, representing the Carolina Hurricanes.
"It was a great two days," he says. "I was pretty tired after it, but it was fun and I'm glad I did it and glad I was selected to have the opportunity."
Skinner, a native of Markham, Ont., will have more demands on his time this season. Radio, TV, print media, TSN, Hockey Night in Canada ... you name it, he will get it.
On Wednesday, he was on G105's "Bob and the Showgram" morning radio show to help promote the start of the season. Among the questions posed to him were whether he gets an allowance to go to strip clubs and what anatomical parts of a woman he likes best - Skinner's two answers were he's too young to go in strip clubs and "personality."
Skinner has no complaints about making appearances, even if it can make him feel a bit awkward at times.
"I don't see it as a burden," Skinner says. "It's tough to say it's a job, really. Everything is so organized for me. They just tell me what to do and I just have to show up and do it.
"If it helps grow the game here and increases the number of fans and gets attention, it's always a plus. That's what we're all trying to do here, grow the game."
In "The Eye" store at the RBC Center are a half-dozen Skinner photos and plaques, all ready to be hung. He has his own player pennant. His No. 53 sweater is the top seller.
Skinner says he continues to marvel at how many fans wear No. 53 at the RBC Center.
"That doesn't get old, I think," Skinner says, smiling again. "How ever many times you look and see your jersey, it's pretty cool."
Doug Warf, the Canes' senior director of marketing, knows the team has a good thing in Skinner.
"It's no knock on Eric Staal or Cam Ward, but Jeff's popularity, and in winning the Calder, helps us reach out to groups such as young girls and young kids who look at him being so successful at 18," Warf says.
"Jeff approved the five-game plan and was the one who suggested adding the personalized photo. Jeff understands it. He gets it."