Jeff Skinner made a left turn for the first time today.
Entering PNC Arena from the loading dock and security entrance at the north end, behind the Olympia entrance, the cavernous service area tapers down as you get closer to the ice. Roughly underneath row P of section 112, the service area intersects a hallway that nearly circumnavigates the arena level, interrrupted only by the Carolina Hurricanes’ locker room under the west seats.
To get to the Canes’ room, turn right. A left turn takes one to the visitor’s locker room.
For eight seasons and 579 games, Skinner made a right turn. Today, he turned left.
“It’s a little different,” Skinner admitted after the Buffalo Sabres’ morning skate at PNC on Friday. “A little exciting.”
This was home for Skinner, the second-longest he’s ever lived in one place in his nearly 27 years. Markham, Ontario, may be his hometown, but Raleigh was where he entered adulthood. It’s all sort of surreal, both for him and for Hurricanes fans, to see him come back to PNC with the goal of beating the home team rather than helping them win.
“There’s a lot of stuff that goes through your head when you look back on it,” said Skinner. “I have nothing but great memories here, good friendships. I’m excited to see a lot of guys. The fans treated me exceptionally well, and I had a great time playing here.
Those fans bore witness to Skinnermania nine seasons ago - how was it already nine seasons ago?! - when a fresh-faced 18-year-old made the team out of camp and promptly became its second-leading scorer. He had 24 points by Christmas. Skinner, Ron Francis and Sylvain Turgeon remain the only teenagers in franchise history to crack 60 points, a feat not even Sebastian Aho pulled off.
And when a Stanley Cup champion and Hart Trophy winner had to pull out of the All-Star Game in 2011, somehow it made perfect sense that a rookie three months into his NHL career was the obvious replacement. The fact that the festivities were held in Raleigh only made it more apropos for Skinner to replace Sidney Crosby on the roster, even though he was already slated to appear in the rookie challenge and the skills competition, and that was the weekend that really catapulted Skinner into the local celebrity stratosphere.
Security guards followed him around. The line for his autograph snaked around multiple walls of the Raleigh Convention Center. When the NHL introduced the fantasy-draft format for the All-Star teams, it came as no surprise that captain Eric Staal took Cam Ward and Skinner for his squad.
P.K. Subban, at the time a rookie defenseman for the Montreal Canadiens and, ironically, Skinner’s replacement for the rookie competition, famously donned a number 53 Skinner jersey in the skills competition.
He capped off the season by beating Logan Couture, a player three years Skinner’s senior, for the Calder Trophy. It was Skinner’s world, and we were just living in it, powered by a megawatt smile that became as much his trademark as Rod Brind’Amour’s famously crooked nose.
So now, he comes back. He’s second behind Jack Eichel in scoring for the Sabres. Next summer he’ll hit unrestricted free agency for the first time in his career. It’s a different position to be in, and Skinner was nothing but complementary about the process that saw him depart to western New York over the summer.
“Sometimes both sides need a fresh start, and that was the kind of way it was going,” he said. “There was good communication between my agent and the organization. It was all done in a professional manner.”
What’s ironic is that Skinner, had he stayed, would now be the longest-tenured member of the Hurricanes, and perhaps that’s what makes tonight so bittersweet. This isn’t exactly Alexei Ponikarovsky visiting as a member of the New Jersey Devils.
He has played the most games of any active player, 622 entering tonight, without making a playoff appearance. (In second place on the list? Skinner’s teammate Zach Bogosian, sitting on 590 games.) And with the Hurricanes and Sabres neck and neck in the playoff race, it could be that Skinner’s streak continues at the hands of his former club.
Skinner will be back on a line with Eichel tonight, following the captain’s three games out of the lineup with an upper-body injury. It’s a combination that has powered Skinner to 29 goals in 43 games, second only to Alex Ovechkin and already the fourth-highest total of his career. Eight more will see him set a new career high, and he could reach that plateau by the All-Star Game - which he was named to today for the second time in his career.
Before that happens, though, he has some catching up to do. Texts have already flown between Skinner and his former teammates, and they’ll get together following the game tonight. There will be time for reminiscing and enjoying a return to the Triangle, albeit abbreviated with the Sabres headed back home for a game against Tampa tomorrow night.
But tonight, it’s all business, as Skinner jokingly threatened his former compatriots, now his adversaries.
“I’ll see them in the corners.”