For a Plan B, the Allen Americans are working out pretty well for Brett Skinner.
The 29-year-old defenceman from Brandon had every intention of playing professional hockey overseas for a third straight season, but the NHL labour dispute made jobs in Europe’s top leagues hard to come by as the locked out players fanned out elsewhere for work.
Instead of waiting around for one of those spots to open up, Skinner opted instead for the Central Hockey League’s Americans in Allen, Texas. While it’s a step below the American Hockey League where Skinner spent most of his first five pro seasons — excluding 12 NHL games with the New York Islanders — Skinner is more than happy with the season so far.
"All things considered, it’s better than sitting at home skating with just a couple guys or whatever," said Skinner, who split last season between the elite leagues in Sweden, Germany and Finland after spending 2010-11 in Russia. "I think there’s a lot of guys in my situation who have been waiting out this lockout, and I feel fortunate that I’m in a situation where I’ve been able to come here to a great organization, been put into a situation where I get to play, and play a lot, and having fun.
"I’d stack it up against most of the organizations I played with in the ‘A’ — some of the top teams that I’ve played on — the way that they treat us here. So I consider myself very lucky to be in this situation."
It helps that both Skinner and the Americans are enjoying a stellar season so far. Allen leads the league with a 10-2 record, while Skinner leads CHL defencemen — and is fourth among all players — with 18 points (four goals, 14 assists).
With players from higher levels making their way to the CHL due to the lockout, plus the talent being more concentrated with the league down four teams from last season, Skinner has been impressed by the calibre of play so far, and he believes the experience the Americans have to draw on is part of the reason they’ve been so successful.
"If you look at our ‘D’ corps, we’ve got five guys who have at least played games in AHL," he said. "We have some … NHL experience, a lot of good older players and then you look at our coaching staff, Steve Martinson has NHL experience, he’s got tons of championships or coaching experience at this level. And then (longtime NHL defenceman) Richard Matvichuk’s our assistant.
"The ownership group (includes) Mike Modano, Ed Belfour, Craig Ludwig; those guys are around the rink all of time. Craig Ludwig’s on the ice with us two or three times a week. And you’re talking about Stanley Cup champions here; it’s invaluable experience. … I can honestly say I’ve learned more from a guy like Steve Martinson or Richard Matvichuk in the month that I’ve been here than I have in full seasons at times in my pro hockey career."
While it’s not exactly a hockey hotbed, the Dallas suburb isn’t exactly a bad place to spend the winter months, either.
"We were just up north in llinois for a road trip and coming back to this weather definitely wasn’t too rough," Skinner said. "Honestly, it’s a pretty cool area. Our apartment’s right on the golf course. It’s a great area (and) they’ve got a brand new facility."
Skinner believes the involvement of the former NHLers in the ownership group is a major reason the team is run so professionally.
"They run it like you would an NHL team because that’s what they’re used to, because these guys are Stanley Cup champions and arguably a couple of them will probably be Hall of Famers," Skinner said. "So it’s been a great experience so far."