Eight seniors sat at the head table at Upfront and Company on Friday for the final Blue Line Club luncheon of the year that honored the Wildcats' careers at Northern Michigan University.
One by one, the seniors took the podium to thank the university, coaches, trainers and their parents.
Some thanked their teammates while others like Andrew Fernandez told embarrassing stories and anecdotes that his fellow Wildcats probably never expected to be told to the entire community.
But as funny as Fernandez's cracks were that afternoon, the speech I will remember the most is the first one, given by Robert Skinner.
His words will stick in my mind because no one at that table seemed to appreciate the college hockey experience more than Skinner, and he never even skated a single shift for the 'Cats.
You may have read about Skinner's story this week in the Detroit Free Press or maybe you remember an article in The Mining Journal by Curt Kemp from March 2009. Here is a refresher covering his remarkable story.
On the Net:
To learn more about the Wildcats' Robert Skinner, check out Matt's Inside 1401 Sports blog online at www.miningjournal.net
Skinner was part of a highly coveted group of players being recruited out of the British Columbia Junior Hockey League around the middle part of last decade, specifically out of Penticton. The 2005-06 Vees squad that Skinner was a part of in his final season of junior hockey went 41-13-2 that season to win the Interior Division and fall in the league finals to Burnaby. The '05-'06 Vees also featured future Michigan Wolverine Brian Lebler, North Dakota Fighting Sioux standout Evan Trupp and NMU defenseman T.J. Miller.
Skinner, who had 51 points off 13 goals and 38 assists in his final season, was being recruited by the Wildcats and Ohio State at the time, but the Vee responsible for setting up many of his high-scoring teammates' goals chose to play for Walt Kyle instead of John Markell in Columbus, Ohio.
It was quite the steal for NMU at the time, but fate had something else in mind for Skinner.
In Game 2 of the BCHL semifinals against Salmon Arm, Skinner was knocked head-first into the boards on a 2-on-1 breakaway and rendered unconscious. He went into a coma and was diagnosed with a diffuse axonal injury, which is a traumatic brain injury.
He spent three months rehabbing to regain full use of his arms and legs, but his hockey career appeared to be over.
Kyle and the Wildcats had other plans for Skinner and refused to let his hockey career die. Kyle wanted Skinner to have the full college hockey experience and in the process gave him much more than that.
Skinner, a business major, has spent the last four years as a volunteer assistant coach for the Wildcats, overseeing the day-to-day operations of the team like travel and game-day film production. He also acts as a liaison between the coaching staff and players, toeing a fine line that Kyle commended on Friday. After listening to Kyle speak so highly of his assistant, it left you feeling that Skinner's contributions to the team may be missed the most next season.
Former Wildcats Mike Santorelli, Mark Olver and Erik Gustafsson may be household NHL names someday, but it looks as if Skinner has the brightest future ahead of himself in the league after an internship with the Tampa Bay Lightning.
While so many are trying to be the next Dallas Drake, Skinner is on the path to becoming the next Don Waddell, who now serves as the Atlanta Thrashers' team president.
Skinner's story shows that there is much more to a college hockey program than wins, losses, Mason Cups and NCAA tournament berths.
It's about helping young people grow and build a future for themselves, just like what the rest of the university is trying to accomplish with every student who enrolls at NMU.
No one exemplifies that spirit more than Robert Skinner.
Matt Wellens can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext 252. His e-mail address is email@example.com.