Since Rockford joined the American Hockey League prior to the 2007-08 season, no prospect has been more anticipated, built up, knocked down and then re-hyped by fans and media type than Jack Skille.
With a new team in a new league, it was only natural for IceHogs fans to hook onto Skille. A fairly local product (Madison, Wis.), a year removed from an NCAA National Championship at the University of Wisconsin and a first round draft pick (7th overall) by Chicago in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft, Skille had the pedigree of a star in the making.
As a first-round pick, there are pressures felt that most other players don’t experience. First rounders, especially players selected in the top 10, are frequently burdened with the title of franchise savers or changers. That’s a lot to ask of an 18- or 19-year-old kid.
“You look at the Chicago Blackhawks at the time that Jack was trying to get in, we had (Jonathan) Toews, (Patrick) Kane, (Marian) Hossa, (Patrick) Sharp and (Kris) Versteeg when he was here,” said Mike Haviland. “Our top six or seven guys where high-end guys. So all of sudden Jack had to find a niche that makes him an NHL player. It’s a matter of wanting to change your game to make it in the NHL.”
It was easy to understand Skille’s frustrations though. During his rookie campaign in 2007-08, the winger played in 16 games in the NHL and thought his NHL career was off the ground. But Skille played just eight contests in the NHL his second year and six last season.
Like Jake Dowell and Bryan Bickell, Skille was stuck in the hockey version of purgatory in the salary cap era: getting shuttled back-and-forth between the Windy City and the Forest City between games in the NHL most of last season.
“Games-wise it got lower and lower each season, and it was really frustrating there for a while because I felt that I was more prepared than I had ever been to play at the NHL level,” said Skille. “So I think it just was a mental battle and (it was important) that the confidence stayed up, I kept faith in myself and this organization, and I just showed up every night and played hard no matter which team I was playing for.”
|Jack Skille has stayed at the NHL level by being a third- and fourth-line energy player. |
Skille’s production increased all three seasons in the AHL. He boosted his goals, assists and points each year and didn’t let the off-the-ice questions effect his on-the-ice play.
“I may not have been mentally prepared when I first signed pro, but it was going to be a learning experience no matter when I started,” said Skille. “The college game is a lot different than the pro game, and I’m glad that I had the time I had in Rockford to learn the pro game on and off the ice.
“There is a lot of pressure there because of my draft status, being drafted pretty high. Knowing that I had a lot to live up to -- that’s a lot for a kid at the age of 19-years-old to handle when he turns pro.”
It was clear that Skille had the skill and ability on the ice to make it as an NHLer. Unfortunately that’s only half of the battle. Maturing on and off the ice, including learning to deal with the pressure from media, fans and people inside the hockey community, are other obstacles for AHL prospects to overcome.
Add that to a lot of self-imposed mind games players put on themselves when waiting for their opportunity in the NHL, like “Am I the next to go up?”, or “I feel like I’m ready for the next level,” and the pressures of being a pro are much greater than what prospects might face in college or juniors.
“You see things here and there, whether it’s on the Internet or an article in the newspaper or whatever it might be that might be negative,” said Skille. “I think that it’s pretty easy when those things come along to get in your head and hurt your confidence a little bit. But that is part of the process.
“It’s different for every player, and I don’t regret the way I went. I know other players made it right away, but I faced a lot of adversity throughout my career so far, and I think I’m a lot more mature person for that.”
Dowell knew coming into the professional realm that he would make it to the NHL as a role player. Skille, on the other hand, had to reinvent the type of player he was to get into the NHL.
“There was a lot of pressure, a lot of hype for him,” said Haviland. “A first rounder gets sent to the minors, and you try to find your way. 'Am I a goal scorer or a checker?' And you try to guide them along as a coach to which assets are going to help them to get into the NHL.”
During his first full season in Chicago, Skille has played anywhere from the first line to the fourth line and everywhere in between. At the turn of the calendar Skille had accounted for 14 points for Chicago and ranked third on the team in shots on goal.