How Oilers goalie Stuart Skinner turned failure into success

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Mistakes. Goaltenders find them maddening. They also find them helpful. Notice how they act after giving up a goal. Sure, they react in the ways one would expect. But they also look up at the videoboard to assess what went wrong so they can learn from those miscues.

This is the exact process Edmonton Oilers rookie Stuart Skinner cites when talking about how he’s arrived at this stage in his career and his life.

He readily admits he’s a product of failure. He doesn’t hide from the fact that when he was younger — a self-described “scrawny kid” — he couldn’t do even 10 pushups and would vomit after doing one set of stairs or most any other physical workout.

Then there was the night in Wichita, Kansas, when he was the goalie for the Wichita Thunder of the ECHL. Skinner recalls giving up nine goals. League records show it was eight, but the point remains the same.

“I remember hanging out with [Oilers defenseman Vincent Desharnais]. We went back to our apartment and I remember saying, ‘I don’t know if the NHL is going to happen for us. It seems so far away,'” Skinner said. “Those are the moments you look back on and you feel a lot of gratitude. Because of that experience, it made me want to work that much harder.”

That failure spurred Skinner to become what he is now, a rookie goaltender who has a chance to play a significant role in helping his hometown Oilers win the Stanley Cup. To do that, Skinner and the Oilers will have to bounce back from a 4-3 overtime loss in Game 1 against the Los Angeles Kings, a game in which Edmonton let a 3-1 third-period lead slip away. (Game 2 is Wednesday night at 10 ET on ESPN.)

People around the Oilers will say Skinner’s rise was gradual, that while they knew they had a goalie who could play in the NHL, they weren’t sure how it would all work out. So the plan was to use a tandem approach, with Edmonton signing Jack Campbell to a five-year contract worth $5 million annually in the offseason.

At first, the plan came with questions. The Oilers were winning, but they were giving up quite a few goals in the process. In December everything changed. Skinner took over as the No. 1 goalie and has put together an All-Star season, with a 29-14-5 record, a 2.75 goals-against average and .914 save percentage, while creating buzz for the Calder Trophy, the award for the NHL’s best rookie.

Skinner says he’s still a work in progress, learning how to handle success, while those who have guided him have always believed he could be whatever he wanted to be.

“It is fun to see them grow and perform in the NHL as they are right now,” said Sylvain Rodrigue, goalie coach of the Bakersfield Condors, Edmonton’s AHL affiliate. “I told [Oilers coaches] Jay Woodcroft and Dave Manson — and it was not only me — our staff said that Stu was a project, but oh my God, he’s big and he has the ability. He just has to put everything together.”

SPEND FIVE MINUTES with Skinner and you’ll find he values discussing his shortcomings and is just as passionate about constantly improving and learning about the different avenues to reach the next level.

This continual path of self-discovery started in 2018, when Skinner, playing in the Western Hockey League, was traded from the Lethbridge Hurricanes to the Swift Current Broncos. He had dominated in youth leagues and was in the WHL at age 16. He participated in national team camps for Hockey Canada, and in 2017, at 19, was a third-round draft pick of the Oilers.

At the time of the trade, he was viewed as the missing piece that could help Swift Current win the WHL championship and reach the Memorial Cup.

“I thought I was this good junior goalie. … I thought I was great,” Skinner said. “I thought I did not have to work hard in practice. I guess I was a selfish, immature kid. I did everything for me.”

Skinner met someone in Swift Current who he says became one of the most influential people in his life. He doesn’t want to share their name. But he does share the guidance this person provided.

Everything they talked about was rooted in honesty. Skinner had to reconcile his belief that he worked hard with the reality that he didn’t. It forced him to appreciate the value of accountability and the need to get better on a daily basis.

That was just the start.

Skinner doesn’t just talk about the people in his life, he provides all the ways they have helped him. And he completely rejects any suggestion that he is a self-made player.

“I know it was not easy to get to where I am at,” Skinner said. “It’s why I don’t know if I even like the term ‘self-made’ because of how many people have helped me get to where I am at. I don’t know if anyone is truly self-made.”

Dylan Wells is one of those who helped Skinner. Aside from his wife, Wells is Skinner’s best friend. They met at those Hockey Canada camps as teenagers. They became closer when Wells, also a goalie, was drafted in 2016 by the Oilers, a year before Skinner was picked by the same team.

Being in the same organization meant they were ECHL teammates. Wells, who now plays for the Dallas Stars’ AHL affiliate, said they lived together in the team hotel and were always trying to find ways to pass the time. Wells is an avid reader whereas Skinner was not at the time.

Wells got Skinner into reading, particularly books by Ryan Holiday.

“I believe the first book he read … I want to say it was ‘Ego is the Enemy’ or ‘The Obstacle is the Way,'” Wells recalled. “He cruised through it right away and asked, ‘Do you have another book I can read?'”

Holiday’s works are centered around themes such as learning from failure and finding success in ways that draw from stoicism.

There is a line from “Ego is the Enemy” in which Holiday wrote, “People learn from their failures. Seldom do they learn anything from success.”

Those words could be the most apt way to describe Skinner.

For years, Skinner said, he thought way too much about how hockey was played rather than concentrating on how he should play hockey. That’s where Oilers goalie coach Dustin Schwartz and Rodrigue have come in.

Rodrigue said he always saw the big picture with Skinner, even when Skinner went through difficult periods. He explained to him the difference between junior players who make it and those who don’t is the time they are willing to invest in the craft. With Skinner, it was about not necessarily changing his work habits, but being more efficient with how he worked.

“There are expectations of where the game is at and not fully understanding the demands of playing professionally and that it is a job now,” Schwartz said. “It’s about understanding the growth that goes into a game. Whether that’s the mental side, the physical side, the technical side or the tactical side. That all requires growth.”

Growth. It’s the one word that keeps coming up with anyone who discusses how Skinner has arrived at his current destination. Talking about growth can be uplifting, but considering what forced someone to grow also can be a little nerve-wracking because it means reviewing one’s mistakes.

Skinner doesn’t see it that way. He embraces those mistakes. It gives him an opportunity to talk about those who helped him take his failure and turn it into success. Oilers strength and conditioning coach Chad Drummond, for example. The work Drummond did with Skinner allows him to go weeks at a time without rest, something Rodrigue raves about.

“It would be a lot of suffering, you could say, but it was in the best way,” Skinner said of those first workouts with Drummond. “He is the guy I trust with everything. … I was 192 pounds when I met him and now I am 220 pounds. I can do pushups, I can do stairs. I am fortunate to have the people who have helped me get here.”

HEAD COACHES, EXECUTIVES, goaltending coaches and goalies themselves throughout the NHL all know the following to be true. One of the strongest ways to ensure a team’s success is to have two goaltenders who respect each other.

Yes, there is only one net. But there are 82 regular-season games at a time in which everything from a flat salary cap to managing workload has led to an increase in the use of goalie tandems.

So how do the Oilers, a legitimate Stanley Cup contender, manage having one goalie they signed to a large contract in free agency and another homegrown talent who is trying to prove himself?

“I’ve been fortunate in my position and my role that we’ve had good goalies come through Edmonton who are good people,” Schwartz said. “At the beginning of the season, we’d have our meetings and we’d do them together. We’d go for supper together. You spend every single day at the rink with these guys. They put their egos in check and understand that we are supportive of each other.”

Get Skinner talking about Campbell and he won’t stop. He goes off about how “super excited” he was when the Oilers signed Campbell. He says it was a chance to learn from an All-Star who had a 30-win season before rattling off Campbell’s save percentages from his time with the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Skinner uses the word “unbelievable” several times when talking about how gracious Campbell has been with him. They go out to dinner. They bounce ideas off each other. They are always talking, especially when Skinner comes to Campbell for advice on technique, recovery or anything else.

“Every time we go on the ice for practice, we’re competing against each other but we also compete for each other, so he can be at his best, so I can be at my best and vice versa,” Skinner said. “There is a love for each other to see each other succeed. If us winning the Cup has Jack in net or me in net, that is our main goal as a team. Whatever will help us do that, both Soup and I want that. Us having that relationship with each other makes it easy no matter who is playing.”

Skinner talks about Campbell the same way Boston Bruins goaltender Jeremy Swayman talked about his relationship with Linus Ullmark. And while Swayman and Ullmark are known for their trademark postgame hugs, there have been moments this season when the fondness Campbell and Skinner have for one another also has been apparent.

Such as earlier this month when Campbell recorded his first shutout of the season. Campbell still had his mask on when he and Skinner flashed giant smiles at each other. Then Skinner put his arm around Campbell and yelled, “YEEEAAAAHHH!” while patting him on the back repeatedly.

Not every goaltending duo in the NHL will form a bromance, but that cohesion can’t help but have a positive impact. Skinner knows this firsthand having gone through it with Wells in the minors.

“I feel like every team I have played on, I have formed a good friendship with my goalie partner,” Wells said. “He’s the only person on the team who understands what you are going through with certain situations. It’s hard to understand what a goalie is going through. They are sounding boards for each other. When I was watching Stuart, you are happy for his success and you are there for him when things don’t go well. You hope for the same in return. I know when I was in net, I felt that love and he did too.”

Skinner and Wells are so close that when they both came to the United States and needed American cell phones, they got a family plan along with Skinner’s wife, a plan they still use. Wells joked that while they still talk often, one conversation they count on is the monthly discussion about paying their phone bill. Wells even lived with Skinner and his wife during the pandemic.

“From the first day I met Stu, I knew how special of a goalie he was,” Wells said. “I consider myself very lucky to be along the way and put the work in with him to grow both of our games. We saw each other’s struggles. … Deep down, I knew he was going to be a star NHL goalie and watching him now, it’s a testament to the work he has put in.”

So for someone who had to endure failure to reach this stage of his career, how is Skinner handling his success?

“I’ve been thinking about that lately, what success really is to me,” Skinner said. “There is a quote, and I forgot the book, but it really resonated with me. Somebody said, ‘A form of success is meaningful relationships and meaningful work. Trying to strive for that is what makes you successful.’

“Learning from how you deal with loss and failure really helps you for when the lights are on you, the cameras are on you and you are in the NHL. It’s important to know how to deal with that. The same goes for success.”

Skinner said he and Desharnais talk about that day in Wichita at least once a week. They think about those long days and nights on buses going to Kansas City, Indianapolis, Tulsa and Rapid City, South Dakota.

They are open about how those buses have been replaced by charter jets and how they’re now going to places like Dallas, Denver, Las Vegas and Los Angeles. Skinner jokes about how they get “tons of food” before and after games, and says he “should be the most grateful person alive” because he is able to make a living this way.

Those close to Skinner say his ascension is rewarding for them too. Schwartz said he’s been watching Skinner since he was in juniors. Schwartz said they have “a unique relationship” because he’s had this front row seat watching Skinner become more than some scrawny kid who tapped into this potential.

Schwartz said what he loves most about Skinner is how he is with people. Schwartz has two children, who are 9 and 12. Every time they come to the rink, Skinner is the first person they want to see because he makes time for them. They even golf together.

So to see Skinner become a successful rookie goaltender in the NHL, not to mention a husband and new father, resonates in a way that goes beyond the typical player-coach relationship.

“His values and principles are in the right place,” Schwartz said. “He’s going to be a great dad with values and how he carries himself. He’s learned so many lessons along the way and he has grown into being an incredible dad, husband and like anyone, you see the value in treating others the right way.”

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