NEW YORK -- The narrow streets of Manhattan are notoriously gridlocked, but New York Rangers defenseman Brady Skjei has an easy solution. The subway gets him from his Soho walk-up to the basement of Madison Square Garden -- his workplace -- in less than 10 minutes.
And unlike playing NHL hockey in Canada or a smaller American city where he would likely spend that commute signing autographs, amid the 23 million residents of the New York City metro area Skjei is just another guy in a suit, riding the train to work in the Big Apple.
“I love it. It’s my third full season at this level and the city has gotten a lot smaller,” Skjei said after a recent Rangers practice. “When I first got here, it was a little overwhelming, but I absolutely love playing here.”
Predestined for a paycheck
The Lakeville, Minn., native came to the U of M after two seasons with USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program in Michigan. Skjei (pronounced “Shay”) garnered Big Ten honors during his three seasons with the Minnesota Gophers, and won a trio of conference titles.
But it was clear from the start that he was destined for a life in hockey beyond college.
“Brady had that thing where you look at his body and you see a NHL build. No body fat, 6-2 or 6-3, strong physically,” said Don Lucia, Skjei’s coach with the Gophers. “Early in his career, he was such a good skater that he’d skate himself into trouble with the puck.
"He was better when he had less space. He could make up so much ground with the puck that sometimes when he had room he’d skate himself into trouble. But then he learned how to adjust and move the puck.”
In the notoriously tight-checking NHL, Skjei’s ability to do more with less space has paid off, handsomely. After two full seasons with the Rangers, the team invested heavily in him last summer, signing the restricted free agent to a six-year pact worth more than $30 million.
The Rangers are under new management this season. Former Boston University coach David Quinn took over behind the bench, with long-time Boston College assistant David Brown at his side. While the Rangers do not look like a playoff team this season, the players with a college background are enjoying the change, and are positive about what they can build.
“It feels like the NHL, but you have a familiarity with the guys, which is nice. Quinny coached me at the World Championships one year and Brownie at World Juniors, so to have some familiar faces this season was nice,” Skjei said. “We’re out of the playoffs right now, but we’re playing the right way and moving in the right direction. The future should be really good.”
'Live from New York…'
Despite having won the Stanley Cup once since World War II, the Rangers are one of the NHL’s marquee teams, by virtue of playing in North America’s largest media market and they are often featured in popular culture. So it wasn’t a total surprise in November 2017 when Skjei was watching “Saturday Night Live” and saw an actor portraying him, having fun with Skjei’s notoriously mispronounced Norwegian name.
Chance the Rapper, playing a bewildered sideline reporter in the sketch, looked at the back of Skjei’s jersey and said, “Yes that’s a S, a K and a J all next to each other, so that’s a nope.”
“I got a lot of crap from the guys in (the locker room) but it was a pretty amazing thing to have your jersey on one of the biggest shows ever,” Skjei said. “And the way the skit went, it was hilarious. So that was pretty cool.”
Memories of Minnesota
The Rangers were on the road last season when the Gophers played a game at Madison Square Garden (a 2-1 win over Michigan State) but Skjei found a nice note from former assistant coach Mike Guentzel in his locker afterward. NHL life is notoriously hectic, but with his first cousin, Jack Sadek, skating with the Gophers currently, Skjei does what he can to keep tabs on the alma mater via Twitter and TV when he can.
He also inevitably thinks about college life when the Rangers play in Philadelphia, which was the site of perhaps the happiest and saddest moments of his three seasons at the U of M. In the 2014 NCAA Frozen Four, the Gophers beat North Dakota in the semifinals when Justin Holl scored with just 0.6 seconds left in regulation. Two nights later the Gophers saw an early lead disappear and the lost the NCAA title game to Union.
“Almost all the guys on the team still talk about that,” Skjei admitted. “We want that one back for sure.”
Living the dream
If that was the low point of Skjei’s hockey career, the daily life for this 24-year-old is what countless hockey players envision earning when they put in extra hours at the rink in their youth.
“It sounds cliche, but you really are living out your dream. It’s unbelievable that you get to play hockey for a living,” Skjei said. “You work hard and put a lot of hours in, but getting to play in the NHL is amazing, especially being here in a city like this.”
Outside, on Eighth Avenue, the New York City traffic was building, with horns blaring and yellow cabs jockeying for every inch of asphalt. Skjei paid no mind to it. He was just a short train ride from home, living his dream life.