Jack Skille did not know the language. He was unfamiliar with the culture. Other than a couple distant relatives to reach out to, he was largely on his own.
The American was excited to be in Norway, though, on a quest to explore his family's roots while rebuilding confidence in his game.
Unable to skate with the National Hockey League's Florida Panthers during the labour conflict last fall, Skille was hungry to get back onto the ice following an injury-riddled season. He contacted his agent about opportunities in Europe. Within 24 hours, Skille received an e-mail from his cousin, Tommy Iversen, who suggested he ply his trade with Rosenborg Trondheim in Norway.
While many of his NHL peers sought contracts with Europe's premiere leagues, Skille never considered another option. The chance to learn about his family's history trumped all.
“My grandparents had gone over there in the past,” Skille said. “They told me that they dug up some of the past of our family. It always intrigued me – where did we come from? What were my roots? Where's my last name from? How did we end up in Wisconsin?”
Skille experienced international travel several times as member of the United States national team. He worked within planned schedules, never worried about transportation or meals, and his coaches and teammates spoke fluent English. Exposure to culture shock was minimal.
“I had never travelled overseas in my life without a hockey team,” Skille said. “Never by myself, living there, driving a car, cooking my meals.”
Skille welcomed the adventure, but also found it a little uneasy at times, especially during his first trip to a grocery store. With all the products and signs in Norwegian, Skille felt like “a deer caught in the headlights”.
“A lady just picked me out of the crowd, noticed that I was probably American,” he said. “She came up and asked if I was having a problem. I said, ‘Can you help me find the gluten-free section?’ She was like, ‘Yeah, it's right here on the wall!’ It was small things like that.”
Skille credited the kindness of Norwegians in helping him adjust quickly. Whenever he appeared lost, a local always came to his aid.
“They’re really accepting of an American coming in there, not knowing anything about the Norwegian language,” Skille said. “They’d come up to you and ask you if you needed help and give you some direction. It made everything so much easier.”
Established in 1934, Rosenborg Trondheim is the oldest ice hockey team in Norway, though it has always been regarded as a minor club. Its longevity has not produced many on-ice successes. For years, the franchise played in the shadow of the Trondheim Black Panthers, who folded in 2008.
Rosenborg earned a promotion to the GET Ligaen in 2010. In the years since, it has retained its place in the premiere league by the slimmest of margins.
Which is why, when Skille announced his decision to join Rosenborg, then-general manager Atle Johansen told the Norwegian Broadcasting Company it was a “gift from heaven”.
Games in the 10-team league gave Skille a variety of competition. Top squads boasting fully funded lineups offer a quality of play similar to the American Hockey League. Lower-tier clubs, whose finances may only cover full salaries for top players, are equal to ECHL teams.
“Guys on the team are working,” Skille said of his Rosenborg teammates. “Guys had second jobs, which was something I had never seen before.”
Playing at home in the cozy Leangen Ishall, a ‘70s era arena which seats about 3,000, Skille and fellow NHLer Deryk Engelland made their debut on October 18 to a heroes welcome.
“It was pretty electrifying to see the whole group,” Skille said. “They’re like football fans, soccer fans over there. They have that huge section with flags, blowing the horns and cheering real loud when Deryk and I got on the ice that first game.”
Skille led Rosenborg with seven shots in its 3-0 loss to Lørenskog IK that night. He picked up points in three of the next four games and contributed two goals and an assist in a 5-2 upset over powerhouse Vålerenga Oslo.
“When Jack was here, he made a big impact on the group,” Rosenborg team spokesman Daniel Andersen said. “He wanted to win and made the other guys on the team want it, too.”
A third- or fourth-line player in the NHL, Skille saw top minutes and played in many different situations with Rosenborg. The winger finished his nine-game stint with six goals and six assists.
It was exactly the kind of confidence boost Skille needed following shoulder surgery last March.
“I was really happy for him,” Panthers coach Kevin Dineen said. “I know it's not the premiere league in Europe. But what it’s done is give him a bucketload of ice time. He got a great amount of responsibility. I think it’s exactly what he needed coming off a season-ending injury with his shoulder.”
Adjusting to a different hockey dynamic made Skille appreciate what many Europeans go through when they come to play in North America.
“I made friends with guys from different countries,” Skille said. “It’s like when guys from Sweden come over here. Now you know what it feels like, to be sitting in a room where you’re not necessarily comfortable every day, but you’re having fun and meeting new people.”
About a 10-minute drive from Leangen Ishall, through Trondheim’s residential streets, is Dora-1, a massive building housing historical documents preserved for Norway’s state archives.
Situated deep inside one of many zig-zagging fjords off the coastline of the Norwegian Sea, the facility previously served as a strategic bunker for Nazi submarines patrolling the Atlantic Ocean during World War II.
A reminder of darker times, the Norwegians sought to free their homeland of this pockmark, a fortress built with three-metre thick cement walls and reinforced with steel. When it was determined blowing up the building would destroy the surrounding land, it was repurposed. In 2006, the government converted the facility into a public space housing museums, a library and regional archives.
“When we went to look up all the records, I got a tour of where all the submarines came in underneath the foundation,” Skille said. “It was really eerie walking through that place, to witness a piece of history like that.”
It was also where Skille delved into his own history.
Presented with registers from the mid-1800s, Skille found evidence of his great-great-great grandfather, Eric Johnsen, on ship documents listing passengers bound for the United States.
Years later, Johnsen paid for his son – Odin Eriksen Skille, Jack Skille's great-great grandfather – to join him in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. But the moves overseas split the family tree.
“I saw the family tree,” Skille said. “It was a ton of people in the United States and then Norway.”
As for the origin of his name, Skille can partially thank immigration officers in the United States for that.
Because individuals in Scandinavia determined their surname through patronyms, the merger of a father’s name plus a suffix denoting the relationship, officers were confused and often led immigrants to change their name on arrival.
Odin Eriksen became the first to adopt the name Skille in the new world. Reminded of his old log cabin in Norway, “skillesved” or “Skille’s home”, Eriksen had inspiration for his new identity.
“When they came over to the United States [the officers] said, ‘This is too confusing. We can’t do it this way. Pick one way and stick with it,’” Jack Skille said. “My family, they were from Skille [pronounced shee-lay], a little village outside of Trondheim. When he went to the United States, he picked Skille because it reminded him of home.”
These days, Skille is back in his adopted home of South Florida, but with Norway on his mind.
He basks in sharing stories about Norway’s scenic beauty, its people and relaxed culture.
“As a country, as a whole its beautiful,” Skille said. “It was a really cool experience. I made some good buddies over there with Swedes, Norwegians.”
For a journey that started as a journey to unearth his past, it ultimately helped him move forward to rediscover trust in his game.
“I got some confidence back that I was missing for a long time,” Skille said. “You play a certain role for so long, and I'll probably go back to that role, which is fine. But it’s also nice to know you still have that other side, those other abilities, you have that confidence.”
Although the Panthers have struggled early this season, Skille has been a bright spot for his team. He’s been promoted to Florida’s third line alongside Shawn Matthias and Marcel Goc. He’s scored two goals and two assists in 16 games. And because he’s been responsible in his own end, he’s earned time on the Panthers’ penalty kill.
“I learned to have a little poise out there, not rush it and really make sure the accuracy was there with the shot and really make sure I buried it,” Skille said. “Obviously there’s flashes of where I’m still rushing a little bit, but I think that just goes hand-in-hand with experience.”
For Skille, little has been lost in the translation.