Laylin, Skarda reunite on the rink

by Ryan Schuster

A loud clang reverberated throughout the St. Paul Civic Center on April 1, 1989, as then-Gophers junior defensemen Randy Skarda’s shot deflected off the Harvard goal post, missing the net by only inches.
The Minnesota hockey fans and players seemed stunned as their chances for victory and the 1989 NCAA national championship vanished before their eyes.
After Skarda’s miss, Harvard took the puck the length of the ice and scored on Gopher goalie Robb Stauber for a 4-3 overtime win in the championship game.
“My only regrets as a hockey player are losing in three final fours and not getting a national championship,” Skarda said. “People still talk about me hitting the post against Harvard in 1989.”
Cory Laylin was a freshmen forward for Minnesota on that 1988-89 team. “I never thought it would happen,” Laylin said. “After Randy hit the pipe, we were all sitting on the bench with our mouths open.”
Seven years later Skarda and Laylin are playing together again, this time with the Minnesota Arctic Blast roller hockey team. Both players were teammates on the Blast in the team’s inaugural season in 1994.
After the team boycotted the 1995 season because of disagreements with the Roller Hockey International league, Skarda and Laylin have been reunited again.
Both players have spent the majority of the past seven years in and around professional hockey and roller hockey.
Skarda skipped his senior year at Minnesota to play with the St. Louis Blues in the National Hockey League. Still, in his short collegiate career, he managed to tally 28 goals, 60 assists and rack up 270 penalty minutes.
He has the ninth most penalty minutes in Gophers history and also holds the record at Minnesota for the most goals by a defenseman in a single season with 19 during his 1987-88 campaign.
“(Playing Gophers hockey) was probably the most fun I’ve ever had,” Skarda said. “It’s every kid’s dream growing up in Minnesota to play for the Gophers and put on the big M.”
Skarda’s NHL career was short-lived, however, as he only saw action in 40 games with the Blues in the 1989-90 season.
Skarda then spent three years in the International Hockey League with the Milwaukee Admirals and Peoria Rivermen. He made the league’s all-star team in two of those seasons with Peoria.
During his rookie season with the Blast in 1994, Skarda led the RHI in assists with 59 in only 22 games.
After playing in only half of the Blast’s first 13 games this season, Skarda was named to the RHI’s mid-season all-star team, as was Laylin.
Unfortunately, Skarda was unable to play in the game after suffering a broken nose in a June 22 game at home against Montreal. He was stepping out of the penalty box when a teammate’s deflected pass struck him in the face.
“Obviously this team is more of a priority than an all-star game,” Skarda said. “It would have been nice to go down to Anaheim and play, but it wasn’t meant to be, I guess.”
Laylin, the Blast’s team captain, played in the all-star game Monday and won the pre-game shot-accuracy contest.
“It was pretty cool for me,” Laylin said. “I just felt fortunate to be there.”
Laylin was drafted by the Pittsburgh Penguins out of high school in 1988, but decided to go on to college at Minnesota instead.
His decision to go to school paid off as he had a successful collegiate career at Minnesota. He scored 58 goals and 49 assists in 170 games.
Laylin’s 1993 season with the Flint Bulldogs of the Colonial Hockey League was sandwiched between stints with European teams.
He then gave up on playing in the United States and concentrated his efforts overseas.
Laylin played for an Austrian hockey team in Europe from 1992 to 1994, where he was named “best import” both seasons.
His 5-foot-9-inch, 180-pound frame forced him to switch from forward to defense in Europe. But now Laylin is back to playing forward for the Blast.
“Playing in Europe is the best move I ever made,” Laylin said. “I knew my chance of playing hockey in the NHL was pretty small. And playing hockey in the minors is a hard lifestyle.”
Laylin seems to be adjusting well to roller hockey in his second stint with the Blast. He has scored 19 times and collected 18 assists in the first half of this season.
“You have to change the way you think,” Laylin said. “You can’t start and stop like you can on ice, and the four-on-four game gives offenses more room to maneuver and creates more defensive breakdowns than there are in ice hockey.”
Roller hockey is played with three forwards, one defensemen and a goalie, whereas ice hockey has an extra defensemen.
Fighting is more strictly penalized in roller hockey, the blue lines are removed and roller hockey’s four 12-minute periods replace ice hockey’s three 20-minute periods.
All these differences lead to more scoring. Monday night’s all-star game was a good example: Laylin’s Eastern Conference team lost a 14-12 nail-biter. The Western Conference scored two goals in the game’s final 30 seconds, which wiped-out a six-goal outburst by the East’s Tony Szabo.
“It’s an up and down game,” said Blast head coach Scott Bjugstad. “In most games there are 60 to 70 point-blank scoring chances. If you get down by four goals, the game isn’t over.”
Not only is the game different, but the league’s salary payouts are unique as well.
Every player in the RHI is paid a $180 stipend per game from the league office. If a player competes in all 28 games, he can earn $5,040 for the 2 1/2-month season.
Players can also receive bonuses depending on what place their team finished in the division and how far they went in the playoffs. With bonuses, the most money a player can receive if their team wins the league title is $14,286.
Given these low earnings, most players are forced to work regular jobs in the off-season. Skarda works in sales at CW Marketing, while Laylin competes in several European leagues.
The Blast are currently in first place in the Central Division at 10-3. They have the second-best record in the RHI behind the Anaheim Bullfrogs.
In 1994, Minnesota won the division with the league’s best record and advanced to the conference finals of the RHI playoffs.
“We are as good as anyone we’ve played so far,” Skarda said. “We have as good a chance as anyone to advance in the playoffs.”
Maybe this time Skarda and Laylin can get what has eluded them for the past seven years: a championship.