When Darex Family Ice Rink opened for the first time twelve years ago, the Ashland community had a new way to have some fun and get some exercise.

For Ashland High junior Casey Skolnik, it meant much more.

The rink across from Lithia Park granted Skolnik the opportunity to try hockey, a hobby which soon became a passion.

As a 6-year-old boy learning the basics from his father, David, and a core group of what became family friends, it was the park where Skolnik honed his craft.

"There's about five or six of these guys who were there when the rink started," Skolnik said. "They were the ones who pretty much started me off and are probably why I like it so much."

Skolnik has grown into a force on the ice. He currently leads the Grizzlies and the Rogue Valley Youth Hockey Association in points with 46 (21 goals, 25 assists).

Although he is quite capable of putting the puck into the net, it is the assists that get Skolnik riled up. It is his unselfish attitude teamed with substantial talent and vast hockey knowledge that has made him a leader for the Grizzlies (9-4).

"I love setting people up," he said. "When I make a pass and all the other guy has to do is put his stick out there and it goes in, that's pretty rewarding and gratifying. It's right up there with scoring goals."

Over the years Skolnik and long-time friend Lewis Sebrell have played together both in and out of the realm of sports.

They each played their first organized hockey together for the Southern Oregon Hot Shots in elementary school. The duo played football together while Skolnik experimented with it in junior high. They are teammates on the baseball diamond and Sebrell is Skolnik's go-to guy on the ice to this day. Sebrell ranks second on the team in goals with 17, most of which were scored on passes from Skolnik.

Skolnik says the chemistry the two have developed over the years means added success come game day.

"We've just grown up together," he said. "So we know each other really well. It translates I think into statistics on to the ice and we just know where each other is gonna be. We can't really give our secrets away, but just you know where he's gonna be."

Skolnik's love for hockey is matched only by his love for baseball. He and Sebrell played for Ashland's American Legion baseball team that made regionals over the summer.

You can't make Skolnik choose between his two loves, and he says the only way he can decide his favorite sport is by the calender.

"Right now definitely hockey is (favorite) especially since we're coming up to the playoffs," he said. "But in the spring and summer I would have to say baseball. I guess it just depends what season it is."

Ashland hockey is only two regular season games away from the playoffs, which begin Feb. 20. The tournament will take on a double-elimination format rather than the single-elimination playoffs of the past.

Skolnik, perhaps a hockey coach in the making, believes his team has all the tools necessary to make a postseason run and win the league championship. He believes Ashland boasts the most talent and depth in the league, but realizes talent alone doesn't always get the job done.

"We've gotta keep passing the puck really well," he said. "Gotta have solid goaltending. If we get solid goaltending and if we just keep passing the puck, I think we can beat anyone. I think we have the most talented team and its just a matter of setting people up and getting opportunities and capitalizing."

Once Skolnik graduates high school next year, he plans on going to college. He has no clue where he would like to attend, but declared himself eligible for hockey and baseball recruiting.

"I want to go to college and it would be nice to play sports, whether it be hockey or baseball," he said. "It'd be fun to play hockey. I haven't really looked into it too much. Probably should get on that."

Skolnik will take the ice at 7:45 p.m. today when the Grizzlies face off with Klamath Falls at The RRRink in Medford. Ashland will close it's regular season Saturday when it faces Crater at 7:30 p.m.

Sports editor Joe Zavala can be reached at 482-3456 x 224 or joe.