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Jimmy Vesey leans on Jack Eichel while decision looms

As Sabres try to land prized free agent, their young center provides friendship

by Amalie Benjamin @AmalieBenjamin / Staff Writer

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Jack Eichel thumps his bag of gear down on the floor and takes a seat in the empty stands. He is fresh off his usual Wednesday night game in the Foxboro Pro League, where he plays alongside friend and potential future NHL teammate Jimmy Vesey, though he is quick to downplay the effort on the ice, acknowledging his rustiness and the fact that it's early on in the summer schedule.

The background sounds to this conversation are the usual, skate blades cutting into the ice, pucks contacting sticks and the boards as another team takes over Rink 1 at Foxboro Sports Center. Eichel looks over the players as he talks. The realization comes to him, then, as he watches. This was where he met Vesey for the first time, on this very ice, in this very rink.

It was a little more than four years ago, yet it seems so much longer. Eichel had been called up to the Junior Bruins for the first time; Vesey was 18 years old, in his draft year and playing for the South Shore Kings. Now, Eichel has established himself as a bona fide rising star in the NHL, and Vesey is looking for a team to call his own.

"There was a lot of hype," Eichel said. "I remember a million scouts in the stands and I think he set the record for points that year. Obviously, I had heard a lot about him."

There again is a lot of hype surrounding Vesey, this time regarding his destination in free agency, which he plans to hit Aug. 16, barring a late decision to sign with the Buffalo Sabres -- Eichel's team, of course -- after Buffalo traded a third-round pick in the 2016 NHL Draft to the Nashville Predators for the exclusive right to negotiate with Vesey until that date.

The sides were scheduled to meet Thursday, with representatives of the Sabres coming to Boston to sit down with the prized 23-year-old. It is yet another step in a summer that Vesey thought would be less busy and hectic and controversial than it has been.

To his mind, after the situation with the Predators was finalized, after the draft and free agency, things would settle. He would be able to melt into the heat and ice of summer league hockey, play and work out with Eichel, impress the fans lining the boards and the kids lining up for autographs in this throwback league in which NHL players and soon-to-be NHL players are as accessible as they might have been years and decades ago, but which seems anathema to the current major sports climate.

But the buzz hasn't died.

So the focus turns to the everyday, to the relationships on the ice, a friendship formed over four years of playing together on a line in this league and working out together daily.

"I think obviously it's easy to play with someone as talented as he is," Vesey said. "He sees the ice really well. I like to get open and get myself into scoring areas. I don't even need to yell, he always finds me. But I think we both see the ice really well, so we complement each other pretty well out there."

The chemistry is evident, with Eichel looking for Vesey, and Vesey ready for the passes he knows are coming.

"I do. I look for him," Eichel said. "He's a shooter; I like to pass and I definitely look for him. It's a summer league; I don't try to shoot too much here, and he's a great goal-scorer, so I definitely think I look for him."

It's an alluring picture for Sabres general manager Tim Murray, who said this summer, "We might use Jack as a tool. I'd be a tool not to."

It's alluring too for Vesey and for Eichel, though each knows that Vesey will make up his own mind, find his best fit, wherever that is, and that he is committed to waiting until Aug. 16 to do so.

Eichel can see that adding Vesey's talent could only help the Sabres and said he hopes that his friend strongly considers his team. Vesey can see that having Eichel around could ease the transition, saying, "I think that there'd be a sense of comfort walking into a locker room with Jack there."

But no one is pushing.

"I just try to pass him the puck in this league, and maybe he'll think I'll do that during the season if he wants to come," Eichel said. "I don't know if I want to be called a recruiting tool. I think more than anything I just inform him about what Buffalo is like and what it would be like for him to come.

"I know, obviously, the Sabres want him a lot, and for a good reason."

Eichel had known many things could happen from that first game the two played against each other four years ago. Nothing was guaranteed. Nothing still is, for either one, not even as Eichel has made himself into a force in the NHL, even as Vesey heads into a summer knowing that multiple teams will vie for his services, with all the pressure and all the questions that brings.

That's why being at this league and being around Eichel has been a bit of a solace for Vesey. Mostly, his fellow players leave him alone about the decision; they train, they skate, they let him be. They have fun. They get ready for September and for the future. And maybe Vesey sees what those four years have brought Eichel, and what they soon might bring him.

Video: Vesey's rights dealt to Buffalo

When Eichel had walked into the rink earlier, two pairs of eyes grew wide. The brothers, Alexander and William Zaneski, stared at him from 10 feet away, each tow-headed, cow-licked and far too shy to approach at first. They wore Eichel T-shirts, with a No. 15 on the back that would, after prompting from their parents, yield autographs on the numbers. They would watch him play, this time on Rink 3, with awe in their eyes, holding a homemade sign.

It makes that day on the Junior Bruins, that day when he first met Vesey on the ice in a matchup that might repeat itself in years to come -- Sabres-Bruins, perhaps, or Sabres-Maple Leafs, or Sabres-some other team -- seem so far away. Or maybe, as they have done in this pro league, they'll be back on the same line, with Eichel's passes finding Vesey streaking to the net, as they did a couple of times Wednesday and on many Wednesdays before that.

"It was a long time ago," Eichel said, of that first game. "We've both come a long way from there."

They'll both go a long way too. Perhaps even together.

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