BUFFALO -- The perspective on the CCM/USA Hockey All-American Prospects Game has changed a lot in a year for Jack Eichel.
A year ago, Eichel arrived in Buffalo for the first time and won the Most Outstanding Player award in the 2014 game. Now he's trying to make the Buffalo Sabres roster and is helping to provide an example to future American players as they prepare for the 2015 All-American Prospects Game on Thursday at First Niagara Center (7 p.m. ET; NHLN-US).
"It was really important for me," Eichel said about playing in the game. "Obviously this game is pretty highly touted and there's so many great prospects and great players here. I just wanted to come in here and have a good start to my year, and I think I did that. It was a great experience for me getting here, seeing a lot of my friends, and playing a game in front of thousands and thousands of people. It's a really exciting event to be a part of. These kids are really going to enjoy it; it's a night they're never going to forget."
Eichel, 18, was taken second in the 2015 NHL Draft by the Sabres, but his road to the NHL started at the All-American Prospects Game.
Eichel went on to win the Hobey Baker Award as the best player in college hockey with 26 goals and 71 points in 40 games for Boston University. The forward led the Terriers to the national championship game. Eichel also played for the United States at the 2015 IIHF World Junior Championship and the 2015 IIHF World Championship.
"I think the prospects game has come a long way from the first one that was played here a few years ago," Eichel said. "Last year, for me personally, it was an unbelievable event and a great kickoff to my season with college just starting at the beginning of October. It was a good way to begin my year and get some exposure."
After a year of playing hockey, going through the NHL Draft Combine and the draft itself, and now being part of the Sabres, Eichel is in the position of being the new face of USA Hockey.
"I sit up there and he's three years older than my oldest son. I'm amazed at his poise and how he handles himself," Sabres president Russ Brandon said. "He was obviously raised very well, he's an outstanding young man, and he's a damn good hockey player on top of it. How he represents the Buffalo Sabres and our community is first-class. In talking to [USA Hockey assistant director of hockey operations Jim Johansson] and the relationship that he's had with him over time; it's pretty much a common thread with him."
Things change over time and Eichel's place in Buffalo is part of that. He's gone from being a potential draft pick of the Sabres to wearing their jersey, but he's happy to be a part of helping grow hockey in Buffalo and across the United States.
"It's pretty weird. A year ago I was here. A lot's changed with this city since I was here," Eichel said. "The HarborCenter [wasn't completed]. … Now you see it, it's a beautiful facility with an unbelievable hotel, a restaurant. It's come a long way and it's only been a year, but a lot can happen in a year and now I'm on the other side of things. Being an ambassador for this game … it's a great opportunity for all of them and it was an opportunity for me and it's an experience I'll never forget."