MINNEAPOLIS -- As an eighth grader, hockey prodigy Jack Eichel was playing for and against 20-year-olds in his debut with the Boston Junior Bruins of the Empire Junior Hockey League.
He served as captain of that team the following season, scoring 86 points in 36 games.
"Anytime you get to be around older guys, you get their habits and the way they go about their business," Eichel told NHL.com. "Being able to play against older guys makes you a better player. I think that if you're not challenging yourself you're not going to get better."
The challenges continued following his freshman year at Chelmsford High School in Massachusetts when the 16-year-old center joined the United States National Team Development Program's under-17 team in Ann Arbor, Mich.
Jack Eichel has produced 13 goals and 23 points, including eight multiple-point efforts, in just 10 games with the U-18 NTDP in 2013-14. (Photo: Tom Sorensen)
"That was tough because I kind of consider myself a homebody; mom has done so much for me [in North Chelmsford]," Eichel said. "Moving out to Ann Arbor was difficult but it's always been a goal of mine to play for the NTDP. When I got the opportunity to play there I knew it was an opportunity of a lifetime and I couldn't pass it up."
So impressed were his coaches that Eichel was promoted to the USNTDP under-18 team for 22 games that season. He showed he was worthy of the promotion with 10 goals and eight assists.
He's been with the U-18 team all season in 2013-14, and in 22 games he has 19 goals and 20 assists.
The 6-foot-1,191-pound Eichel has been matched against bigger and stronger players his entire hockey-playing life but it hasn't stopped him from becoming the best American-born player eligible for the 2015 NHL Draft.
So it's easy to see why USA Hockey never wavered in its decision to invite Eichel to the National Junior Team selection camp this week for possible inclusion on the final roster for the 2014 IIHF World Junior Championship.
"Two things pop out about Jack Eichel," said U.S. Junior Team general manager Jim Johannson. "He's a dynamic offensive player, and what this camp presents for him is another challenge to show how high a level he can go at this stage in his career. I think he's also a guy who's physically ready for the Under-20's. In cases where we've had players like this they've risen with the level of competition and I think that's what Jack needs to show and do here at this camp."
He won't turn 18 until on Oct. 28, 2014, but Eichel has proven time and again he can play with the big boys. It seems U.S. coach Don Lucia and the national junior team managerial group wants to see how Eichel will fare against Minnesota State University in an exhibition game set for Tuesday in Mankato before declaring him a lock for the team.
"I thought I had a pretty good first half of the year, and being a part of USA Hockey makes it easier for them to give an underage player an opportunity," Eichel said. "I think that they saw something in me and I just have to do what they ask. When you get an opportunity to play for the United States of America in a tournament like this it's an honor. I want to show that I do deserve to be here."
The only player his age considered to be just as good, if not better, is Connor McDavid, who is earning headlines for his play at Canada's National Junior Team selection camp. McDavid, who plays for the Erie Otters of the Ontario Hockey League, turns 17 on Jan. 13. Like Eichel, McDavid is considered a top prospect for the 2015 draft, meaning lots of time for talk about who could be the first player picked.
"You're talking about two wonderful players who are going to be a big part of the NHL in the future, and for us it's a good test for Jack," Johannson said. "It's something we think we've trained and prepared him for, so now it's in the hands of the player."
It would be a pretty entertaining scenario if Eichel and McDavid were playing for their respective countries at the WJC. The United States and Canada are scheduled to play in preliminary-round action of Group A on New Year's Eve (11:30 a.m. ET, NHLN-US).
"I don't really think too much about playing against Connor," Eichel said. "I just want the opportunity to be on [the World Junior] team first and foremost. He's trying to make Canada and I'm trying for Team USA. I just want to get an opportunity to help defend the gold medal; that's our biggest goal at this point. I don't really look at one-on-one battles. This is a team game, and if we're going to win this tournament we'll win it as a team."
It's that mindset that has his U.S. teammates singing his praises.
"He's good," returning U.S. forward Ryan Hartman told NHL.com. "I watched him at the [USNTDP] a few times and he's a quick player, fast and with great awareness and good hands. He's going to be special."
Eichel certainly has proven to be in high demand too, despite the fact he's verbally committed to attend Boston University next season.
He was a first-round pick (No. 15) of the Halifax Mooseheads in the 2012 Quebec Major Junior League draft. Upon his release from Halifax after notifying the team of his commitment to BU, he was drafted by the Saint John Sea Dogs in the 10th round (No. 167) in the 2013 QMJHL draft, just in case he thought about changing his mind. He also was chosen in the second round (No. 52) of the 2013 Kontinental Hockey League draft by Vityaz Podolsk.
"I try not to think about that too much," Eichel said. "I guess it just opens up more options for you, which is always nice, but I'm really excited to go to BU."
So are his future BU teammates and fellow U.S. camp invites Daniel O'Regan and Matthew Grzelyck.
"He's so impressive; his skating stride is unbelievable," Grzelyck, a defenseman, said. "He's got all the tools for sure and is fun to watch."
O'Regan, a forward, echoed those sentiments.
"I know everyone at BU is excited for him to come in," he said. "Even after one practice at this selection camp it's pretty obvious he's a highly skilled guy."