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Teammates compare Eichel's drive to Jordan's in 'Last Dance'

Sabres captain has already begun preparing for 2020-21

by Jourdon LaBarber @jourdonlabarber / Sabres.com

Jake McCabe spent part of his quarantine watching The Last Dance, ESPN's 10-part documentary about Michael Jordan's career with the Chicago Bulls. 

That in itself is not a story - it seemed like most of America watched The Last Dance. But how many saw Michael Jordan and were reminded of one of their teammates? 

"Looking at how much of a leader Michael Jordan was, I couldn't help but think about Jack and his competitive drive and trying to make his teammates better this year and how big of strides we took," McCabe said.

"All he cared about this year was just trying to be the best captain of his he could be day in and day out, just trying to lead this group. He did that extraordinarily."

Video: Jack Eichel's season-ending media availability

McCabe wasn't alone in making that comparison. Jordan superfan Kyle Okposo took notes throughout the documentary and was particularly struck by the scene when MJ had a personal court built on the Warner Bros studio while filming Space Jam. He would spend the day shooting (film, not basketballs), then host exhibitions with NBA stars into the night. After that, he hit the gym.

"That sort of mentality is incredible and it is the drive that not very many people have and that's why he was so good," Okposo said. "Jack's got that. He's not Jordan, but he has that mindset of just wanting it so bad and that is something that's very rare."

Those comments were evidence of the growth Jack Eichel showed on and off the ice during his second season as Buffalo Sabres captain. 

The numbers speak for themselves. Eichel followed through on his preseason objective of scoring more goals, setting a new career high and ranking eighth in the NHL with 36. His points-per-game average (1.14) improved for the fifth straight season.

He was a model of consistency at both ends of the ice. His 20 multi-point goal games ranked 13th in the league. His seven multi-goal games ranked fifth. He recorded three separate point streaks of seven games or more, including an 18-game run that began in November.

Video: OTT@BUF: Eichel nets four goals against Senators

Okposo would see Eichel after those games and notice how it almost felt routine.

"This year, especially early, the first half of the year when he did put the team on his back a lot, he did it all season, but after games it wasn't relief," Okposo said. "It was just, 'OK, that's just what I do. I'm going to go to the gym and now I'm going to go do a workout or I'm going to go home and get treatment and eat right and take care of myself because that's just what I do.'

"There was just more of a matter-of-fact about it and not, 'Oh, man, that was a great game; I'm relishing in that game.' It was, 'OK, I did my job. I'm going to go do it again.' That was a pretty cool thing to see from him."

Eichel is a student of not only hockey, but of the psyches of greats in other sports. He referenced a Kobe Bryant documentary that helped him get through a high-ankle sprain 2016 and, as a Boston native, has tried to draw from the mental makeup of Tom Brady. Yes, he watched The Last Dance, too. 

This year he was aided by another strong leadership mind in Sabres coach Ralph Krueger, who in addition to leading hockey teams has been a public speaker and worked with the World Economic Forum on new models of leadership.

"The first guy I have to give the most credit to is our head coach, Ralph," Eichel said. "I think being around him every day, the way he handles himself and being able to learn from him, being able to build a relationship and go to him for things and advice. I think it's been so big for me. 

"He's one of the greatest natural born leaders I've ever been around on a day-to-day basis, the way that he looks at life and not even hockey. It's been a pleasure working with him. I couldn't be happier to have him as a coach."

Naturally, with competitiveness comes a hunger for success. Eichel and the Sabres saw their season end Tuesday with the announcement of the NHL's plan for returning to play. He admitted his frustration from a fifth-straight season without playoffs to reporters Wednesday, and yes, the slim margin by which the Sabres missed the 24-team field did make it feel worse.

Video: Kyle Okposo on disappointment of season ending early

"Listen, I'm fed up with the losing and I'm fed up and I'm frustrated," he said. "It's definitely not an easy pill to swallow right now. It's been a tough couple of months. It's been a tough five years with where things have went. I'm a competitor. I want to win every time I'm on the ice. I want to win the Stanley Cup every time I start a season.

"I've already started preparing for next season now. I'm already back on the ice. I'm already training. I'm already doing things to try and better myself for the start of next season, whenever that is."

Which brings us to the part of The Last Dance that stood out to Eichel the most. Before Michael Jordan was revered as a champion, he was known as a regular-season superstar who couldn't carry his team to the ultimate prize. That lasted through 1989, when the Bulls lost a physical series to the Detroit Pistons for the second straight year. 

"He had the whole team working a week later," Eichel recalled. "His commitment to winning and commitment to being the best, it's incredible. You can't say enough about his competitive nature."

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