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EICHEL'S NEXT STEP

by Jourdon LaBarber / Buffalo Sabres

Thursday night, Jack Eichel will take the steps he’s waited his whole life to take, out of the hockey hallway at First Niagara Center and onto the ice for his first game in the National Hockey League.

It’s a big leap for any 18-year-old, but Eichel is used to playing ahead of the curve. Every stop along the way, every adjustment he’s made, all of his hard work and effort – they’ve all been done with this moment in mind.

So, what can we expect to see from Eichel in his first game with the Buffalo Sabres? A look back at his debuts at various levels hints at the determination, the skill and the resolve that have gotten him to this point.

(Photo Credit: Bill Wippert)

OUT OF HIS AGE BRACKET

Eichel will take the ice on Thursday as one of the league’s youngest players, but it won’t be the first time he’s played against opponents that are much older than he is. When he began playing for the Junior Bruins of the Empire Junior Hockey League as an eighth grader, 18, 19 and 20-year-olds were among his competition.

For perspective: He was 13-years-old at the time, competing against players who are older than he will be at the time of his NHL debut.

“I never really thought about it that way,” Eichel said, laughing. “I tried to challenge myself when I was younger, playing against older players. I think it went well for me.”

It was certainly a challenge at first. Eichel remembers struggling badly his first time on the ice that season. The physicality of the older competition stifled his offensive output.

“I remember taking a couple big hits. It was tough for me,” he said. “There’s a pretty big discrepancy between your bodies at that age, between a 13-year-old body and a 20-year-old body.”

But the hits didn’t slow him down. Instead, the 13-year-old adjusted to his new competition. After struggling for weeks to score his first goal, Eichel was playing up to his normal standards by the end of the season.

That year, he finished with 36 points (15+21) in 40 games.

“It was a great year for me,” he said.


A DREAM COME TRUE: EICHEL AT BU

Eichel continued his quick progression into college, graduating a year early from Pioneer High School in Ann Arbor, Mich., to begin playing at Boston University in the fall of 2014.

His first game for the Terriers came on Oct. 10, a match-up with conference rival University of Massachusetts. When Eichel, 17, arrived to the rink that day, roughly 50 people awaited him to ask for his autograph.

Get used to it, Jack.

“I think he might’ve been a little bit nervous,” David Quinn, his head coach at BU, said. “You’re talking about a guy who was probably the most scrutinized player ever to come into college hockey. Nobody came into college hockey with the anticipation that Jack did.”

Eichel at Boston Univertsity (Getty Images)

Quinn himself had high expectations for his freshman forward. Eichel had been the best player on the ice against college teams while playing for the Under-18 team in the United States National Team Developmental League. Plus, the Terriers had already played in one exhibition game prior to their season opener, a 12-1 win over St. Thomas University of New Brunswick.

Eichel notched five assists.

“We knew he was going to make an impact and be one of the better players in college hockey,” Quinn said. “The question was how long was it going to take for that to happen?”

At the outset of their game against UMass, it was hard to tell. It could have been the nerves, but Eichel’s line hadn’t done much through the first two periods of his college debut, entering the third with no points in a game that the Terriers led 2-1.

Then, all of a sudden, something clicked.

Less than two minutes into the period, Eichel poked away the puck to force a turnover in his defensive zone, regained possession after he rushed past the opposing blue line and ripped a quick shot from between the circles for his first collegiate goal.

Not even a minute later, he pulled the puck back to evade two defenders as he glided toward the net and, after catching the goaltender’s attention, delivered a perfect backhand pass across the net for his first assist. Four more minutes went by and he scored again, this time showing his patience as he held the puck in the right circle prior to snapping a quick wrister.

“In the first few minutes of the third period it’s 4-1, he’s got a goal and an assist and he’s solely responsible for both those goals,” Quinn said. “That was when the lights went on for him and he never looked back.”

Eichel tallied one more assist later in that period on a goal scored by Cason Hohmann and also assisted by Evan Rodrigues, both of whom are currently in the Sabres minor-league system. But the three points he earned at the beginning of the period showed the entire package.

His work on the back check, his puck-handling, his patience and vision – it was all there.

“Without question,” Quinn said. “Everything he did, he had three points three different ways and that just really summarizes him in a nutshell.”

Eichel did end up as the best player in college hockey that season, going on to win the Hobey Baker Memorial Award after leading the nation with 71 points (26+45). He led the Terriers all the way to the National Championship game, ultimately losing to Providence College.

That four-point performance against UMass was where it all started.

“It’s something that I had dreamed of my whole life,” Eichel said of his debut. “Our first game, was kind of weird how that all happened, kind of a weird little spurt, but that’s the game of hockey.”


(Photo Credit: Getty Images)

PLAYING AGAINST HIS IDOLS: THE WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP EXPERIENCE

Less than a year after making his collegiate debut, Eichel found himself playing for Team USA for the IIHF World Championship in the Czech Republic.

At that point, he was already projected be one of the top two picks in the following month’s NHL Draft, and this was his first chance to compete against NHL players. In his first game, against Finland, the Nashville Predators’ Pekka Rinne was the opposing goaltender.

“It was quite a first game for me, going through that,” Eichel said. “Those are guys you look up to your whole life and you’re playing against them. It was quite a moment for me.”

But Eichel wasn’t the only one in the building that was awestruck that day. Dan Bylsma, now his coach with the Sabres, was an assistant for Team USA at the tournament and remembers just how astounded his team was the first time Eichel took the ice.

“In 25 years of pro hockey, there have been a few people that the players on the bench turn their head at, whether it’s skill or a great play, like ‘Wow, that was something,’” Bylsma said.

"His speed in that game was one where the other people on the bench turned their head and said ‘Wow, that’s speed.’ That’s a unique thing to happen, we watch hundreds of games … people don’t just turn their heads at anything.”

That being said, Eichel’s first game in the World Championship wasn’t all smooth sailing. He was coming off of strep throat and wasn’t feeling quite himself. Always his own harshest critic, he recalls “struggling really badly” against Finland.

Bylsma and the other coaches on Team USA also noticed that he needed to make an adjustment. Eichel wasn’t using that speed, his greatest gift, while playing away from the puck. They conveyed that to him and, as he had at every other level, Eichel adjusted.

He tallied seven points in the tournament, including a game-winning goal in overtime against Slovakia, to help the Americans earn a bronze medal.

“I started to work harder every game,” Eichel said. “I built more confidence and with that I started to play better.”

As for his play off the puck, the adjustments didn’t stop at the World Championship. Throughout the Sabres’ preseason, Bylsma has lauded Eichel’s improvement.

“His play away from the puck has been more impressive than his speed with the puck, which we’ve seen as well,” Bylsma said. “He’s done an excellent job of using his speed to play defense, track guys, strip guys, you’ve seen that almost every game he’s played.”


A CHANCE TO PROVE HIMSELF: MAKING THE TEAM

On Wednesday, Bylsma finally had the conversation with Eichel. Everyone knew it was coming – six points in the preseason was a hint – but on the eve of the first game of the regular season, Bylsma made it official.

Jack made the team.

“Well, I mean, I’ve made the team to play the first game, yeah,” Eichel said. “I think every game is still another point for me to prove myself and prove that I deserve to be on this team.”

Call it an extended tryout then. But if his past is any indication is at all, Eichel might just become a familiar face at First Niagara Center. On Thursday, that journey will begin with his family and friends in attendance. He’ll also make the switch from his preseason number of 41 to his choice of 15.

“It’s going to be a special moment for me. It’s something I dreamed of my whole life, stepping foot on that ice,” Eichel said. “You’re finally playing hockey for a living.

“Everything you’ve done your whole life is to get to this point, so it’s pretty special.”

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