When Lauren Hall first contacted me about meeting us and coming to our house to do a story about the Eichel Tower, I knew my son C.J. would be excited. As one might expect from an 8-year-old kid, he's very proud that it was his idea. He was even more excited when the Sabres invited us to Bridgestone Arena to watch the morning skate before facing the Predators.
I should back up for those who don't know. On Jan. 26, 2016 when Jack Eichel scored his second goal of the game in Ottawa, Dan Dunleavy called Jack "The Eichel Tower" during his goal call.
I didn't think much of it until the next morning when I was replaying the game off the DVR for C.J. because he had been asleep. As soon as he heard it, his eyes got big and he said, "We should BUILD an Eichel Tower!"
So we did.
With some of the many souvenir and practice pucks we had around the house, we built a tower of sorts - one puck for every goal Jack had scored up until that point. I took a picture and tweeted it to Dan, figuring he'd like it that his call inspired a (then-7-year-old) kid to make an Eichel Tower.
He was very cool about it and responded to keep it going and have fun with it. So that's what we did.
A few days later, I created the Tower's own Twitter account, @EichelTower615 (615 is Nashville's area code), and we've been at it ever since, adding a puck and tweeting out an updated picture of the Tower whenever Jack scores.
I figured eventually it would be a good way to teach C.J. about social media, although for now, he basically just wants to know two things about the Twitter side of this: How many followers do we have? And does Jack know about it?
And that's where the secret came in.
Lauren told me that the plan was for C.J. to get to meet Jack and have him sign a puck for C.J. to put on the Tower. But she didn't want us to tell C.J.; in part so it could be a surprise, but also just in case Jack got injured in the games leading up to the Nashville trip or something else came up that made it impossible.
You'd think there would be plenty of exciting stuff to keep C.J.'s attention: The Sabres video crew coming to our house to see the Eichel Tower, the Sabres Road Crew event Monday night, missing school on Tuesday to go to the morning skate and see Jack and the Sabres up close, and of course going to the game Tuesday night against the Preds.
But the first question out of C.J.'s mouth as soon as I told him we were going to the morning skate was exactly what I thought it would be:
"Wait... Does that mean we'll get to meet Jack?!"
What I didn't expect was how quickly he would accept my answer.
"I don't know buddy, she didn't say anything about that…"
And that was it. Whether because he didn't want to jinx it or just because he was happy he would be out of school for the day, he never really brought it up again - which was shocking.
That's because Jack is HIS GUY. It's something that we forget as we get older, but when you are a kid, that's what sucks you in to sports.
We all had our guy. For me it was Gilbert Perreault. For my brother it was Tony McKegney.
When you're not old enough to stay up and watch the end of the game, who won doesn't matter so much. It's about who makes it fun to watch. We want kids to learn that the team comes first, and all too often we are reminded that athletes don't always make the best role models.
But they can still make great heroes - people who live out their dreams and help the little kids watching believe it's OK to dream big too. For C.J., that's Jack Eichel.
For being only 8, C.J. has been a very lucky guy when it comes to hockey. Living outside Nashville, he's had more opportunities to interact with current and former NHL players than I could have imagined.
The Predators are doing a lot to try to grow the game down here and while it is growing fast at the youth levels, it's still small enough that everyone in the hockey community seems to know everyone else.
C.J. has played between periods at Preds games three times and practiced on the Bridgestone Arena ice several times as well. He's had Predators show up at his practices to work with the kids.
Former Predator and Sabre J.P. Dumont is one of the coaches in the Junior Predators program C.J. is a part of. He played a season of Mites with the sons of former Pred and current Penguin Matt Cullen. One of his current Junior Preds teammates is the grandson of former Sabre and Penguin Paul Gardner.
Point is, this kind of thing is his normal. When I was a kid in Buffalo, the idea of playing at The Aud or hanging out with Don Luce's kids seemed about as likely as walking on the moon.
To C.J., Matt Cullen was just Brooks' and Wyatt's dad. He appreciates it in that he thinks it's cool that he kind of knows these guys. But he's generally not in awe of any of them.
Jack is different.
Pretty much from the first time he saw him play, Jack was on another level somehow. The fact that Jack shoots right-handed like C.J. is part of it, for sure, but C.J. has always been enamored with speed - running, skating, whatever, he wants to do it fast.
Everything is a race. And he is a fast kid, on and off the ice (he must get it from my wife, because he didn't get it from me). It took him about five seconds of watching Jack Eichel highlights when he was drafted to decide he loved this guy. He's worn No. 15 for hockey every since Jack chose it.
So the fact that the Sabres know who he is and wanted to do a video about the Tower - and that Jack might know what the Eichel Tower is - blew C.J.'s mind.
When we got to the morning skate that day, he just wanted to hang by the tunnel where the Sabres came out and make sure he got to fist-bump Jack. He got his wish and more: Anders Nilsson flipped him two pucks, one for him and one for my daughter. Zach Bogosian broke a stick and gave C.J. the pieces, which he thought was the coolest thing… until Sam Reinhart came off at the end and gave him the perfectly intact stick he was using. He loves that thing.
As it turned out, that stick was the perfect distraction. Instead of asking why the heck we were hanging around at the top of the 100 level after the skate was long over, C.J. was stickhandling pucks from Anders Nilsson with his new stick from Sam Reinhart.
When Jack came walking up the stairs to talk to him, he never saw it coming.
C.J. was definitely star-struck, but Jack was incredibly impressive with him. He just started talking to him, drew him out into a conversation, offered to sign a picture we had and the jersey C.J. was wearing … it's hard to believe he's just 20 years old himself. He seemed in no hurry to get it over with, perfectly fine with taking a few minutes out of his gameday routine. C.J.'s jaw hit the floor when Jack told him his dad knew about the Tower before he did and told him about it.
When he was walking away, he told C.J. to make sure to be at the game early for warmups because he would look for him. At that point, my wife (a Penguins fan) was ready to find an Eichel jersey for herself.
How can you top that?
The whole thing was already surreal. How did we go from a pile of pucks on C.J.'s dresser to Sam giving him sticks and Jack signing his jersey and a puck? That had to be the highlight of the day, right? I mean, I thought it was at the time. But of course I was wrong again.
The game that night, of course, was insane. Jack scores to tie it 2-2, the Preds go up 4-2, the Sabres tie it late… and then Jack scores that ridiculous goal in overtime.
We go nuts naturally and a minute later, I take a picture of C.J. jumping around to send to my wife at home - and the smile on his face …. that was the highlight of the day. It was just pure joy.
As amazing as it was for Jack and the Sabres to go out of their way to acknowledge C.J. and give him a day he will never forget - and we can't thank them enough - his reaction to meeting Jack was almost muted by the shock and wonder of it.
He's hoping to not say the wrong thing, and as a parent there was that part of me hoping he remembers his manners and says, 'Thank you.'
This was different. His favorite player - whom he feels like he knows on some level now after talking to him earlier in the day - just scored a ridiculous highlight-reel goal to win a game in overtime, and he was there to see it. This was 100 percent spontaneous bliss. How often do you get to see that in your kid?
Not often enough.
The Eichel Tower's Twitter account has gotten some attention - believe me, C.J. has enjoyed being known as "The Eichel Tower Kid" - and it made that day meeting Jack possible.
People are telling us we should sell T-shirts, and if Jack was on board and we could somehow do it for charity, that would be great. But this was all by accident! If none of this had ever happened, that pile of pucks would still be in our family room. Just a kid having fun when his favorite player scores.
And I hope it stays that way.
As we're walking out of the arena, C.J. said, "That was awesome. We have to put two pucks on the Tower as soon as we get home!"
Yup, buddy, we do.
John Gworek is a Buffalo native living in Spring Hill, Tenn. with his wife Elise and two children, C.J. and Dina. He is a senior editor for Athlon Sports.