The scene plays out around Jack Eichel’s locker after most games.
Win or lose, goal or no goal, the young Buffalo Sabres star is sought out for his opinion. Sometimes, with the 10 or 15 reporters and a hoard of cameras crowded around him, Eichel can hardly be seen from a few feet away in the dressing room.
Barely 100 games into his career, Eichel, just 20 years old, is already the face of the Sabres. His words matter.
“Every day I try to come to the rink and be a leader and act like one,” Eichel said. “There’s obviously still a whole lot that I need to learn, and I’m still learning every day. I think it’s important to try to do that.”
Fresh off a 24-goal, 56-point rookie season, Eichel’s second NHL campaign has been arduous at times.
Following a stint with Team North America at the World Cup of Hockey, Eichel suffered a high left ankle sprain late in practice on Oct. 12, the day before the season opener.
The injury rocked the Sabres, who started slowly without their most dynamic offensive presence. After missing 21 games, the center’s return ignited the Sabres.
Eichel roared out of the gate, recording a goal and an assist less than 10 minutes into his season debut on Nov. 29, a 5-4 road win against the Ottawa Senators. Two days later, he scored two third period goals in the Sabres’ 4-3 come-from-behind home win against the New York Rangers.
The Sabres had only scored four or more goals in a game twice without Eichel.
Eichel’s path to Boston University, where he won the Hobey Baker Award as a freshman in 2014-15, and to the Sabres as the second overall draft pick, was buoyed by his experience with USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program.
“It happened to be the right path with me at the time,” said Eichel, who joined the program in 2012. “I think that looking at their history and their track record for developing high-end talent in the NHL, a lot of great players have been through there. It’s a credit to USA Hockey and the program they put together in Ann Arbor. It’s one of the best in world, if not the best in the world turning boys into men.”
Talented youngsters develop and excel at higher levels because the program teaches them “not just hockey, but ... how to be a professional,” Eichel said.
“It makes your transition to college and professional [hockey] that much easier after going through that,” he said.
Eichel said the program puts youngsters “through so much day-to-day adversity that you just learn to overcome it.”
“It really turns you into a man,” he said. “You’re on your own. All your decisions are your own.”
Some days, Eichel said, he started school at 7 a.m. and didn’t finish hockey activities until 7 p.m.
“It’s a constant grind,” he said. “Your first year you don’t win a lot, there’s not a whole lot of success. It really tests you and forces you to learn to overcome adversity. I think that it does a great job of it."
“It’s just a great experience to go through that with 22 guys. You learn to be a teammate. You learn to play together. You [learn] to play for someone bigger than yourself. I think it’s a great program. Any kid that gets an opportunity to go there I would definitely recommend it.”
Eichel said the program’s “big motto is, ‘Take responsibility for your own development.’”
“They give you all the tools to become the best hockey player you can be,” he said. “It’s up to you if you want to take them. For the guys who use all their resources as much as they can, I think it works out pretty well for them.”
Eichel cited the U.S. National Junior Team’s gold medal at the 2016 IIHF Ice Hockey World Junior Championships as an example.
“I bet you over half of those guys have played on the NTDP, so it says a lot about the program,” he said.
In fact, 17 of the 23 players on the U.S. roster were NTDP alums.
USA Hockey is clearly close to Eichel’s heart. His most vivid memory growing up is John Carlson’s gold medal-clinching goal at the 2010 World Juniors. Eichel recalled proudly wearing his USA jersey to school the next day.
“I was starting to get older and started to take more pride in being born in the U.S. and being a part of USA Hockey,” he said.
Three years later, Eichel made the first of his two appearances in the World Junior Championship.
“It was always a dream of mine of play for the World Junior team,” he said. “Unfortunately, we didn’t do too well in either of the tournaments. But just being able to represent your country in that type of tournament, it’s a huge honor. It was a great experience.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.