SUNRISE, Fla. — The four friends sat along the back row in the lower bowl at BB&T Center, Bostonians by birth, Bruins fans until recently. On this Thursday they had gathered here to watch their new favorite team, the Buffalo Sabres, play the Florida Panthers. More specifically, they were here to watch the first regular-season road game for the future of the Sabres franchise. If only they could find him, lost as he was somewhere among the blue and yellow jerseys trickling onto the ice for the morning skate.
“Where’s Jack?” one friend said. “Do you see him?”
“Oh come on,” Bob Eichel replied. “They all look the same to me.”
For Bob, it all felt somewhat strange, this tornado of attention for his 18-year-old son—the autograph hounds waiting in the parking lots, hoping to meet the No. 2 pick in last June’s NHL draft that was held in this very building; the banners of Jack hanging in the atrium of Buffalo’s First Niagara Center; the No. 15 jerseys sold in the team store; the massive boat the Eichels boarded the day after the draft, invited by the Sabres’ owners. Jack’s girlfriend, a former dancer, came too, so owner Terry Pegula asked Bob to consider the thought of what might have been had Jack pursued hoofing instead of hockey. “Well,” Bob replied, “I guess I wouldn’t be having steak and wine on this boat with you.”
This is why the seemingly perfect marriage between Buffalo’s blue-collar population and the Eichels’ working class roots in North Chelmsford, Mass., causes Bob to shake his head. He manages the Lowell warehouse of F.W. Webb, a plumbing company, which means waking up at 4 a.m. alongside his wife Anne, a nurse, and juggling vacation time so he can attend hockey games. Now his son is logging more ice time than any other rookie forward in the NHL while making five figures shy of $1 million this season.
“Blue collar? Nah,’ Bob replies when asked if his son remains true to the family’s background. "We love him, but his life’s a lot different than ours.”
Jack first left home at age 15 to join the U.S. National Development Team Program. He spent time abroad playing for the U.S. in Austria, Finland and Sweden, and then enrolled at Boston University one year earlier than his peers. His success and fame weren’t unexpected. Well, maybe some of it of was. After the Sabres drafted him, hope—call it Eichelmania—burst out full blown in Buffalo where Bob spent several days with his wife before flying to Florida for a two-game swing with his friends. Jack was squarely at the center of that revival.
“They’re nuts about their hockey,” Bob says. “I guess they just want a winner.”
At last, the morning skate’s pack of Sabres scattered and Jack, finally spotted by his father, lapped the rink, his curly hair peeking out from beneath his helmet visor. His jersey number (15) had only recently been changed because Jack insisted on wearing his rookie camp digits (41) until his roster spot was secured. His stick blade was wrapped in white tape, a personal choice he made later in life, since Bob always believed black tape camouflaged the puck better for beating goalies.
“Doesn’t do what I tell him to do anymore,” Bob says with a parent’s acceptance. “Dropped all my idiosyncrasies.
“A guy once taught me, if they like something, give them a little. If they want something, let them have it. You’re not going to be able to tell a kid what to do. I guided him. Then when he starts doing it on his own, that’s when you know he wants it.”
And when was that?
“His whole life. It’s all he’s ever wanted.”
As the morning skate wound down and the Sabres gathered in their stretching circle, Bob stepped away for a moment, the perfect time for his friends to gush, albeit in whispers, as though he might hear. Hockey lifers among them—two referees and a coach—even they sometimes wondered whether Bob downplayed his son’s success and ignored the hype, or whether he truly didn’t realize he had provided half the DNA and much of the advice for the most-hyped American prospect since Bobby Carpenter. Although they began planning this Florida trip when Buffalo’s season schedule came out, Bob insisted they wait to buy tickets for the game until they reached the rink.
“I’ve got to make sure he makes the team,” he said, in typical pragmatic—maybe not realistic—fashion. “What happens if he sucked in preseason?”
Jack did not suck in preseason. In his first game, on the road in Minnesota, his shorthanded backhander was the only goal in the Sabres’ 1–0 win. He scored in his regular-season debut, too, dropping onto one knee and whipping the puck past Ottawa goaltender Craig Anderson, then raising his arm in celebration as the disc rattled around the cage.
Everything the roaring First Niagara Center crowd saw and loved had incubated in North Chelmsford with Bob as the closest witness. He was there standing on the frozen pond at Roberts Field, the one with the NHL-sized nets near the local fire station, when five-year-old Jack begged to stay 15 more minutes and skate in sub-zero weather. He was there to drive Jack home from birthday parties, because while everyone else was sleeping over, Jack wanted rest for his hockey game the next morning. He was there when Jack started doing pushups in the morning before middle school and a friend, a high school coach, called Bob’s son’s skills “trick photography” because he was ready to play with 18-year-olds at age 11. He was there on those late nights at home, sitting in the living room watching the Red Sox when Jack walked through the front door and headed straight for the basement, the sound of thudding pucks soon rising through the ceiling and into the kitchen.
“From the day I was born, the only thing I wanted to do was play in the NHL,” Jack says. “I wasn’t going to let anything stop me or anyone stop me, and I give my dad a lot of credit for always being there for me, always sticking by my side, showing me the ropes of work and work ethic and how to strive for something.”
Bob was definitely there the summer Jack increased his workout load to four times each day, driven by a poor showing at the under-18 world championships and a snub from USA Hockey’s World Junior camp invitation list–45 minutes on the stationary bike after waking up, lifting weights in the late morning, skate sessions in the afternoon, men’s league games at night. In between, he took online courses to enroll in college early and studied for his driver’s license, until he developed mononucleosis and shut down for six weeks. Bob was there when Jack returned to the U.S. National Under-18 Team in Michigan, took a puck to the ear in his first game back and stayed in the hospital until 5 a.m. for plastic surgery. They still talk after every game, dissecting plays with blunt honesty befitting true Bostonians.
“That’s how he is,” Jack says. “That’s his personality, I think. He’s always been like that. So many people in this world just like to kiss your ass, and my dad doesn’t do it. Everyone in the world wants to tell you how great you are, whether you’re good or bad. You could play a great game, and someone tells you how great you are. You could play a terrible game and someone tells you how great you are, just because you’re you.
“I appreciate him and I take his opinion into consideration, because he’s the first guy to tell me when I suck and he’s the first guy to tell me when I play well. Even when I did play well, he’s the first guy to tell me I did something wrong. It’s nice to have someone like that, instead of kissing your ass.”
First intermission now, humans dressed as giant pucks racing down the ice, Florida ahead 1–0 on a goal by Jaromir Jagr, who had already scored 225 of them by the time Jack was born. On the video screen, Panthers coach Gerard Gallant fielded questions from an in-house reporter, who quickly broached the topic of the night’s star-dusted, teenage guest. An “off-the-charts” talent, the reporter called Jack. To this, Bob raised his arms in disbelief.
“He hasn’t done anything,” he said. “What is he talking about?”
Others, present friends included, would politely disagree. At 17 years old, Jack anchored the United States’ top line at the World Junior Championships. At Boston University, he led the country in scoring and became only the second freshman winner of the Hobey Baker Award, the Heisman Trophy of college hockey. This August, when another of the friends’ neighbors learned that Jack was visiting, a pile of pictures awaited his arrival at the kitchen table. Jack sat there for a half-hour, signing every last one. Today, another’s son texted to say he had worn Eichel’s jersey to high school.
And now, early into the second period, Jack steamed down the right side and into the face-off circle. Two Panthers converged but Jack cut between them, avoiding the hacking sticks and keeping the puck on his tape. In the stands, Bob stiffened in his seat. His buddies crowed. Jack drew a penalty, but Evander Kane was unable to finish the slick feed, which went between a third defender’s legs. A text message arrived from someone watching back home: “Pretty sweet.”
“Oh yeah, phone’s lighting up,” Bob said. “Couple of friends, is all.”
Before long, high-fives flowed when Tyler Ennis’s power play strike cut the Panthers’ lead to 3–2, but not even Jack climbing over the boards as an empty-net attacker with 76 seconds left could pull Buffalo even. Downstairs at rink level, herded into the waiting area for postgame visitors, Bob peered down the tunnel and again looked for Jack.
“He better not milk it,” he deadpanned.
Two fans stood nearby and leaned over the railing. One held a Sabres hat and a silver permanent marker. When it was suggested that they too were waiting for Jack, Bob shrugged it aside. Impossible, he said. And yet sure enough, when Jack came down the hall dressed in a spiffy suit with the tie askew, walking stride for stride with Kane, the fans got there first.
“Jack! Can you sign?”
He was in a sour mood after a tough loss, which dropped the Sabres to 1-3, and had a team bus to catch down the hall, so the conversation was brief. They discussed the power play, which went one-for-six, and the challenge that awaited the Sabres in Tampa two nights later in their matchup against the Lightning. Bob his friends would begin driving there in the morning, making a 250-mile beeline across the state to Amalie Arena. Bob wondered how Jack and his temmates were getting there. Of course, Jack replied, they were flying.
“This is the NHL,” Jack said with a smile before they shook hands and he hurried to catch the bus. Bob and his friends went to find their car, and both parties were off to Tampa in their own ways.