This story appears in the Dec. 31, 2018, issue of Sports Illustrated. For more great storytelling and in-depth analysis, subscribe to the magazine—and get up to 94% off the cover price. Click here for more.
Setting down his turkey burger, Jack Eichel gazes through the windows of a downtown Buffalo restaurant and once again imagines the future. He sees a surrounding riverside area choked with game-day traffic, blue-and-white Sabres jerseys shuffling toward KeyBank Center beneath an early-summer sky. He pictures live music blaring and cameras panning overhead, broadcasting crowd shots to a national audience. He hears chants—LET'S! GO! BUFF-A-LO!—and smells beer. After all, Eichel notes, "Buffalonians don't mind the tailgate."
He visualizes because that is how he has always pursued goals. Growing up in North Chelmsford, Mass., Eichel would tack articles about local athletes receiving college scholarships to the walls of his family's basement, extra motivation while cranking out deadlifts before middle school. Even when the 2015 draft was years away, the background image of his iPod Touch was a picture mosaic of highly regarded prospects, including the only one who would actually get picked ahead of him, Edmonton's Connor McDavid. He also programmed the device to deliver a daily reminder along with his morning alarm: HOW BAD DO YOU WANT TO MAKE THE NHL?
Now that Eichel is there—not to mention captaining the insurgent Sabres at age 22, burnishing his Hart Trophy credentials with 48 points in 37 games, averaging 20:16 per night of all-situation hockey, and generally realizing his potential as the savior for one of pro sports' most woebegone cities—he is singularly focused on an even loftier goal. "Constantly thinking about what it'd be like," he says, nodding toward the nearby waterfront. "First of all, to be in the playoffs. Then to get a good run going would be awesome."
Awesome. Eichel uses that word a lot these days. Thirteen times, to be precise, during an hour-long lunch following a recent Sabres practice. It was awesome living at home in North Chelmsford last summer, crushing his mother Anne’s pasta salad and watching Red Sox games with his father, Bob. It was awesome when Buffalo won the 2018 draft lottery and brought aboard dynamo Swedish defenseman Rasmus Dahlin. Ditto for his recent decision to hire a personal chef, who whips up health-conscious dishes (fish, chicken, etc.) but also satisfies Eichel’s massive sweet tooth, recently baking an awesome chocolate caramel cake topped with whipped cream and toffee.
Of course, the most "awesome" thing lately is the love Eichel has felt in Buffalo now that its hockey team has rediscovered relevancy: tied for third in the Eastern Conference at 21–11–5 through Christmas break, four wins shy of its 2017–18 season total. Fervor peaked as the Sabres reeled off 10 straight victories from Nov. 8 through 27, tying a franchise record; Eichel was especially impressed by a Twitter video from the World’s Largest Disco Party on Nov. 24, where dancers at Buffalo Convention Center stopped to watch the Sabres’ shootout triumph over Detroit on a projection screen.
"Everyone's going out of their way to stop you and tell you how proud they are," he says. "Even when things were bad, I really credit this city for being patient. I'm from Boston. It's not that way there at all." Indeed, Eichel was born into a generation practically baptized with champagne. The Curse of the Bambino was broken on the eve of his eighth birthday and nothing was ever the same. "I saw the Sox win in '07 and '13, the Celtics when they had the Big Three, the Patriots win a million times," Eichel says. "The equipment guys here joke that I grew up spoiled."
In reality, Bob managed the warehouse of a plumbing supply company before recently retiring. Anne still pulls 12-hour shifts as a nurse at Boston Medical Center, often rising before dawn. “Buffalo is a blue-collar, hockey-loving town,” Anne says. “So I think Jack fits in there.” And besides, Eichel has already received a blunt education about life in the land of Wide Right and Skate in the Crease. After finishing 23rd, 26th and 31st overall in the three years since Eichel arrived, the Sabres drew boos following the first period of their season-opening shutout loss to Boston on Oct. 4. (O.K., so maybe not patient.)
Since then, though, Buffalo has been the biggest surprise of the NHL’s first half, on track to make the playoffs for the first time since 2010–11. And leading the way is the curly-haired center who can’t stop dreaming about them finally getting there. "We have a lot of great stories going on with our team right now," general manager Jason Botterill says, "but they usually start with Jack."
And where does Eichel's story in Buffalo begin? Consider the 157-foot, $35 million luxury yacht with four-deck elevator service and a spa Jacuzzi. Or, as Bob Eichel puts it, "a big-ass boat."
It was a Saturday in late June 2015, the night after then-GM Tim Murray all but dropped the mic announcing the second pick of the draft: "Buffalo selects Jack Eichel." Docked in the harbor of nearby Boca Raton, Fla., the big-ass boat—actual name: Top Five—belongs to Sabres owners Terry and Kim Pegula, who were hosting Eichel's family and representatives for a celebratory dinner. Red wine was poured. Filet mignon was served. Toasts were made. "A very welcoming tone," agent Peter Fish says. "But it was serious: We think you're the guy who's going to help us win."
More than most, Terry Pegula understands the urgency. The oil-and-gas magnate first moved to western New York in 1975, right after the Sabres lost in the Stanley Cup finals to the Flyers. He held four season tickets at the old Buffalo Memorial Auditorium, two reds and two blues almost 180 degrees apart, until selling them before the '97–98 season. The team won the Eastern Conference title the following year. "Everybody told me that I must've been the jinx," Pegula says.
During the press conference after he purchased the Sabres in February 2011, Pegula was moved to tears at the mere sight of French Connection center Gilbert Perreault. And so it is not without serious regard for history that he includes Eichel in the same breath today as the Hall of Famer. "The team was new then, and it came on rather fast with Perreault as one of the cornerstones," Pegula says. "And now we're rising again."
The reason for his optimism? As he always told his wife, president of the Sabres and the Buffalo Bills, whenever she expressed concern over the last three years:
"Hey, don't worry, we've got Jack."
Relative to McDavid, the grand prize in the Great Tankathon of 2014–15, Eichel exhibits a subtler version of on-ice superstardom. He can still twist ankles with toe-drags, like how he undressed Capitals defenseman Dmitry Orlov before scoring his second goal in a 4–3 shootout loss against the defending Stanley Cup champs on Dec. 15.
But the 6'2", 200-pound Eichel also employs a remarkably efficient stride, keeping his upper body upright and knees bent deep, pumping his long arms for extra propulsion. Botterill says Eichel skates like he is using an old NordicTrak machine. Buffalo winger Jason Pominville chooses a different machine: "Like Lemieux. He's kind of effortless. You don't think he's going fast, but he’s buzzing. He can fly." (Turns out this also holds true on land; two summers ago, Eichel posted 10- and 20-yard sprint times that matched up favorably against NFL receivers Wes Welker and Julian Edelman, according to Brian McDonagh, who has trained all three.)
At his best, Eichel is a one-man breakout factory, stealthily fishing pucks from defensive-zone scrums with the toe curve of his 105-flex Bauer stick; smoothly weaving past backcheckers with those NordicTrak gallops; easily warding away pressure with the same strength that 16-year-old Jack once displayed in a YouTube video by power-cleaning 300 pounds. “He’s a freak,” says trainer Ben Bruno, who oversaw Eichel’s workouts for four summers. “There’s really no other way to put it.”
In this way Eichel is an avatar for the modern-day, two-way NHL centerman, “as well-rounded a player as I've ever seen," says Buffalo defenseman Zach Bogosian, an 11-year vet. "You can't say one bad thing about his game." But to finally point toward a promising future, the Sabres needed more than just Jack.
First, they had to make a connection with their past.
The game at the Aud had already ended on April 9, 1983, but still Sabres fans stuck around. The ovation swelled for five … 10 … 15 minutes, cheers to celebrate a first-round sweep over Montreal, chants to BRING! ON! BOSTON! in the divisional finals. Down on the ice, the youngest player on the home team looked around gobsmacked. "They didn’t leave the building,” says Phil Housley. “I’ll never forget that. When you’re winning, there’s no place better.”
Then 19, Housley would anchor the Sabres blue line for seven more seasons. After a 21-year, Hall-of-Fame career, which he finished as the highest-scoring American player ever (since dethroned by Mike Modano), Housley returned to Buffalo as head coach in June 2017, fresh off a Cup finals appearance as an assistant with Nashville. His homecoming season was a debacle. The team won just 25 times, finishing dead-last by five points. Eichel, meanwhile, missed 14 games with a high-ankle sprain suffered two weeks after his first All-Star Game. “When things were bad, everyone distanced themselves from one another,” he says. “We weren't able to build those relationships that we wanted. I think we took some good steps this summer, and it translated."
As a freshman at BU, Eichel won a Hobey Baker Award under David Quinn, a communicative players' coach now leading another New York rebuilding effort (the Rangers). Housley appears to be similarly wired. He organized a July round of golf at Minnesota's Windsong Farm with locally based players (“I think I won”) and a late-September visit to a Rochester, N.Y., welding facility, where the entire roster hammered and forged an actual sabre. Before the season, Housley also invited the team's leadership group, including Eichel, on a bonding trip to North Carolina. Activities ranged from working out with military personnel to delivering reports about recent books that they had read; Eichel brought a dog-eared copy of “Legacy,” author James Kerr's deep dive into the dynastic New Zealand All Blacks. "A lot of good stuff about how to be a leader, how to form a good culture inside of a group," he says.
For Eichel, leading on the ice has never been an issue; since coming to Buffalo, he has either scored or assisted on 32% of the team's goals. "He has such an impact on our team," Botterill says. "They feed off his energy." But this cut both ways in the past. Unfamiliar with chronic losing, Eichel often let his body language do the talking. "When hockey's good, I'm probably a better person," he says. "When hockey's bad, I'm a little bit bitter and pissed off.... [But I've learned] it's important to worry about being a good teammate, making sure your relationships stay strong through poor times, especially at the rink. I think I can have a really big impact. It’s about seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, trying to be as positive as you can, knowing that you change it.”
Since becoming captain on Oct. 3—Terry Pegula recalls Eichel welling up with pride upon receiving the news in Housley’s office—he has taken a hands-on approach. Earlier this month he treated the team to dinner in Nashville. After Dahlin mishit several one-timers against Los Angeles on Dec. 11, Eichel spent 10 minutes offering technique tips after the next practice, reminding the rookie to keep his elbows bent. “He’s over at my house all the time,” Bogosian says. “He plays Barbie dolls with my daughter. For a guy of that stature to be a normal person, that goes a long way. He’s taken the time to understand what drives everyone and tries to tap into what makes them tick.”
By signing an eight-year, $80 million extension in October 2017—not to mention the waterfront townhouse that he purchased from ex-Bills GM Doug Whaley—Eichel has already made his big commitment to Buffalo. “I thought the team was bound to get better, and I wanted to be the guy here,” he says. “I wanted to be the reason that things changed. I didn’t want to get out and jump ship. I want to help the Sabres to better days.” As such, Eichel instructed his agents to only discuss max-term deals during negotiations. “I feel like I'm more a part of this city than Boston by a long shot now,” he says. “I'm emotionally invested. I’d feel guilty leaving these people.”
Surrounded by talented new teammates like Dahlin, second-line center Casey Mittelstadt, goalie Carter Hutton (.917 save percentage) and twinkle-toed left winger Jeff Skinner (25 goals), Eichel feels closer to his goal—the traffic, the TV cameras, the tailgating—than ever. All rebuilding efforts must deal with growing pains, such as the five-game losing skid that followed the Sabres’ 10 straight wins. But then there are days like Dec. 16, when Eichel scorched his hometown Bruins with two no-look assists to Skinner from behind Boston's net, one laser wrister over goalie Tuukka Rask's short-side shoulder, and an empty-netter that clinched a 4–2 win at TD Garden.
It was the kind of day when there is no need for Buffalo to worry.
After all, they've got Jack.